Peter Luijten started as vice-dean for the strategic theme Life Sciences
It all comes down to people. Speaking this simple truth brings a gleam to the eyes of Peter Luijten, the newly appointed Vice Dean for the strategic theme Life Sciences. It is at the core of what he hopes to achieve in his new position: connecting people by their shared interests. “Utrecht offers all flavours of life science research within a few square kilometres, making collaboration relatively easy. That does not automatically mean everything is optimally connected” he says, summarizing both the strength and the challenge for the strategic theme. “There is tremendous opportunity in Utrecht. When we join forces and resources, life sciences research in Utrecht can be more than the sum of individual players, it will be a name to reckon with” he adds. A long career as bridge-builder in the life sciences will help Luijten tackle this new challenge.
“I dislike organisations in which everything has to be run by a supervisor”, Luijten starts. “Giving researchers freedom to experiment without too many restrictions can result in great science” he adds. He makes an effort to look at ongoing research and connects people based on their potential shared interests. “It’s a bit of a dogma, but true innovation is found where research areas overlap. Creating connections truly adds value to research” he concludes. “That is not always a given, it takes a lot of effort”.
Putting Utrecht in the spotlight
The first item on Luijtens agenda is strengthening the overarching story about Life Sciences research in Utrecht. “The strategic theme already achieved some great successes. We need to tell these stories so no-one needs to wonder: What is life sciences in Utrecht all about?” First-hand experience at the other end of the table at the NWO was an eye-opener for Luijten. “Seeing funding proposals from across the country for large-scale infrastructure, I noticed there were many great proposals from Utrecht, but there was limited connection between them”. Strengthening these connections was already an item when he was scientific director of the strategic theme, as vice dean he can really make some strides. “If we truly want to show our face, we need to demonstrate what we’re good at, for instance large scale infrastructure”
We have many highly esteemed researchers in Utrecht, but quite often they are cited outside of the context of Utrecht Life Sciences
Successful collaboration starts with a shared identity. As an example Luijten mentions the procedures for appointing a professor. “Traditionally, professor appointments are organised entirely by the faculties. If you want professors to feel part of the larger life sciences community, a joint professor plan would ideally be organised by the strategic theme. That would cement the bigger picture top-down”. The programme board of the strategic theme, in which faculties are equally represented, would be perfectly suited to initiate this. “Joint professorships are potentially an aspect of this as well, also to better facilitate interdisciplinarity” Luijten continues. “My experience at UMC Utrecht taught me that moving away from a rigid organisational structure towards one with more flexible ‘focus areas’ takes time. But we are already reaping the benefits. Underscoring the overarching research themes really helps bring focus into the research effort.” At UMC Utrecht this brought about a new way of thinking, with researchers identifying themselves with the broader teams rather than just their own research group. Letting go of existing structures and determining a new focus is a challenge to which Peter Luijten is well suited.
Peter Luijten earned his PhD as a chemical physicist in 1984 on the subject of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. At the time, the first MRI machines were just entering the market and as a highly skilled academic Luijten was hired by Philips as an expert. While not uncommon nowadays, being hired by a company as an academic was a strange occurrence back then. “My friends in Amsterdam told me it was simply ‘not-done’; they thought I’d sold my soul to the devil” Luijten laughs. “And at a production department no less, how low could I go?”. The freedom he had to develop expertise at Philips was an eye-opener for him. “Their motto was: You’re the expert, so you call the shots. I was soon made responsible for a small team of independent employees from a variety of fields, who were charged with setting up collaborative efforts with academic institutions.” Building partnerships based on a fixed assignment is a good fit for Luijten, who has also spent five years working in the United States. “I went there to connect with academic hospitals in the field of imaging. That often resulted in interesting scientific discussions, but I still had to keep an eye on our business interests.” Luijten jokingly refers to himself as ‘a glorified salesman’ at the time, but he also says: “We sold something based on the benefit it had to offer, with a clear social interest. I learned a lot from that experience, looking behind the scenes at many major academic hospitals, and in the process I forged partnerships that are still going strong today.”
Scientists are a collection of headstrong and unique individuals, and you need to have a sense of how to deal with them.
Upon his return to the Netherlands, Luijten was assigned his own research group at UMC Utrecht, with a focus on MRI at extremely high magnetic resonances: the ‘7 Tesla’ group. “Around 2006, the government invested a huge amount in research, a bit like they are now with the growth fund. In the field of Life Sciences, the investments went to areas such as pharmaceutical development, regenerative medicine and the Center for Translational Molecular Medicine (CTMM). In addition to leading his group at UMC Utrecht, Luijten was also named Scientific Director of the CTMM. “That activity has a lot of similarities to the strategic theme. I’ve always enjoyed being able to find something in research groups that make them stronger together.”
Together in the common interest
More and more knowledge institutions today are choosing to work together on convergent fields of study, and building alliances based on shared interests. “Here in Utrecht, we have every field of expertise, so we practically have partnerships offered up on a platter”, Luijten says. But we have to pay attention that we don’t look for connections simply for the sake of making connection; it has to lead to something useful.” Luijten also sees a false contrast between applied and fundamental research. “In the Life Sciences, research is always inspired by society one way or another. Even fundamental research leads to insights and has intrinsic value.” To Luijten, it is understandable that the applicability of research is considered when awarding grants, but he does notice that there are some disadvantages. “You can’t always describe applicability in concrete terms. By explicitly asking about it as a grant provider, you run the risk of encouraging applicants to make ridiculous statements, especially among younger researchers: we have to give them leeway for their research.” Just as he once received more freedom at Philips, and therefore felt less pressure to meet external preconditions, he now advocates giving researchers more freedom in their work. “You can see that spirit in a lot of small companies and start-ups. The idea that we can use that freedom to build public-private partnerships really appeals to mee.” Internationalisation presents a similar mix of challenges and opportunities: “Spontaneous collaborations produce some beautiful results, but reinforcing and expanding existing structures would make a collaboration even more effective.” Collaboration is therefore the key word.
Success is when we can truly make a difference
Meaningful research is extremely important for Luijten. “That means you need to look at your findings with a critical eye, and not try to promote them purely for the validation”, he says. “We’re doing that much better today. Take the increasing ties to epidemiological research, for example, which has made evidence-based medicine standard practice today.” Research also has value outside of the walls of academia. Companies are bringing academic developments directly to the patient, for example. “You definitely need to make agreements regarding the business side of things”, Luijten agrees.
I don’t believe in the model where the university throws something over the fence to the business community. I’d rather see that fence taken down.
In Luijten’s research group, the borders between institutions are regularly erased. In the lab, researchers from the hospital stand side-by-side with their colleagues from several different companies. “I believe that ‘measuring is knowing’, but I prefer to measure success by the stories. Take the Regenerative Medicine domain in Utrecht, for example: it’s earned an excellent reputation in the Netherlands and abroad, as has One Health. That’s not only because of the strategic theme; in the end, it’s the result of the people’s hard work. Setting a good framework and then letting people do what they want to do; that’s what I call a success story.” The first steps have already been taken, and now we can expand our efforts and eventually show that the research has had an impact, and that we’ve solved some important problems to the benefit of people outside of Utrecht Science Park. “If we can communicate that with some good stories, then I’ll be satisfied.” Perhaps it’s a result of the year Luijten spent working in science journalism after earning his PhD, but he is enthusiastic about listening to stories and passing them on: “A good story tells more than 1,000 success parameters.”
Vision of the future
Over the next few months, Luijten will ensure a warm transfer of his responsibilities as a Division Head at UMC Utrecht in order to gradually focus more on his duties as Vice Dean of Life Sciences. “I look forward to building on a future where not only the three faculties collaborate much more often, but where we look for connections to the Prinses Máxima Centre, the Hubrecht Institute and businesses on campus.” If it were up to Luijten, Utrecht Life Sciences would become one big bulwark of research. “When I look at institutes in the US, I see integration across all of the disciplines, from the clinic to basic sciences; we could be moving in that direction too.” As an example, he mentions the distance between the three faculties, especially the Faculty of Medicine. “It’s often identified with the hospital, but I’d rather make it more simple: when you talk about Life Sciences, you should mean ‘everyone in Utrecht’.” When it comes to research, it shouldn’t matter which organisational unit someone is assigned to. “In collaborative projects between UMC Utrecht and the Prinses Máxima Centre, everyone works on the same subject, and it doesn’t matter who pays your salary. That sense of belonging to a campus, the Utrecht community; that’s what I’d like to infuse in Utrecht.” Anything else? “I’ve been playing music for my whole life, and I hope to keep doing it for a long time to come. Over the next few years, I hope to bring music to Utrecht Life Sciences as well.”