Working for science and scholarship

Pedro Crous (Westerdijk Institute)

This time, the two interviewees are Pedro Crous and Lorenzo Lombard (read his interview), the director and a postdoc researcher, respectively, at the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute. The Institute carries out highly innovative mycological research that contributes to identifying and understanding fungi, thus forming a basis for tackling major challenges in such fields as food production and health. 

Prof. dr. Pedro Crous

Director of the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute. He is researching various types of phytopathogenic fungi (i.e. fungi that are harmful for plants) in agriculture and forestry.

What’s nice about working at the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute?
'The Westerdijk Institute has the world’s largest collection of living fungi. With a staff of about 100, we have a huge diversity of knowledge about fungi and about what they do. Our approach is pretty well unique. There are few comparable institutes anywhere in the world.'

The Westerdijk Institute carries out basic research on fungi. What practical applications does that have?
'Our research can lead to the development of new antibiotics, for example, but we also contribute to improving food safety. Some fungi that grow on fruit can cause serious diseases in humans. We are working on fast detection of those fungi. That’s important in a hospital context, for example. If a patient has an infection and you can quickly determine which fungus is causing it, you can also quickly get started on the right treatment. Those are examples of how basic research can ultimately improve quality of life.' 

You come from South Africa: what’s the biggest difference between that country and the Netherlands?
There are greater possibilities for long-term research here. In South Africa, you need to get a lot of funding from companies, and their focus is more on short-term research and answers. Government funding in the Netherlands makes long-term research possible.' 

Johanna Westerdijk’s motto was 'working and celebrating keep the mind clear'. What celebration do you remember best?
'Our hundredth anniversary in 2004. There was a band made up of mycologists from all over the world who had composed all sorts of songs about fungi and the Institute. They’d practised online for months and at the celebration the premiere was in a big circus tent. That was really special. In this Westerdijk anniversary year, we’re hoping to have an even bigger celebration with the symposium on Leading Women in Fungal Biology in August. All the speakers will be women. That’s also a way of honouring Johanna Westerdijk’s life and career and her struggle for more women in science. After all, there are still too few female scientists.'

Diversity within nature is crucial, of course. Can you give us some examples of the value of diversity within your institute?
'Because we have the largest collection of fungi, we get a lot of students and researchers from abroad. That provides enormous benefits. They also bring us fungi for our collection, and the way they tackle research is often just that bit different. That means we can enlarge our collection and retain the best aspects of all those research methods.' 

At which other Academy institute would you like to take a look behind the scenes, or take another look?
'For me, that would be the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. One of its research projects focuses on linking the brain with robotics: how sensors in the brain can be used to control a prosthetic arm, for example. I’d like to take a close look at how they do that.'

Amongst other things, the Academy is the voice and conscience of science and scholarship in the Netherlands, and also an advocate of basic research. Is there anything that it should do more of?
'The Academy is over two hundred years old and it has a tremendous amount of expertise as regards how to guide and promote research. That knowledge could be transferred proactively to new academies in developing countries. In addition, the Academy naturally needs to keep striving to promote basic research in the Netherlands. The ‘key economic sectors’ policy is the kiss of death for basic research.'

Read the interview with Lorenzo Lombard, postdoc at Westerdijk Institute.