It was one of the first thoughts that flashed through his mind when the mayor of his present home town of Waalre presented him with the exceptional distinction: ‘It is such a pity that my father isn't here to see this’. A year ago Roelof Meijer passed away. While no one will have noticed, or just suspected that this was an emotional moment for Bert, the idea alone is enough to bring tears to his eyes. “My father received his knighthood for his extensive work for others and he was hugely proud of it – he wore the award often and he wanted the title to be mentioned in his obituary.”
The distinction, and certainly its high rank, came as a complete surprise to the celebrated scientist – days later he was still uttering words like ‘totally amazed’ and ‘dumbfounded’. The mayor caught him unawares after the break in the Meijer Lab Reunion Symposium, to which former doctoral candidates and past postdocs had been invited. It was not the first time that Meijer has been presented with awards; he was previously awarded the Spinoza Prize (“That too was a bolt from the blue”), but this award far exceeds the others.
It was only the next day that he realized just how illustrious the company is that he now keeps; in the past twenty years only nine other people have received the title and the previous laureates include Nobel Prize winners. Who arranged this and how? The pioneer in the field of supramolecular materials has not the faintest idea. ”I read somewhere that it goes right up to the minister. I can hardly imagine…To what do I owe this honor? It is difficult to say - although of course I realize that the research in our group in recent years has been above average and that I have played a part in that.”
As the interview goes on, it becomes clear that Meijer believes that his importance to the group lay primarily in his role as coach. “I believe I should be there for people, to prepare them for their future and to help them realize their dreams. It is fantastic when people get back in touch and say they've achieved that. At times, too, during the symposium, people's reactions made me quite emotional. As a coach, I have continually had very good players and they score the goals. They deserve the awards. So I see it as recognition that I have tried to do my very best for them.”
You would be hard pushed to catch this elite scientist doing something that will further his own cause. “That's not the way I was raised. I'm happy doing something for someone else and I'm simply hardwired to think that if someone does something for you, you do something in return.” Which doesn't mean that Meijer doesn't have a ‘harder’ side. Don't even think of arriving late at one of his lectures or of using your cell phone. Similarly, he is more than ready to voice his opinion, loud and clear. “Most people make life difficult for those beneath them and suck up to those above them. I am exactly the opposite. Two years ago, for example, I did a lot towards improving the remuneration of secretaries at TU/e. And I am amazed that even now no one has been promoted.”
In his spacious office on the fourth floor of Helix - a whole row of books are lined up against the wall - he talks about how his love of chemistry and molecules evolved. He is by turns thoughtful and enthusiastic, but always calm and clearly spoken. It certainly didn't start at a young age. The young Bert, born in Groningen and, following his family's move, raised from the age of six in Delfzijl, never busied himself with chemistry sets. Having left school with a vocational qualification (HBS), his decision to study chemistry in the city of his birth was a pragmatic one. “My mother said I could study whatever I liked as long as it was in Groningen. I was a real science nerd, and earlier on I had wanted to study medicine - although actually I can't stand blood at all. I thought math and physics were too abstract and biology too imprecise. That left chemistry, which encompassed a nice mix of my interests.”
In love with molecules
In the early years the enthusiastic chemist found his studies ‘okay’. “But I wouldn't say I was captivated; I was too young, just turned seventeen.” Meijer enjoyed student life and had to resit ‘many an exam’. His passion was sparked when he met his later supervisor Hans Wijnberg during the third-year research project, a man he describes as ‘charismatic and a very special figure’. “He caused me to fall in love with molecules. You start out studying what everyone already knows and suddenly someone famous tells you that you can also do things that no one else has ever done before and as a result a medicine may end up being produced more cheaply. And you can't help but think ‘wow, what just happened?’.”
This love of molecules and the exploration of virgin territory have always motivated him. “It's great and important if the research has concrete applications in society, but doing things that no one has ever done before is what I really enjoy.” What's more, he has always been keen on self-improvement. “Nothing is more enjoyable than working on something and seeing how it can be done that little bit better. If over in Nijmegen they get a paper published in Nature, I'll congratulate them, and I'm happy for them, but I'm also thinking, ‘darn it, now we need to get something else out there soon!’ Pure friendly competition.”
By ‘sheer accident’ this Groningen native came to Brabant in 1982 after gaining his doctorate. Meijer had arranged a postdoc in San Diego, and after that he was supposed to join Shell - like most PhD graduates at that time. “Shortly before I was due to leave, Wijnberg came up to me and said that someone from Philips was sitting in his office and they were looking for a chemist. ‘Might that be something for you’?” This ‘someone’ turned out to be the deputy director Feye Meyer. Bert Meijer received first an invitation to spend a day looking around, and later a job offer. “My wife already had a job in the US, but due to the oil crisis I decided to play it safe and say ‘yes’ to Philips.” His first position there didn't appeal at all. “I can still recall that the train stopped at Vught and I felt like crying with disappointment. Had I given up everything for this? Fortunately, I was soon given a much more enjoyable position, and eventually I thoroughly enjoyed the work and learned a great deal from Feye.”
The transition from the north of Groningen to the heart of Brabant was a major one, and even now, so many years later, Meijer encounters differences. “People born here are of a completely different stripe. 'Groningers' are more cautious, ‘anything and everything could go wrong in the future’. Some of the Brabant way of doing things has certainly rubbed off on me, but that Burgundian way - that relaxed attitude to life - is something I still find difficult. To give you an example, they say the flooring will be laid at 9 o'clock Tuesday morning, and then it doesn't. If I pop out of the office anytime before 6 p.m., I feel guilty. I'm one of the first to arrive and often one of the last to leave, because I believe I should set a good example. Still, I do sometimes hope that I'll learn a little of the Brabant way, so I can take life a little more as it comes.” Meijer describes himself as ‘always having worked very hard’ but wouldn't have it any other way. Both in the past and today, this has left little time for hobbies (‘now and then a game of tennis’).
He embarked on his TU/e career in September 1991 in what was then the T-hoog building (now Vertigo), succeeding the renowned Professor Buck. Here too, chance played a role. “I sometimes tell doctoral candidates: wherever I've applied for I've never got in and wherever I've got in I've never applied for.” Back then, his field - molecular and organic chemistry - was but a ‘small outpost’. It has since grown slowly but surely. “Now we have ten chairs in the field.”
Had the choice been his to make, he would have gone abroad, but his wife Iektje elected to stay in the Netherlands. “For scientists, MIT and Cambridge are attractive, they have a sort of glamour that no one is blind to. Myself included. I considered returning to industry, but at the end of the day I find working as a professor so much more enjoyable. You are working with young people, you are your own boss, you can design fantastic research, and with your team you create a family of sorts.”
His choice to continue working at TU/e is one he has not regretted at all in his thirty years here. “Most people do not know how special this university is, so very different from many others. The groups have so much freedom, while elsewhere you are more straitjacketed. I've always been treated here unbelievably well.”
In a month's time this elite scientist, who proudly tells that he has become a grandfather to a granddaughter, will turn sixty-five. He is making grateful use of the offer - a rarity - extended to him last year by the Executive Board to continue working until he turns seventy. In those five years he is keen to ‘achieve a great deal’ and his ambitions are not modest: “To work out all the details of our supramolecular polymers, to produce material in which cells can grow, to do spin-controlled chemistry, and at the moment I'm utterly fascinated by neuromorphic computing – and we have to do something about the plastic soup – and especially the fundamental aspects of non-covalent chemistry .”
But his primary aim is this: “I want to ensure that students and doctoral candidates thoroughly enjoy completing their (doctoral) study as successfully as possible .” And when he reaches seventy? “I apply myself fully to my work and when I stop, I will stop completely. I don't know what I will do then because that half-hearted way of doing things - that's not my style. I might help Iektje in some way; she and I have been happily married more than forty years. She is a wonderful artist and some fine paintings by her are hanging at TU/e. Or I will go and lecture in Australia, where our youngest son Wieger lives in Bondi Beach and works as an architect. Or I will become a really good grandpa to Roger, Sophie and Poppy in Amsterdam. We'll see.”
We spoke to Bert Meijer just before the corona crisis took hold. Helix was still open, but a handshake by way of greeting was already out of the question. Afterwards, last Tuesday, he sent these thoughtful words about the impact the crisis is having on him:
"My feelings about the corona crisis are ambivalent. On the one hand, I am very concerned about the health of many people who are dear to me and I have great admiration for all those who are working so hard to help so many, and who are doing so at risk to their own health. On the other hand, I feel powerless and it makes me wonder what the important things are in life. I cannot visit my 95-year-old mother and I can only see my children and grandchildren via Skype; they are healthy, fortunately. But more than in the past I can't help thinking of Mahatma Gandhi, who said that there is enough on Earth for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed. Bearing in mind the idea “never waste a good crisis” I hope that we go back to what is really important in life, and that we care more about each other than about personal success."