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Speech by Dr Ellen Nollen at the Opening of the Academic Year 2011

Rector Magnificus, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be addressing you today at the opening of the academic year. I am particularly honoured that a Rosalind Franklin Fellow has been invited to do so as I believe that the Rosalind Franklin Programme, conceived in Groningen and unique to this University, is an exciting and important experiment. The University’s aim with this programme is to increase the numbers of women moving through to top positions and, if I may ask the lady professors to stand, you will see it is certainly needed.

They have also very cleverly given the programme international allure. They could have called it the Jantine Tammes Programme, after the first woman professor in Groningen, but that would not have attracted women from all over the world. No, they chose Rosalind Franklin, a famous researcher from England who in the 1950s discovered what DNA looked like. This was a scientific breakthrough that we in the Genetics Department of the UMCG still benefit from every day. Incidentally, this department is headed by a woman, Professor Cisca Wijmenga.

As a student in Wageningen and a researcher in Switzerland and Groningen, I found it completely natural that all the professors were men. I’ve no idea why. Only once I became a postdoc in the United States did I meet and speak to women with their own research groups, all of whom were very driven. Previously I’d thought that heading a research team was something that men did. Only once I’d seen those women at work did I think that perhaps I could do that myself too. This experience was crucial for my subsequent career and also brought home to me the vital importance of role models. By reserving some positions especially for women, the University of Groningen is creating role models, and if they do their work well, the programme will eventually make itself redundant.

The question that I and my research team have been studying for the last five years is why the chance of developing a brain disease, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, increases so dramatically as you get older? We know that in older patients with these diseases, the disease proteins accumulate in the brain. What we don’t understand is why. To find out, we use a tiny worm that has over 50% of the same genes as we do, but which undergoes a similar biological ageing process to ours in twenty days instead of 85 years. So when we extrapolate, young adult worms, comparable to the students in this hall, are four days old. Slightly older worms, comparable to professors approaching retirement age, are about 15 days old. In this worm, which is also transparent and used by many researchers in biological research, we can make the aggregation of the disease protein clearly visible, enabling us to search for the genes that influence this.

Although most researchers in the field are racking their brains to work out how to prevent our cells accumulating the illness proteins, we went hunting for the genes that made the situation worse. We did not know in advance whether these genes existed, because aggregation in a test tube was also automatic. It appeared to be a spontaneous process. However, I was more than willing to take this risk, because if these genes did exist they would be perfect candidates for the development of a medicine. After all, it is easier to turn something in a cell off than on. We have worked very hard and also had our share of luck. We have found a gene that appears to play a key role in the aggregation of disease proteins, including in human cells. The cells are better off if we turn off that gene. We are now busy trying to find out exactly how this works.

With financial support from, among others, the Groningen alumni – another unique University of Groningen experiment – we are investigating whether our discovery is suitable for further development towards a medicine.

The first phase of my Rosalind Franklin Fellowship is nearly over, and apart from the question of whether or not I have satisfied the final criteria of the Fellowship, I have had a wonderful time. Unlike many other types of funding, a Rosalind Franklin Fellowship offers you the freedom to tackle your own research questions, independently, for five years. I have taken full advantage of this unique chance to take scientific risks, and we have discovered something important that will take us years to fully investigate and understand. I would like to warmly thank the University of Groningen and the UMCG for giving me this opportunity.

I deliberately put the final criteria for the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship, which incidentally are the same for men and women in comparable tenure track positions, to one side so that I could concentrate completely on my research. I am sure that I have not satisfied the quantitative criteria, regarding the number of scientific publications. Incidentally, this was partly due to the fact that I have actually put in four years of work rather than five because I also wanted to spend time with my children, something for which, strangely enough, no compensation is currently given.

To return to the criteria, I think that my attitude towards my research has had the right effect. By choosing a risky project, the past few years have resulted in over EUR 2 million in follow-up grants, as well as interesting new insights and a number of prominent publications. In addition, it has attracted extremely talented young researchers from abroad, with their own funding, to Groningen to join my research team. If the University, due to declining direct government funding, wants to attract more national and international funding to Groningen, then on the basis of my experience, the tenure trackers of the future should primarily be assessed on quality and the quantitative criteria should be abandoned.

If the Rosalind Franklin experiment at this University is a success, which I don’t doubt for a moment, then this is an amazing achievement. It could also provide a solution for other universities and even other sectors facing the same problems. Women at the top are few and far between in the Netherlands, even more so than in other countries. Let the role models do their work. This is not only important from an economic point of view, I also think that everyone should have the chance to develop their talents to the full, regardless of their gender. And students, you all have talents, so grab the chances you’re offered. Do what you enjoy and do it well. Let yourselves be inspired by the many driven researchers and lecturers at this University. You are privileged to be studying at a university that encourages talent to blossom.

I wish you all a challenging and inspiring academic year.


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.56 a.m.
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