Science - October 6, 2011

Couple obtain degrees together

It was chance which brought Daan Blok and his girlfriend together to Wageningen. The couple obtained their PhD degrees yesterday.

This degree ceremony is special', says Professor Arthur Mol. As substitute for the rector magnificus, he was referring to the high level of defence given by Daan Blok a while ago. However, 5 October was special in more ways than this. Besides Blok, his girlfriend Annelein Meisner also received a PhD degree on this day. She studied the effect of exotic plants on the soil, while he studied the influence of the dwarf birch on permafrost thaw.
Meiner admits immediately that the double degree ceremony had been somewhat arranged. The two of them began at about the same time and would have finished at about the same time also. But her PhD committee requested that both degree ceremonies be held on the same day. 'So we wouldn't be subjected to all that stress twice and our guests wouldn't have to be there twice', says Meisner. But on one condition: she absolutely wanted to go first. 'I was so nervous while Daan was more relaxed.'
While planning had featured in the degree ceremonies, coincidence had played a role in bringing the couple to Wageningen. After her veterinary medical study in Utrecht, Meisner discovered that soil processes interested her more. So she ended up as a PhD candidate at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, which had just moved to Wageningen. Blok, a biologist from Nijmegen, got accepted by the university then. Being together in a stressful thesis defence process had not been unpleasant. 'We understood each other much better and helped each other during a dip', says Blok. Inconveniences there were, of course, he adds, such as having to forego their summer vacation because of his field experiments in Siberia.
Both thesis defences progressed smoothly and had very good grades. 'During Annelein's defence, I was tense for her', says Blok. 'Only after knowing for sure that she did very well did I start to get nervous about mine.' Now that both have their PhD degrees, their future becomes uncertain again. They cherish hopes to work together in the same institute and be able to spend more time with each other. What if Blok has field work again in summer? 'Oh, that'll be really tough.'
Double role
A double role also fell upon Prof. Frank Berendse on 5 October. He fired questions at Meisner as her opponent, but moved to the other side of the bench a few hours later as Blok's supervisor. 'It has been a busy day', he said when asked. But he had no difficulty 'attacking' the girlfriend of his PhD student. 'I researched into that area myself and was therefore extra critical. I almost forgot then that she is also Daan's girlfriend.'