Three particularly impactful alumni talk about the projects they are working on to reach a better tomorrow
In 2021, Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht celebrated 385 years of science in Utrecht. The theme of this lustrum celebration was ‘Creating tomorrow together’. After all, we can only achieve a better world by joining forces. Our alumni turn out to be particularly good at this. We talked to three particularly impactful alumni - Marion Koopmans, Martine van Zijll Langhout, and Odette Doest - about how they see the future and the projects they are working on to reach a better tomorrow.
There are clear limits to how we interact with the world
At the beginning of 2020, most people weren’t quite sure what COVID-19 was. In the Netherlands, the name Marion Koopmans probably didn’t mean much to most people either. All that has changed now: as a professor of virology, an adviser to the European Commission, and a member of both the Dutch Outbreak Management Team and the WHO’s research team, Marion Koopmans appears in newspapers and on radio and television programmes almost on a daily basis.
Marion Koopmans (graduated in 1983) is Professor of Virological research for Public Health at Erasmus Medical Center. In March 2021, she received the Machiavelli Prize for her unremitting efforts to make research on the coronavirus accessible to a wide audience.
Enthusiasm is contagious
As a seventeen-year-old, Marion Koopmans wanted nothing more than to leave her hometown in the South of the Netherlands. She had no doubts about where she would go: Utrecht, Veterinary Medicine. ‘That’s when my life really began. I remember having insightful discussions night after night. It was great! I did several student assistantships, and the one I enjoyed the most was for pathologist-anatomist Professor Wensvoort. He was fascinated by pathogenesis and that fascination struck a chord with me. People who love their work are very inspiring; their enthusiasm is contagious.’
‘Later on, during my specialisation, I noticed how much I enjoyed gathering information and explaining it to people like horse owners and livestock farmers in a way that was easy to understand. I constantly had to ask myself the question: How do I translate what I know into words that my target audience will understand? I still benefit from that experience.’
“There are clear limits to how we interact with the world”
Now, many years later, Koopmans is utilising much of her knowledge and experience in the fight against pandemics. ‘There are clear limits to how we interact with the world. Whether in veterinary, medical or environmental contexts, we are facing major challenges.’
The solutions have to come from all possible perspectives. Collaboration – also outside of your own discipline – forces you to really reflect. You fuel each other with different questions and insights, and that sharpens your mind.
The pandemic has given collaboration a boost, and we’re seeing more and more parties focusing on issues like the climate and the environment. So I choose to be optimistic and believe that solutions will continue to be developed. Because, come on: we put rovers on Mars! If we put our minds to it, almost anything is possible.’
It's important to take a good look at the impact of the choices we make
Her work as a wildlife and zoo veterinarian has taken her all across the world, from Gabon and South Africa to the Isle of Man. Yet for Martine van Zijll Langhout, Utrecht University is never far away. She enjoys passing on her knowledge to current students in the Veterinary Medicine programme.
Martine van Zijll Langhout (graduated in 2001) spent over six years in Africa working as a wildlife veterinarian. Alongside her current activities at ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo and Stichting AAP, a foundation that gives primates and other exotics mammals a better future, she conducts research, teaches and gives lectures to inspire others.
Nature conservation as a mission
The realization that we as people are connected to all life on earth, as just one small link in the ecosystem, truly came to life when Martine was working with gorillas, rhinos and elephants in Africa. In her book On Living in the Wild, she describes the richness of the wilderness and the great importance of nature conservation, including for our own survival. ‘It’s important to take a good look at the impact of the choices we make. We depend on biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem here in the Netherlands as well. We can start small in our efforts to contribute to this, for example by admiring a wasp instead of immediately killing it.’
Appreciating and protecting wild animals
Someone who inspired her early on is Jeroen de Lange, a highly socially engaged housemate in her Utrecht student house. He motivated Martine to think about things like meaning and social awareness. ‘Jeroen organized peace missions in the Middle East, for instance. He founded 100WEEKS, a foundation that directly connects women in African countries with donors, who help lift them out of poverty within 100 days. We’re working together to look at how we can use a similar concept for nature conservation. If the local people who live near wildlife parks can generate an income on their own, rather than just the park owners, they will appreciate and protect the wild animals.’
'I love helping students and teaching courses, including the Wildlife elective in the Veterinary Medicine programme at Utrecht University. I also give lectures for their study society and regularly answer questions about topics like career choices.’ These activities fit perfectly with Martine’s mission to protect animals and the environment. ‘Every young colleague who has the right knowledge and expertise and decides to help nature and wild animals, makes a difference.'
I try to lead by example: look, I'm a woman, I'm black, I wanted to be a vet as a child, I managed to become one and now I help animals.
Odette Doest (graduated in 1999) gained international fame in 2018 when a series of photos by her cousin, nature photographer Jasper Doest, were featured in National Geographic and received major honours at World Press Photo and the Sony World Photography Award. The photos portray her remarkable efforts to educate children about the natural environment and care for wounded wild animals on Curaçao.
Bob the flamingo’s life took a dramatic turn when he flew into a hotel window. Odette Doest and her colleagues nursed him for months. They generally treat animals and release them back into the wild, but that was not an option for Bob. ‘I thought to myself: you're so tame, let's see what happens if I bring you along to a small-sized class’, says Odette Doest. ‘As it turned out, he didn't mind at all. He just quietly stood somewhere for a while and started wandering around the classroom.’
‘I teach kids wildlife appreciation’
‘Bob now joins me in class almost every Thursday. Besides my veterinary practice and work at the shelter for injured wild animals, I'm really passionate about nature education. I try to help kids fall in love with all the animals I bring to class. Bob is obviously beautiful and the kids love him, but I also bring other educational animals like a pelican. They're extremely intelligent and tend to cause some funny situations. The animals just display their natural behaviour and I teach kids wildlife appreciation.’
'The kids get to experience these animals from up close, and that really lends my stories on conservation a lot of impact. I teach them that they can also do things to help wild animals. For example, you can collect waste plastic when you go to the beach at the weekend. You can take good care of the natural world.'
'I also try to teach them some life lessons. As a vet, they tend to treat me as a bit of a superhero anyway. After all, most kids want to be a veterinarian at some point. I want to show them that they can take control of their lives and have an impact on the world around them. I try to lead by example: Look, I'm a woman, I'm black, I wanted to be a vet as a child, I managed to become one and now I help animals. You can achieve anything if you really put your mind to it.'