Nieuws - 3 februari 2010

Praises runneth over

Astrid Smit

Short meetings, professor Willem de Vos' keen sense for trends, the freedom enjoyed by employees... What's the secret behind the success of the Laboratory of Microbiology?

Part of the team of Microbiology
Whoever steps into the Laboratory of Microbiology comes right into the heart of this research group: a canteen where staff and students meet daily during coffee and lunch breaks. It's a self-service canteen where nothing can be bought, to which everyone brings his own lunch. A young man places a box of fruit sprinkles on the table and begins to butter his bread. A young woman opens her Tupperware box filled with boerenkool met worst, while someone else strews Chinese instant soup powder into a bowl with hot water. It's like being present at mealtime in a student house. 'Typically Microbiology', says Dr. Caroline Plugge. 'People can be themselves here. We get along well with one another and that motivates us to work hard.'
This hard work has produced a continuous stream of high quality publications for many years. The visitation committee has given the research quality a 'very good' to 'excellent' score. Heaped onto this are other frequent praises. University lecturer Dr. Gosse Schraa won the Teacher of the Year Award in 2004 for his inspiring way of teaching. Prof. Dr. Willem de Vos, head of the lab, received the Spinoza Price of 1.5 million euros in 2008. Two young researchers bagged the NWO Veni subsidy of 250,000 euros in 2009. Last month, De Vos landed a prize again. The European Research Council (ERC) awarded 2.5 million euros to his groundbreaking research into intestinal flora. What is the secret of this Wageningen lab?

'We just do our best; there are more labs with a good score', Prof. Dr. Fons Stams tries to put the situation into perspective. He is head of research of Microbial Physiology, one of the lab's four groups. Urged to elaborate, he says: 'Perhaps we have the right people in the right places. Everything runs smoothly here. Willem de Vos is guiding us well.' De Vos is only present in the lab half of the week. In the other half, he leads a research group in the University of Helsinki in Finland. But that doesn't seem to be a problem. Almost everyone whom you speak to about de Vos describes him as fast, clever, super efficient and businesslike. Goose Schraa: 'He is the undisputed leader, dominant in almost every aspect.'
He makes decisions right away, and not a week later. He answers mails within the minute. He keeps meetings extra short: an hour once in two weeks is enough for daily management matters. His mind is teeming with ideas for research. He is fast in signalling trends. Ten to fifteen years ago, the lab was weak in the area of environment. While this is still a major research theme, De Vos has slowly shifted the focus partly to nutrition and health, an area which commands much current interest and where subsidies abound. Recently, he has appointed a professor in systems biology, an expertise which is hot in biology nowadays. 'Clever move', adds Stams. 'Partly because of such strategic choices, our lab is doing well, I think.'

We arrive at the work meeting of his group. After some housekeeping announcements - 'Everyone please keep the lab equipment clean!' - a new research assistant (AIO) presents his research set-up. 'We do this every week', says Stams. 'And once in two weeks, four AIOs or postdocs give a presentation to the entire lab.' His AIOs Marcel Verhaart and Marjet Oosterkamp find this very useful. 'We get to know much about one another's research in this way. When you come across obstacles or questions, you know immediately who else is currently involved in your subject or micro-organism.' We approach one another very freely here, including the supervisors, adds Verhaart.
Oosterkamp finds the lab a haven. She has previously worked for two years as research assistant in an academic hospital in Amsterdam. Her supervisors there interpreted 'research assistant' very literally; they set down exactly what she had to do in the lab. 'It's completely different here. I have much more say and freedom in my research.' According to Schraa, this is a major characteristic of the lab: 'Willem de Vos gives people their own space and lets them do what they are good in. My position is rather unique as I lecture most of the time and have only a small research task.'
Although De Vos gives his staff freedom, he does keep an eye on them. Those who do not have enough publications or who perform moderately are in for a pep talk. Staff who perform well are placed in the limelight. For example, AIOs who publish an article within two years or graduate within four years are given a bonus (500 and 1000 euros). Such performances, as well as publications and prizes, are shown on a big monitor in the canteen.

'I apply certain private sector management methods here', says De Vos, who has also studied at the Nijenrode Business Universiteit and worked for many years at NIZO, a commercial research institute for the food industry. 'My motto is delegating and giving my staff as much free hand as possible. I place my emphasis on fine-tuning, instead of specifying.' However, he is stricter when research themes are concerned. De Vos: 'I pick out a few and try to make something out of these within five years. What matters here is critical mass. I do not allow AIOs and postdocs to work individually on a topic. I usually assign an issue to some four researchers, mostly from different disciplines. The aim is to get more out of something rather than to divide the task.' In addition, he teaches his AIOs and postdocs to take their research to the people. 'They can use the bi-weekly meetings of the lab to do this.' 
Dr. Fré Pepping, registrar of research school VLAG, under which the Laboratory for Microbiology falls, says: 'De Vos is not only a good researcher; but also a good marketer for his research. He has invested in a big European network, and therefore knows very well what new developments are coming up, so that he can be on course. 'That has surely helped in bagging the ERC price.' Adding a marginal note, he says: 'The list of winners comprises many Spinoza price winners and people from top universities. The choices made are sound but safe. As the saying goes, success breeds success.'