8 March 2016

Students win life sciences study trip to Singapore

We need to inspire tomorrow's young scientists and researchers - not solely out of a sense of altruistic duty, but because they will be the people making world-changing discoveries when we are retired. They will be the ones improving our medicines, curing our diseases and, in turn, inspiring us.

Utrecht University organises an annual competition for young students with their Schools Network (an organisation that aims to strengthen links between high schools and universities). Every year it focuses on one of UU's core themes, and this year it was Life Sciences, with the top prize being a study trip to Singapore, packed with excursions and meetings to various institutes.

Master classes
In October 2015, secondary school students from across the region were invited to submit essays on topics of their choice, covering everything from biology to botany and genetics to biochemistry. To help spark their curiosity, all participants were invited to attend master classes given by renowned scientists on subjects like 3D bioprinting and antibiotic resistance. The students who submitted the most promising entries were allocated UU researchers relevant to their field who gave them advice on completing their entries.

At the end of January, five winners were announced. All were girls in their final year of school, aged between 16 and 18 and planning to attend university next year. One wants to study veterinary medicine in Utrecht next year, and the other four are going to study medicine.

De winnaars en het team van de Life Sciences profielwerkstukwedstrijd in Singapore

National University of Singapore

Three UU/UMCU employees accompanied the students as guides, including Ragna Senf, Education Officer & Mobile DNA Lab Coordinator at University Medical Center Utrecht. We asked her about some of the highlights. She told us, “We visited Prof. Dominique de Kleijn (UMC Utrecht) at the National University of Singapore for two days. He showed the girls an echocardiogram being taken before open-heart surgery, which they were very enthusiastic about. I think they couldn't wait to be able to perform their own surgeries!”

Nestlé headquarters

After their trip to the university, the winners visited the Nestlé headquarters, where they met the vice-president Thom Kleiss (who happens to be a UU alumnus). Ragna spoke of how the students were “unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised” to learn that Thom Kleiss originally studied veterinary medicine, because “they had no idea you could end up working in an entirely different field to the one you study”. Finally, they visited the Institute of Medical Biology, where Niki van der Steenstraten, a Dutch MSc student, gave them a presentation on stem cells and showed them around her lab.

Despite a busy schedule of scientific excursions, it was also a great opportunity for the students to see the rest of Singapore too. From Ragna’s description it doesn’t sound like they spent much time at the hotel! She recalls “Eating way too spicy diners at the food courts, swimming in the infinity pool of our luxurious hotel, haggling at the market stalls in Little India, being awestruck by a 57-storey rooftop view, souvenir-hunting at countless shops at Chinatown, visiting a beautiful temple, going to the Night Safari at the Zoo, being mesmerized by the light show at Gardens by the Bay, and being nervous about breaking any law in Singapore since they have oh-so many!”

You would think after such a busy schedule they’d need a holiday after their holiday, but the girls are straight back to work. Even while on the trip one of them was studying, as she had an exam the day after they returned! Ragna wishes them all the best, and says, “I sure hope all the girls get in, because they are very bright students with a clear interest in medicine!”