Science - June 18, 2009

‘HE MAKES YOU FEEL SCIENCE IS FUN’

You have to be an inspiring leader to win the Spinoza Prize, the most prestigious science prize in the Netherlands. Last week Professor Marten Scheffer of Aquatic ecology and water quality management was named as one of this year’s winners. But do his PhD students share the jury’s assessment? What makes Scheffer a great supervisor in the eyes of Vasilis Dakos from Greece, Rosalie Léonard from Canada, Ingrid van de Leemput from the Netherlands and Maria Betânia Gonçalves Souza from Brazil?

Marten Scheffer’s PhD students at a reception on the occasion of his Spinoza prize.
He gives you freedom
‘I most value the freedom he promotes’, says Vasilis. ‘Freedom to think, to work in your own way, to visit other places, to interact with others. He detests limitations, rules and barriers and I have the same mentality. I hope I can also learn from him to go across paradigms and conventional thinking in science.’ Rosalie is very pleased that she was able to talk to him a lot at the start of her research about how to go about it. ‘He is not restricting but focuses on your ideas. You learn how to structure them.’

He’s stimulating
Scheffer exudes a sense that science is fun. ‘He’s creative and always full of ideas’, says Rosalie. ‘This is mainly inspiring. He’s so enthusiastic that he makes you want to work on your project, and show him the results the next day. And if he gets excited, it is exiting.’ Ingrid says that with Scheffer you dare to say what you think. ‘And if you say something that’s wrong, he doesn’t wag his finger at you but explains how it really works. The combination of field and lab work and modelling makes the work here unique, too.’ Vasilis: ‘I learn from him to be innovative, to interact with others and to try to communicate clear ideas.’ Betânia. ‘He made me realize that no matter how brilliant you are, what really matters is that you can inspire people by just being nice and attentive. Concerning my work, he makes me hopeful that some day, if I work very hard, but also lead an interesting, full life, I may get to make ‘brain connections’ like he does. The way he sees nature or any kind of complex system amazes me and I hope I can learn how to do it some day.’

He doesn’t live for science alone
‘You can’t work with most of the people who publish in Nature, but you can with him’, says Rosalie. ‘He’s a warm personality and values you as a person, and that’s essential for being happy here. He also wants us to have fun and to be crazy, in and outside our work, and have other interests too, like he has his violin.’ This attitude helps make sure that you feel relaxed too, says Ingrid, and Vasilis also finds pleasure in his work. Betânia: ‘He always tries to create happy environments.’ They also appreciate the parties Scheffer throws now and then for no particular reason. Ingrid: ‘Because the pears are ripe, or something like that.’

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