The acronym BFF, short for Best Friends Forever, was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1996. In the preceding decade the Iron Curtain had fallen and a nuclear war had been narrowly averted, which set the stage for the end of the Twentieth Century as an era of freedom, truth-finding, taking risks, and a yearning for self-development, self-sufficiency and achievements. All of this was catalyzed by tremendous optimism with respect to the future. It was in these times that we – BFF: Monique Bruining, Willem Mulder and Luc Brunsveld – completed our chemistry studies and to this day we have remained involved in academic research and education through our individual career paths.
Lots of pessimism
Many things have changed over the past 25 years. The world has become an uncertain, chaotic and confusing place. A huge amount of pessimism colors our view of the future; if we don’t start changing our behavior right now, death and destruction await us. At least, that’s what self-proclaimed experts, administrators and politicians tell us.
Society has been politicized to such an extent that polarization rages and has turned into a destructive business model. Sadly, all of our institutions (education, politics, media, etc.) have jumped on this bandwagon. Because of this, and exacerbated by social media, our yearning for freedom has been replaced by a yearning for safety, and truth-finding by ideological chauvinism. Moreover, during the pandemic the individual has been subordinated to the collective. This is all the more ironic because these were exactly the values upheld on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
We, BFF, believe in the power of the individual, in collaborations based on individual talent, in self-development, courage and self-reflection. We are convinced of the talent of our students and their ability to overcome the problems of the future without falling prey to paralyzing doomsday scenarios for that future.
We will introduce ourselves below. From now on, we will regularly share personal experiences and perspectives in a BFF column, with the goal of offering students inspiration in various – non-political – areas, such as dealing with adversity, resilience, top-level sports, progress, mentorship, taking risks, truth-finding, practicing science and entrepreneurship.
Competitive rowing was my priority while studying Chemistry at Utrecht University. For four years I combined lectures and lab practice with six to twelve training sessions a week. Which was tough, but also built character and resilience. In 2002, after completing my studies, I started a PhD at the TU/e research group headed by Klaas Nicolay and Gustav Strijkers.
In the fall of 2006 I moved to New York to set up my own group at Mount Sinai Hospital. Over the course of fifteen years I transformed a small team – at first it was just a postdoc and myself – into a productive, National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded and internationally revered research group in the field of nanomedicine. My wife and daughters lived in Eindhoven during this period.
Driven by the pandemic and my personal situation, I returned to the Netherlands in 2021. By no means an easy decision, given that things were working out so well for me professionally in the US. It basically meant I had to start over, albeit with fifteen years of experience in the competitive and prestigious NIH system under my belt.
In addition to my academic passion for developing nanotechnology for therapeutic applications, I love physical exercise. Unfortunately I sustained two major injuries after my return, so for the moment I'm limited to a daily recovery routine.
By sharing my experiences on the Cursor site together with Luc Brunsveld (Flowing) and Monique Bruining (Frizzy), I hope to motivate students and PhD candidates to make the very best of themselves. I see this as a trial and error process. Which is okay. In fact, it’s the most stimulating and sustainable way to develop yourself, though not the easiest.
I was born in the Netherlands, raised in Surinam and eventually I found my way to Brabant, where I have lived for over thirty years now. It was my dream to become a doctor and help people. After failing to be admitted to medical school, I came to Eindhoven to pursue my second love: Chemical Engineering. I then completed a PhD at Maastricht University, followed by jobs at Johnson & Johnson in Beerse and the Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI), respectively.
It was at these places I transitioned from science to management. The first steps of this journey were wrought with guilt and shame. I was leaving science and would be a manager. But looking back at my efforts to become a doctor and at my career as a chemist, I'm convinced that these experiences functioned as a gateway to the world of management. I'm currently the managing director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS).
Much like my accent, my outlook on life is a blend. One of different perspectives informed by all the cultures rooted firmly within me. To me, the Bald, Frizzy or Flowing (BFF) initiative with Willem Mulder and Luc Brunsveld symbolizes discovering, showing and using what you have to offer, as well as perseverance and decisiveness.
From me you may expect columns that have been inspired by both my personal and professional experiences, loosely themed around turning one’s weaknesses into strengths.
From the age of twelve to twenty-two, I worked in a bakery. Among other things, I used the money to pay for my Chemical Engineering studies at TU/e. In 1997, flat broke, I was very excited to start a PhD. After that, in 2001, I left for Germany to familiarize myself with the field of chemical biology as a postdoc.
Subsequently I spent two years as a medicinal chemist at the Dutch pharmaceutical company Organon before setting up my own line of research as a group leader at a Max Planck Institute in Germany. I'm a full professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering since 2008. My passion is to educate young people through challenging research.
My columns will be about vacation, about raising the average, knowing what fell off the table, collaboration and excellence, responsibility towards your origins, giving and taking opportunities, the question ‘What problem does this actually solve?’, and why one should always smoke while drinking beer.