On 26 April, Bert Poolman (Avereest, 1959) was appointed Knight in the Order of the Dutch Lion. He is Professor of Biochemistry and programme director of the Groningen Centre for Synthetic Biology at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Groningen. As one of the most prominent scientists of this faculty, he shows himself to be a first-rate and passionate researcher in the field of membrane proteins. These transport proteins act as small channels that, on a nanoscale, facilitate the passive and active passage of small molecules across a membrane. He is known internationally as a creative pioneer and his excellent and pioneering research puts him among the world top in synthetic biology, a young, multidisciplinary research field in which biology, chemistry and physics come together.
Following his biology studies, Poolman started his scientific career with fundamental research on the protein breakdown system in lactic acid bacteria. He further developed this research field by characterizing unknown membrane transport systems. He subsequently focused on the detailed unravelling of the molecular mechanisms of action using the latest techniques. These transport proteins are essential for the functioning of a cell. In a creative and brilliant manner, he accomplished several major breakthroughs. One of the things that his knowledge contributes to is a better understanding of how medicines work and how they can be improved. His research also makes it possible to use smart biotechnological approaches to design and re-design microorganisms for more efficient or new industrial applications. Furthermore, his vast expertise in the field of smart bacterial transport systems is extremely relevant to the optimization of starter cultures in foods, such as dairy products, and industrial fermentation.
Poolman’s work focuses on the following four research fields: how a bacterial cell regulates internal pressure in a changing environment, how microorganisms take up essential building blocks and convert these to energy, how processes happen at the level of an individual molecule and how a functional cell can be designed and constructed. The latter research field makes it possible to understand the origin of life, based on essential building blocks from scratch. This is a prime example of multidisciplinary research whereby biology, chemistry and physics come together. For instance, Poolman recently succeeded in getting a synthetic cell to generate energy all by itself. He is very driven to conduct ‘high-risk/high-gain’ fundamental research in particular because this leads to the new insights that are necessary to solve increasingly complex biological questions.
Under his enthusiastic leadership, Poolman’s research group keeps getting excellent ratings for research quality, exceptionally high productivity, relevance and viability. The quality of this research is also reflected in the excellent assessment of the research quality at the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute (GBB). His own high scientific productivity is demonstrated by his contributions to twelve books, various patents and over 280 scientific articles, which are cited more than 26,780 times. With this number of citations, he is among the six most cited scientists in Europe and among the top ten worldwide. His work is published in highly acclaimed specialized journals such as Science, eLife, Journal of the American Chemical Society, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and in various publications of Nature. Moreover, he was elected member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and of the Faculty of 1000 Board in 2009. In 2003, he was awarded the Fulbright Visiting Professorship by the esteemed California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and in 2016, he received the renowned Joel Mandelstam Memorial Lecture Award from the University of Oxford.
Poolman is an active supervisor of researchers. In total, he supervised over sixty PhD students and thirty postdoctoral fellows, many of whom subsequently started their own careers in science or industry. They often still enjoy collaborating with him to solve challenging biological questions. At present, he is supervising another twenty-one PhD students, twelve postdoctoral researchers and four laboratory technicians. He is also known as an inspiring instructor and mentor. His attitude is that of a master-apprentice and, in that capacity, he tries to elevate both undergraduate students and PhD students (as future research leaders) from various disciplines and cultures to a higher level. In doing so, he encourages mutual collaboration and the result is that together they achieve much more than the sum of their individual contributions.
Poolman is known as a passionate leader who breaks through the disciplinary boundaries with great drive and commitment and he is able to make interdisciplinary connections in a firm and productive manner. He has, for instance, over the past few decades set out themes in various boards and working groups within the faculty in an excellent way, for example regarding strategy formation and the Tenure Track policy. This policy intends to attract excellent young scientific staff, who will complete a well-defined and supportive career path with the goal of becoming a professor. He was also an active member of the UG’s Corona Crisis Team and, under his leadership, concrete plans have been made to restart the research activities following the lockdown. He was a Board member of the top research school Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials and the GBB research institute. He shows great commitment to keeping up and profiling the quality of the scientific research and the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment. Over the years, he has attracted a great number of excellent young scientists and staff, including many women. He also played a significant role as the leader of various local, national and international research programmes. On an international level, he is an indispensable leader in various interdisciplinary European networks and he is the secretary of large European public-private research consortia.
With his excellent performance as a leader and advocate, Poolman has enhanced the natural sciences in the Netherlands in many ways. For example, as one of the front runners in the young field of synthetic biology, he is a frequent discussion partner or advisor during societal discussions about the ethical and safety aspects that are linked to tinkering with genes, designing cells and the ability to engineer life. Like no other, he is able to clearly explain how the research in his laboratory on the construction of a cell contributes to our fundamental understanding of how life originated and how it is possible to think of new strategies to intervene in case something is wrong, as is the case with disease, for example.
Scientists in focus: Bert Poolman
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