Now: Group Leader, NKI, Amsterdam
Was: Predoc, 1992-5, Wilson Group, EMBL Hamburg; Staff Scientist and Team Leader, 1997-2000, Cusack Group, EMBL Grenoble
What drew you to the NKI, and what are you doing there?
I worked at the NKI between my two stays at EMBL Grenoble and Hamburg. When I was asked to return as group leader, I didn’t have to think twice. There’s a lot of exciting biology here, giving me the opportunity to focus on the “why” instead of the “how” which was the case at the synchrotron.
I work on structural biology, using a strange blend of physics, maths and chemistry to answer biological questions. I like to work on diverse systems, and collaborate closely with people that know the field in terms of biology. My collaborators, Wouter Moolenaar and Piet Borst, for example, have practically invented the field, and the biological questions we address have been formulated through the interaction or the influence of local groups in all but one project.
What's life and work like in Amsterdam and the Netherlands?
Amsterdam offers numerous parks and playgrounds, open air markets, neighborhoods with small friendly shop owners, art cinemas, theaters and concert halls, which blend well with the infamous coffee shops, the amazing museums and the omnipresent bikes, that are the city's tourist attractions.
What did you do at EMBL Grenoble?
At EMBL Grenoble, I joined the microfocus team and started experiments with external users, while helping Florent Cipriani's team design and test the "microdiffractometer", a device dedicated to positioning crystals with very high accuracy on a very small X-ray beam, and which has sold all over the world in tens of units.
We also solved the structure of a DNA repair enzyme, MutS, together with Titia Sixma and Meindert Lamers leading to a Nature publication. Solving structures was an art in my days, and I had a great time helping people do it quickly and properly, deciding on the best strategy, and getting the software to do the work.
At EMBL Hamburg, together with my friend Victor Lamzin we founded the ARP/wARP software for building crystal structures on electron density maps automatically. Our script allowed users to conduct in a few hours what had taken months to perform using expensive graphics workstations. The paper describing this is published in the Nature Structural Biology (NSMB), and has had close to 3000 citations.
How has your time at EMBL helped you?
In my first weeks at Hamburg, I despaired that I would never learn all the things taken for granted there. This turned to positive motivation and resulted in a work frenzy. In Heidelberg, you could learn more things from one day in the cafeteria than ten hours in the library – I miss that too! For me, EMBL is all about the people, and remains unique in bringing together so many motivating, inspiring and enthusiastic people in a small space.
How did you find the EMBL get-together at TEM?
The most embarrassing moment was when a post-doc already two years at the NKI, introduced herself to me during the get-together. It was a clear sign I need to work on my social skills!