Working for science: Westerdijk Institute

This time, the two interviewees are Pedro Crous and Lorenzo Lombard, 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. 

Dr Lorenzo Lombard

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Postdoc Lorenzo Lombard is involved in the PROMISE study of how to combat Striga, a weed which threatens sorghum, a plant which is a major food source in Ethiopia. He is trying to identify soil fungi that slow down the growth or spread of Striga.

What’s nice about working at the Westerdijk Fungal Biodiversity Institute?
'The enormous diversity of knowledge about fungi and about what they do. They can cause diseases in plant but can also serve as human medication. We combine classic methods – such as studying fungi under the microscope or growing them on petri dishes – with modern DNA techniques. The knowledge we acquire here is then the basis for studies by other researchers. Our collection is a real treasure-house!'

The Westerdijk Institute carries out basic research on fungi. What practical applications does that have?
'We can’t live without fungi. We eat bread with yeast in it and cheese, and if we’re over eighteen we drink beer. Those are all products that you can’t make without fungi of various kinds. But there are a lot of other applications. We can use certain fungi to combat insect pests, making them become mouldy and die. You can focus the fungi specifically on a single species of insect, so there’s far less damage to other organisms than with chemical pesticides.' 

You come from South Africa: what’s the biggest difference between that country and the Netherlands?
'In the Netherlands, things move faster than in Africa. The pace here suits me better than the slow pace of South Africa – you can make real progress here. The access to technology is also better in the Netherlands. And the terms and conditions of employment are also better here; we have parental leave, for example. The only negative aspect is the weather, but then the Dutch complain about that themselves too!' 

Johanna Westerdijk’s motto was 'working and celebrating keep the mind clear'. What celebration do you remember best?
'Once a year we have a party for all the members of our group. Everybody cooks some food from their own country. We all have a great time. And we also have tasty and enjoyable barbecues for the whole institute.' 

Diversity within nature is crucial, of course. Can you give us some examples of the value of diversity within your institute?
'I can’t give you any specific examples. I’ve always worked in groups with a very varied makeup as regards gender, age, and so on. It’s often a matter of little unnoticed things that you learn from one another, like a slightly different approach or perspective, or valuable advice from an older researcher.' 

At which other Academy institute would you like to take a look behind the scenes, or take another look?
'I’d like to find out more about the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). It’s a very impressive institute. I go there sometimes in connection with the PROMISE study, which the NIOO is coordinating. They look at the ecology aspect as a whole, and we look specifically at the fungi. They’ve got a splendid building, with great facilities.' 

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?
'It’s very hard to get money for research. So I’d say ‘make sure that there’s more funding’. The Academy can acquire funding itself, but it should also try to persuade the politicians to provide it. And perhaps the Academy could also make it clearer what the Staff Department all do at its headquarters, the Trippenhuis Building. I do consult the website, but I can’t always find what I need to know.'