All the cool research being done at the UG
A Nobel Prize winner as a teacher
Photo © Corné Sparidaens
The man who built a nanomotor
Of course Groningen is home to a Nobel Prize winner.
Ben Feringa designed a motor that consists of a single molecule. He made the motor run by shining light on it. Later, he expanded his work to create a molecule with four motors, like a miniature four-wheel drive. This invention earned him the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2016.
It all started when Feringa, who creates molecules that don’t exist in nature, sort of accidentally created a molecule that would do a half turn when exposed to light in 1989. He figured there was something there.
He didn’t create his first actual motor until ten years later. It was a molecule that made one revolution in an hour. It took him approximately fifteen more years to design a faster one. His current nano-motors spin at ten million revolutions a second.
What, you may wonder, is the exact point of this invention? Imagine if you could attach something to this little car, like medication, for instance. These little machines could be injected into someone’s bloodstream and deliver the medication exactly where it’s needed. Feringa sees the world as a giant box of Lego bricks, full of possibilities. And he’s the little boy who gets to play with it.
Photo © Reyer Boxem
Knows why you want to save the environment
She consulted with United Nations members about environmental politics. She is one of the most influential scientists in the world. And this year, she was awarded the Stevin Prize: 2.5 million euros for innovative and influential scientific research.
When Linda Steg started her research into environmental psychology in the nineties, however, people weren’t really into it. ‘The issues were different back then as well’, she says. ‘We were mainly worried about running out of resources.’
Of course, things have changed since then. No matter what today’s politicians decide, ordinary people will be affected by the effects of climate change. Steg can advise politicians on how to garner support for the actions they take.
She found out that people are much more willing to suffer to benefit the environment than psychologists previously thought. She also uncovered what motivates people’s behaviour and that a close look at what’s important to people is warranted. Is a community invested in environmental values? Emphasise environmental benefits. Is someone concerned about their income? Explain to them the economic consequences.
If you think this sounds obvious, you’re right. Steg’s insights have become common knowledge, so almost everyone’s heard of them by now.
Uses big data to fight cancer
The medical world has been trying for so long to truly understand cancer, but to no avail. Every once in a while, someone comes up with a new kind of therapy that increase the survival rate for one kind of cancer or another, but we’ve haven’t been able to beat it yet.
That’s why Lude Franke is taking a different approach. He’s trying to crack the ‘cancer code’ by digging through thousands of terabytes of genetic information. Why do some at-risk people get sick while others don’t?
Franke studies the genetic profiles of thousands of healthy people who are at risk for cancer or diabetes but have never been sick. He’ll later compare his findings with people who did get sick in order to find out what messed up their cells.
The size of the data he’s working with is staggering: millions of genes, each with at least a hundred possible defects. Each of those defects can have another hundred variations on a lower level, and another hundred on an even lower level. Multiply that by thirty thousand different samples, and you have an idea of what he’s dealing with.
The biggest obstacle in his research is finding computers that are capable of analysing the data and the researchers that know how to ask the right questions. But Franke is sure that he’s on the right path.
Deciphers the Dead Sea Scrolls
Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? They’re ancient manuscripts that were found in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea in Israel. They are the oldest biblical texts in existence, and Israel is guarding them closely. Groningen academic Mladen Popovic is a world leader in research into the scrolls; in 2013, he even convinced Israel to send a set of original scrolls to the Netherlands. No one had ever been able to do that before.
Popovic heads up the Qumran Institute, which is part of the theological faculty. His studies show that holy texts – so not just the Bible, but also the Torah and the Quran – are all part of a much larger tradition. His research, Popovic is often quoted as saying, is a time machine. ‘Reading them, you can see the Bible taking shape right before your eyes.’
Over the past few years, he’s changed his tack. Together with researchers from the fields of artificial intelligence and carbon-14 dating, he’s been trying to figure out who wrote the Scrolls. He wants to know who wrote what, and when. It’s a fascinating quest, he says. ‘Better than The Da Vinci Code. This is real.’
We’ll never be able to eradicate bullying completely, says sociology professor René Veenstra. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. If we want to do something about bullying, we have to figure out why children bully and how the process works. Usually, there is a lot more going on than a single child being a bully and another single child the victim.
Veenstra is a world-renowned researcher of the social relationship between bullies, their victims, bystanders, and helpers. It turns out that bullying is a group process in which all children in a class play a role. That’s why teachers giving bullies a stern talking to or telling victims to stand up for themselves doesn’t work. An effective anti-bullying strategy involves improving the social skills and social-emotional development of all children.
This approach benefits all children in the class; they feel safer, the atmosphere improves, and children do better in school. But, Veenstra warns, schools have to implement the right programme, like the Finnish KiVa programme that he studies himself.
His career is going well. Last year, he joined the KNAW, the association of the best and most innovative Dutch academics.
Tries to save the North Pole
If you ever get to talk to Maarten Loonen about his research into the effects of global warming on Svalbard, don’t be surprised if you see tears in his eyes. That’s just how much what’s happening there affects him.
Loonen is one of the most well-known polar researchers in the Netherlands. Five months out of the year, he stays in a small cabin in Svalbard, where he studies migratory birds and the changes in their habitats. He is most well-known for organising the largest polar expedition ever, in 2015. Scientists from various fields joined journalists, artists, and opinion makers on a journey to the Edgeøa peninsula on Svalbard to catalogue the effects of global warming.
He says these effects are most pronounced at Svalbard. He’s seen the summer change from being six weeks long to lasting twelve weeks. People on Svalbard are getting bitten by mosquitoes, which are not endemic to the region. In just five years’ time, the temperature rose by 1.5 degrees Celsius. One third of the sea ice has melted.
‘One day we’ll consider this just as tragic as the Second World War. People will have been either “good” or “bad”. Why shouldn’t we try to be good? This affects everyone.’
Photo © Reyer Boxem
In search of right and wrong
Wouldn’t it be great if we perfectly knew right from wrong? Or, to put it in philosophical terms, if there were such a thing as a universal moral?
Philosopher Pauline Kleingeld has been researching whether this exists for years now, using the works of famous philosopher Immanuel Kant, the man who taught us that something is ‘morally just’ if your decision applies to other people as well. ‘Would I want everyone else to abide by my principles, or am I the exception?’ Kant also taught us that everyone is equal and autonomous; that every person is free.
But, says Kleingeld, we can’t just blindly follow Kant’s reasoning. His ideas may have been grand, but they have their flaws. She found out that when Kant wrote that all people are equal, he secretly meant men, and only men. On top of that, he was pretty racist for most of his life. This wasn’t unusual in the seventeenth century, but that’s still not an excuse.
Kleingeld is taking another really good look at Kant’s theories. She wants to figure out how we can adjust his theory to make his concept of universal morals watertight. She’s so good at her work that she was awarded the Spinoza Prize, which is also known as the Dutch Nobel Prize.
Photo © UG Sylvia Germes
Creating life in a test tube
What exactly is the origin of life? This is the question that chemistry professor Sijbren Otto has been asking himself for a very long time. He’s trying to find the answer by creating life in a test tube.
His lab is rife with test tubes filled with the special molecules he discovered a few years ago. These molecules are formed through ring-shaped proteins that stick together. What’s so special about these molecules is that they’re self-replicating. Where similar molecules stop replicating after a while, these just keep going and going. Just like life.
The next step in Otto’s research was to see if these molecules were capable of evolution. After all, without evolution, there’s no life. Turns out, they did evolve! By using two types of building blocks rather than just one, Otto discovered that other rings were being created, and that these rings responded differently to their environment than previous ones. He recently took the next step in his research. He succeeded in equipping his molecules with a primitive type of metabolism.
Does that mean he managed to create life? ‘You’re alive, I’m alive, a dog is alive’, Otto says. ‘Everyone pretty much agrees with that. But can a virus be considered a living creature?’
He’s decided to stick with the definition used by NASA. Life is ‘an autonomous, self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution’. So. He’s well on his way.