Working for Science: Hubrecht Institute

In the Working for Science section, we ask the director of an Academy institute and a staff member what they are passionate about, about the Academy, and about the task of science and scholarship. This time, it’s the turn of the Hubrecht Institute, where we’ve interviewed Lennart Kester (PhD candidate) and Alexander van Oudenaarden (director). The Hubrecht Institute does trailblazing research in developmental and stem cell biology.

Drs. Lennart Kester

PhD candidate. He studies the competition between different groups of cells and how that competition changes as tumours progress from benign to malignant in cancer of the large intestine. He hopes to receive his PhD in March 2018. Born in Amsterdam in 1988. Lennart Kester is married and has no children.

What’s nice about working at the Hubrecht Institute?
‘The diversity. There are people from all sorts of disciplines working here. That makes it possible to assemble interesting teams. For example, I study the behaviour of individual cells. I can easily combine my work with the research of other groups specialising in specific organisms or types of cancer.’

When did you first become interested in cells (or cell biology)?
‘Even as a child, I wanted to know how things worked. I discovered how much fun research can be while I was studying biomedical sciences. It's interesting thinking about research problems and about which experiments might help solve them. We have a lot of freedom to do what we like at the Hubrecht Institute. That makes many things possible – assuming we have sound ideas, of course.’

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about your work?
‘That basic research is less useful than applied research. We need basic research to understand how the world works. We can then use that fundamental knowledge in applied research. As scientists, we’ve got to do a better job explaining the importance of basic research. Our inability to do that may also be related to a certain Dutch mind-set – we’re too modest, we don’t want anyone to think we’re too ambitious.’

Hubrecht, for whom the institute is named, became an Academy member 135 years ago. What would most surprise the members back then about today?
Members back then would be astonished at how much more we know today. And at how many people are working in high-level research. In those days, science was reserved for a small, elite group. I probably couldn’t have become a scientist 135 years ago, because my parents aren’t wealthy.’

Holland Baroque played at your institute on 17 May. What sort of music do you find inspiring?
‘When I’m working, I tend to listen to electronic music (techno, for example Moderat or Worakls), partly so that I can shut the rest of the world out. I can concentrate better then. But it would be going too far to say that techno inspires me in my work. By the way, the Holland Baroque concert was organised by the Friends of the Hubrecht Institute. They raise funds for us – about a million euros a year! Extremely important.’

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around? 
‘The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN). There is so much left to discover in the neurosciences. I sometimes think about how we could use our techniques in brain research. But I’d want to work with the brains of living people, because they differ so much from mouse brains, for example. But I can’t, of course.’

Among other things, the Academy is the voice and conscience of science and scholarship in the Netherlands. Tell us what you think is absolutely vital, and why.
‘People have got to work on something that they believe in, that they want to put their heart and soul into. I work about sixty hours a week, and I can only manage that because I love what I do. If I didn’t, I’d have to leave science. I’d want to continue working in data analysis, but in health care rather than in the commercial sector. My work would have to be relevant to society.’


Interviews: Carel Jansen