Word from our scientific director

On January 1st 2020, professor Karin Schroën started her term as scientific director of VLAG. She writes a regular contribution to the VLAG Flash Newsletter. The full text of these contributions can be found below.

News from and for the VLAG groups - October 2022

In the last month, we have started our visits to the VLAG groups. Previously, the visits to the PhD candidates have taken place, and now we are visiting a representation of the staff. We have had the pleasure to meet with four groups and look forward to hearing about the exciting new things that are happening in the remaining 18 groups in the coming months.

In the last month, we have started our visits to the VLAG groups. Previously, the visits to the PhD candidates have taken place, and now we are visiting a representation of the staff. We have had the pleasure to meet with four groups and look forward to hearing about the exciting new things that are happening in the remaining 18 groups in the coming monts.

I thought it would be good to already give you a sneak preview of what we have been hearing this far. The main topic that came forward is that groups are getting back to campus, and they experience that going fully back to how things were before covid is maybe not a good plan. In general, the fact that more in-person one-on-one, and group meeting are now possible, is very much appreciated. At the same time the efficiency of on-line working has become part of our work, and these opportunities are also appreciated. Still, often it is mentioned that the essence of what science is, may suffer from all this on-line working, and we would need to be more aware of this. What we hear from the PhD supervisors is that they are very dedicated to taking their candidates onto the discovery trip that a PhD project is, and for that ‘quality time’ spent in close proximity is needed. I, therefore, would like to advise the PhD candidates to actively approach their supervisors for live discussions, and not shy back from that in favor of screen time.

Besides this, covid and its repercussions is still a topic that is affecting how things are going within the groups. In spite of the exceptional efforts done by the PhD candidates and their supervisors, there are delays, and unfortunately these could not all be compensated for through the NPO and NPOplus money. Although we are happy that we could help quite a number of our candidates, we also know only too well that full compensation was not possible, which has motivated a number of our groups to do so from their own money. I cannot say how much I appreciate this, and can only hope that other groups are inspired by this and will follow this lead, since the compensation funds are now completely finished, and, as things look right now, in 2023 no compensation will be possible.

Let me move to a different topic that may also spark your interest in doing something similar. Through the VLAG fellowship program we are able to support the NanoBioPhysX Club that has had a successful kick-off meeting that was attended by many. Thanks to the efforts of the two leaders, Sonja Schmid and Jasper Landman, we now have not only a seminar series but also a new VLAG course. This course has monthly elements that when followed frequently lead to credit points for PhD candidates. I am very happy with the opportunities that this initiative gives to our PhD candidates who can meet high-end speakers and interact with them. This will help them in their development, and in building their network, since the whole VLAG community can participate in the seminars. If you have similar ideas, or even wilder ones, please let us know since this may lead to more cool possibilities for the VLAG community as a whole.

What is also nice to mention is that we have the first contribution ‘from the VLAG community for the VLAG community’. Kesso Gabrielle van Zutphen enthusiastically tells about her work in anemia research. I look forward to more stories from within VLAG in the coming FLASH(es), and hope that many are inspired to contribute their personal stories.

That is all for now; please stay tuned for new initiatives that we are launching, such as the ‘On Track’ event that we will organize for the first time in December, and is dedicated to 3rd year PhD candidates, and is part of the overall monitoring efforts of VLAG.

With kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

Truth, values and sincerity in science - August 2022

Above all, I hope that you all have had a great Summer, with well-deserved holidays that have revitalized you. Welcome back, and hopefully that also implies you enjoy campus-life live!

The title of this month’s contribution refers to many things that are currently very ‘hotly’ debated, for example in the KNAW (Dutch academy of sciences) advice on social safety in academia, but also in a theater performance that is brought to Wageningen after previous successful shows in Twente, Utrecht and Eindhoven. They both revolve around scientific integrity; the first one giving advice on how to maintain this, and the second one showing how ‘easy’ it is to find certain things normal that are not. If you have time, please go and see the theatre performance that is going to be shown a number of times; I think it will open not only your eyes, but more importantly, a discussion on how we work together. If you are in doubt about certain things happening in your surroundings, please talk to others. The only thing that you need to ask is, ….. is happening, do you think this is normal? The fact that you open a discussion is what counts, and you may find that others are experiencing similar things. It is not only good to share, but you are also invited to discuss with us when you find that this would help.

Within VLAG, we hear many stories that all revolve around co-dependency, be it between PhD candidate and supervisor, between staff and tenure track (criteria), between BSc/MSc student and PhD supervisor, and so on and so forth. I am sure that you can come up with many examples by yourselves. Of course, we try to do what we can to make things work for everyone; for example I am currently talking to chair holders (one per VLAG research theme) about teaching load, and also sharing recommendations that came out of the teaching load working group. Still, we feel that we could do more, and that we could help with monitoring the PhD trajectory more closely. To this end, we have introduced ‘9-month mentoring meetings’ about 1.5 years ago. We feel that this has a lot of added value for our PhD candidates.

Currently we are setting up a ‘PhD track event’, targeted at PhD candidates that have been with us between 2-2.5 years. The intention of this event is to have a joint reflection moment; we will briefly ‘revisit’ the PhD week to allow you to look back, but foremost look ahead to things that are still coming. An important role will be played by more experienced PhD candidates whom we will ask to share their own do’s, don’ts, and any advice they would like to give. We (Cornelia and Yvonne) will be available to discuss individual TSP updates with the participants, and provide advice where needed to complete it in a way that not only does justice to the number of credit points you need to accumulate, but more importantly in a way that allows you to get most out of it in terms of personal development. We will allow ample time for social interactions, and yes, there is going to be food as well! So be on the lookout for the first edition that will take place in November or December this year; it is going to be a rewarding day for all participating!

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

We would like to hear from the VLAG community - June 2022

The past two and a half years, I have been writing these contributions to FLASH, thus hoping to give you some insights in what is happening within our community, and share new initiatives. Until now this has been pretty much a one sided street, which implies that I write, and only very sparingly get a comment back (mostly very nice ones so I am not complaining). What I would like to do is also give you the option to share your news with the whole VLAG community. Would it not be great to also hear what is happening in the VLAG Research themes? Yes I know, you may not have even heard of the term VLAG theme, but VLAG has 4 themes within which the 22 chair groups reside. For example the last external peer review took place at the level of the themes. I would like to suggest that we start a relay column in which people working within the VLAG community share their news through a contribution of let’s say half a page, after which they carry the ‘baton’ over to another VLAG person working in a different theme, and it would be good to ask that person first if they would be willing to contribute. I would like to start by giving the baton to the very first volunteer who lets us know to be interested in writing this first contribution.

The last month has been quite busy with the NPO and NPO+ applications, also known as the covid compensation funds. Unlike last year, the available funds are very scarce, and it was tough to go through all applications knowing that we would not be able to compensate most of what was requested. There were 80 applications for VLAG only, and we noted that some chair groups were rather reluctant to apply for funding while others were surely not very shy in doing so. This added to the complexity, and ultimately decisions were taken at the level of Wageningen Graduate Schools in order to be just to all applicants.

Currently we are gearing up toward the Summer, and I hope that many of you will also be able to have a break and enjoy a holiday. I notice that the covid conditions that we were under for quite a while have impacted people within VLAG greatly. Although we may not be out of the woods given the current reproduction number being higher than 1 as we speak, I still hope that we will have plenty of sun in the Netherlands for those that stay here, since you never know what a Summer in the Netherlands will look like, and that others will have the option to go to a nice location of their choice.

I strongly feel that all the hard work that was and still is done can only be carried through in a sustainable way when combined with time away from work. Please also keep an eye on each other, so that things remain manageable in spite of delays that many have experienced and the urge to compensate that especially many PhD’s seem to feel. It is good for you to know that the rector has indicated that deliverables need to be seen in the light of what was possible in the period. In contrast to popular belief, there is no requirement to have four scientific chapters in a thesis, you are required to show that you are capable of working as an independent researcher. That is all, and that is also more than plenty.

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

The joy and burden of teaching within VLAG - April 2022

Two weeks ago, I was teaching again in a very classic lecture room setting. I always enjoy doing this, although I have not done that in a long time since I have worked mostly with knowledge clips in the last years, even far before covid made this the preferred way of working. To my surprise, there were not that many students attending the live lecture (about 30 out of more than 140 candidates for the course). When doing a second lecture in the same week, the attendance was even lower. Possibly, I did a terrible job during the first lecture leading to this drop, but upon checking this with the students, they told me that this was not the case, and that they actually prefer to watch on-line, either at the time of the lecture, or at any time that they find most convenient.

Clearly, teaching has changed, and also within VLAG it is a topic that is discussed a lot, both for the PhD courses as well as the participation of the VLAG community in courses for BSc, and MSc students, and also in thesis projects for these students. Scientific staff, as well as PhD candidates spend a lot of time in creating valuable knowledge exchange and creation. In itself this is part of the joy of teaching. At the same time, it may also be perceived as a burden. For example tenure track staff needs to meet certain deliverables to proceed in the tenure track process. For PhD candidates with a WU contract teaching will take at most 10% of their time, and although this is not an obligation, we see that many PhD candidates without a contract, and also post-docs, participate quite fully in teaching, which is not necessarily required from a contract requirement point of view.

What is worrying from my perspective is that many of our PhD candidates participate in teaching rather unprepared. For that I would like to draw your attention to the courses that are given on Wageningen Graduate School level, and that may help you in enhancing your teaching skills, and thus in getting more out of teaching. You can even dedicate a part of your training and supervision plan to this. Especially for those interested in an academic career this could be an added benefit that can be obtained as part of doing a PhD project in Wageningen. What I mention does not just hold for courses, but also for supervising thesis students. Every additional skill that you can pick up during your projects is going to greatly benefit you in the future, since the skills that you pick up are universally applicable to many situations.

As you may have heard, at VLAG we have a working group dedicated to teaching load, and we hope to share the findings in the very near future with the VLAG community. There are certainly points that we would want to put under your attention and that are a concern for all of us. At the same time the working group will share tips and suggestions to make the teaching load more manageable for all within VLAG. We will let you know soon how we will continue with this, and hope that we can reach many of you to share our insights.

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

Wellbeing of the VLAG Community - February 2022

It is such a simple word: wellbeing, but it is also one that comes with many challenges, especially in times of Covid! In previous letters in FLASH, I have addressed some aspects, such as social activities that are organized by groups to keep people connected. Together with the VLAG office team we for example participated in the pub-quiz organized by the microbiology group, and also had our own Christmas gatherings on-line with hilarious questions about what the VLAG team did when they were still kids. Although quite different from what we used to have, I do feel that these activities serve a purpose, and we know also many examples from within the VLAG groups that work well.

But how do we do this for the science part of our work, and more specifically how do we arrange things well for our talented people so that they become well-rounded scientists? That is something that I would like to write about this time, since I think that may be even more hampered than the social activities of the groups. How do we keep our team motivated (including ourselves) if we talk to people of post stamp size all the time? Can we even still have a full scientific debate talking to these post stamps, and really go in depth, or do we prefer to stay at the surface and play it safe because communication is hampered when carried out through a screen now for almost 2 years?

The results from the questionnaires sent to our PhD candidates clearly show that there are a lot of mental issues related to the covid situation, and what is often mentioned is the feeling of isolation and detachment of their supervisors, inefficient communication, and lack of feeling part of the research group. Although there are still considerable limitations in place, I feel that opportunities to meet are becoming more and more abundant, and I would like to encourage you all to make best use of them, and be kind not only to your team members, but also to yourselves. Why remain fixed behind a screen if you could also have a work-, or if you prefer, walk meeting on the campus with one of your talented co-workers? Or as a PhD candidate: suggest this to your supervisor. Or make an appointment with your co-workers so that you are at work at the same time. They may all be small things, but many small things can make a positive impact on all people belonging to VLAG.

The walking part I do see happening when looking out of my window in Axis, and I do have people in my office on a regular basis, and see that also happening with other supervisors. I had PhD candidates from abroad starting just before the first lock-down, and I felt I needed to throw them a life-line by having regular live meetings with them, and that worked out well. I would really like to encourage you all to consider working (together) from campus (within the rules that are laid out of course), which will make everyone feel less isolated, and will also bring the scientific process toward a more personal level where I think a large part of true inspiration takes place.

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

Another challenging year almost done, and new opportunities for 2022! - December 2021

In the last FLASH of this year, I want to look back a bit, but mostly want to look ahead and talk to you about the new opportunities that we have in mind for the VLAG community.

 t the end of my second year as VLAG scientific director, and that was again a year dominated by the external situation related to Covid, I am very grateful for all the things that we as VLAG community have managed to keep working and get to work. A huge effort was needed to keep teaching running, and that also included our courses that were mostly live, in some cases hybrid or even fully on-line. The fact that everyone is still trying to make most out of what we can do, and that we have very enthusiastic participants, makes me very proud of you all. With that kind of mindset we can get so much done! Compliments to you all.

Since this is also the festive season, we as VLAG office thought it is a good idea to come up with some new incentives for our community. You already know about our fellowship program that we revised last year, and that we now would like to extend with additional options. We then introduced traveling grants for PhDs and post-docs, and in the new year we will extend this to the VLAG assistant professors. We feel that they would greatly benefit from an opportunity to spend a short period of time in a high-level laboratory abroad. Of course we hope that Covid will be kind for us so many people can make use of this opportunity. All information will be sent to you by e-mail in due time.

What we have also added to the fellowships is a new opportunity that makes use of the fact that if you have scientists in PhD graduation committees that are very interesting for the broader VLAG community, you could invite them to stay a bit longer, and e.g., organize a work shop or master class in which these scientists would participate. Only requirement is that these events are open for the VLAG community, and that people from more than one chair group participate in the event. We cover travel and residence costs of your special guest (to a certain maximum), and hope that this will enthuse you to make a PhD graduation even more of a VLAG community event. We know that many groups cannot wait to do so!

We also had another look at the PhD trips, that traditionally would be directed abroad. We now have included that these trips can take place in the Netherlands; food chemistry has set a nice example for that. Of course, Covid is limiting many things, and at the same time we feel that in the Netherlands many things are happening that are extremely important for our (international) PhD candidates, post-docs, staff, basically all involved in VLAG, and that good learnings and networking opportunities would spring from this. The requirements are very much in line with what we had before, so organized by PhDs for PhDs, and for at least one week (so not just any excursion that you can do on any day of the week). So please also consider this option.

Last but certainly not least, the engineering doctorate (EngD) will start in 2022. I have talked about this before, but just as a short reminder, this is a two-year program for people interested in ‘design’ in the broadest sense. The candidates spend one year on courses, and one year on a design assignment supported by industry. These candidates will become part of VLAG, and I think it is a nice opportunity that diversifies the options that Wageningen University has on offer. Early 2022, the first candidates are expected to start within WUR, not yet within VLAG. Those interested can already let us know, so that we can make the step toward joining this initiative go smoothly.

That was all for now; have a wonderful festive season, and I look forward to seeing you all in 2022!

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

External Peer Review Committee looking at the whole VLAG community! - October 2021

Most probably many of you have not even noticed that this was going on, but for months many people have been very busy with the preparation for the scientific external peer review (EPR), and the actual site visit of the review committee last week. I already wrote a bit about it in the last FLASH, but now that the process is almost done (only the final committee report still needs to be completed) I think that it is good to share some points with you.

The EPR is an important exercise that the whole VLAG research community goes through every six years, and not only us, all graduate schools go through this process this year. It is instrumental for getting feedback on the quality of our research, its societal relevance and the viability of the research units, and also much more in general, e.g., on how we do our work, and how we are organized as VLAG community. This year, for the very first time, VLAG was evaluated at research theme level (within VLAG we have four, in which 22 chair groups reside), and no longer grades were given. Our review committee was asked to look at a much higher aggregate level, and act as a critical but constructive friend,  to help in e.g. defining promising science routes, and collaborations.

The committee had a full program that lasted three days and was carried out at the campus in a face-to-face setting, which was very much appreciated by all.  In general, the committee was impressed by all the work that we do and the facilities available, and appreciated the entire process that the themes went through in order to get to a joint vision and produce self-assessment reports. The incentives (read: money) provided by VLAG to facilitate this process were used in rather different ways, ranging from putting tenure trackers in the lead of the writing process, to involvement of the whole theme community. All themes were happy with their contributions to the EPR report. And as an additional bonus, our new tenure trackers were able to establish contacts throughout themes which would otherwise not have happened, at least not now.

As VLAG Graduate School, we had two questions that we asked the committee to help us with. The first one was the communication between PhD candidate and supervisor, and how to get that beyond the scientific content. Our second question was related to strengthening the bonds within the VLAG community. I really appreciated the interaction with the committee, and the very open way in which they posed questions and provided feedback. When you are used to a certain situation, you need an ‘outsider’ to tell you what is remarkable about it, both in a positive and a negative way, and I think that this is what the committee did in a very constructive way. During the wrap-up session they shared some preliminary observations and advice. These results will guide me in deepening my role as scientific director. I really look forward to receiving their report; I am sure that we will receive  honest observations and advices. As soon as the final report is in, we will engage in defining an action plan for the coming years that will help sharpen my vision that I wrote already two years ago.

It is pretty amazing how fast time flies, and I look forward to working further with you. I have amongst others meetings with working groups that we formed through the VLAG board, the first one revolves around the teaching load PhD candidates face, how we as a community deal with this, how we may share good practices, and tips, etc. Furthermore, I have a meeting scheduled with our PhD council to discuss how we can work together even better. This is part of a bigger trajectory that we started a year ago, and good things have already come out of it, and many more will follow I am sure.     

Stay safe, and stay healthy, and I look forward to seeing you all on campus!

Prof Karin Schroën

Challenging times for the entire VLAG community! - August 2021

Of course I hope that you all had a good Summer, that you were able to enjoy some time away from work, and that you are all ready for and enthusiastic about the new academic year.

In the last months we have talked to many of the VLAG groups, and it is very nice to touch base with everyone, and talk about all the new initiatives that take place. It feels as if a new elan has arrived in VLAG-land, and that is really nice to be part of. On the other hand, we also noticed that quite a number of people mentioned that they feel stressed, ranging from tenure trackers who are worried whether they can comply with the demands, to professors who experience more difficulty in acquiring projects, to PhD candidates and post-docs who want to do well within their projects, but face many challenges that make their life more stressful..

Although this is part of the jobs that we do, I also feel that we as a community are not that good at recognizing stress, and dealing with it. In general, it is not that likely that we talk about it, partly because we don’t feel comfortable with the topic. The key to controlling stress is to start by talking about it with your supervisors and colleagues. Alternatively, it is recommendable that supervisors dare to start this discussion in their role as mentor, and make stress a topic that can be discussed freely. I know that this is not always that easy, but happen to know that there is a really nice course organized by Wageningen Graduate Schools (Stress Identification & Management) specifically directed toward PhD candidates and Post-docs, that I can recommend. It will give you insights in what stress is, how you can identify it, and how to deal with it from a personal perspective (including a stress prevention action plan). I felt it important to share this information with you all. If stress is tackled early on, it will not become this multi-headed dragon that it sometimes turns into, and that can turn out to be very detrimental in the lives of our young talents.

In the last half year, many of our community have contributed to the documents written for the external peer review (EPR) that will take place in October this year. For those of you who don’t know what the EPR is: every 6 years we are evaluated on the quality of the work done, and the vision that we have for future work. It used to be that this would take place at the level of chair groups, but this year for the first time this is at the level of VLAG themes. We have four VLAG themes, and the chair groups operating within each theme needed to write a joint document which was a challenge and opportunity in one. A challenge because a lot of people work within one theme and not that many know each other, and an opportunity because now more people have had the opportunity to work together toward a common goal. I think that the entire process has brought together (parts of) the VLAG community, and I look forward to the days in October when the committee visits us.

As was the case for the four VLAG themes, also VLAG office needed to write a document for the EPR with all the achievements, and maybe even more importantly, the vision on how to support the VLAG community in the best possible way toward a bright future. It is really challenging to do this, but also very impressive to see all the activities that we as VLAG carry out to support groups in many different ways. In the next FLASH I hope to be able to share more about the EPR and with a bit of luck some findings of the EPR committee. Hopefully they will be just as enthusiastic about the whole VLAG community and our achievements as I am.

With this I have come to the end of my contribution. If you have any questions, please know where to find us, and enjoy the last bits of Summer!

Kind regards

Prof Karin Schroën

Connecting with PhD candidates and groups! - June 2021

On Monday 7 June, I received my first Covid-19 vaccination, and I hope that given the speed with which this happens currently, you will also be able to line up soon. Although I thought that this would not make a big difference, and I don’t behave that much different, it was one of these tell-tale signs that we are gearing up for a new ‘normal’, and that is really nice since that will allow us to connect much more directly with our PhD candidates and groups then we are currently allowed to do.

At the moment, we visit the research groups participating in VLAG. Obviously, that needs to happen through a screen. Still, I enjoy these visits, since they allow me to listen to the stories of the VLAG community: the exciting new things that they have lined up (and there are a lot of new initiatives!), how they dealt with going completely digital in communication, and often limited lab access, and the changes in teaching that needed to be carried through. This also holds for the VLAG courses that are currently re-created into digital, or blended forms. It is really amazing if you think about what has been accomplished by all of you, and we at VLAG are extremely thankful that we are allowed to work for such a dedicated community of scientists. Somehow, the entire Covid situation has also brought a lot of good things to us, and I am sure that it will change the way we work forever. Although the current way of working would not be my preferred one, the fact that video calls are now part of everyone’s repertoire will save me a lot of travel time.

As always there is quite a bit of news to share. First of all, we have completed a number of programs to promote talents. We have just wrapped up the graduate program, and I know that we have made two MSc students very happy with a grant that allows them to work on their own PhD project. I was also part of the selection committee for the sandwich PhD program, and that allowed us to select six PhD candidates that will join Wageningen University to work on projects that will strengthen the bonds between their home institutes and us. Furthermore, the first PhD candidates that will work within the projects granted in the last open round, that was geared toward innovation created by our tenure trackers, have also been appointed. Besides, we have granted fellowships for visits to high-end international labs, and we hope that they can be carried out in the very near future.

What I would also like to address is that within the VLAG board we are discussing the teaching load of PhD candidates. We got representatives of the chair holders to talk to representatives from our PhD council, and that led to a good discussion within which the various aspects related to teaching were discussed openly, and more mutual understanding was created. The topic will remain high on the agenda of VLAG, and a dedicated work group will take the lead in this.

A quite different topic is the EngD program, or the Engineering Doctorate, which is new to Wageningen, but has been in place in the other technical universities in the Netherlands for quite a while. The program is meant for those interested to develop themselves further toward a ‘technical designer’. They need to make high-level, creative, and innovative designs for complex design questions with a multi- / interdisciplinary character and that are geared toward enhancement of sustainable living. For this, the candidates take one year of high level courses, and spend one year on the design under supervision of an industrial, and an academic supervisor. The program will start early next year with a pilot with a limited number of candidates.

There is always a lot happening within VLAG, and it is a pleasure to share this with you. Please stay safe and healthy, and enjoy the sun!

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

VLAG on tour: also in times of COVID April 2021

First and before most, I hope that you are all doing well, and can make most out of the situation that we are all in. Doing a challenging project is in general not simple, and doing that in current times surely adds to this. Still, I see many people doing well, being very productive, and being able to rethink their work in terms of what is possible. I truly feel that the current restrictions can bring the best in us to the surface, and thus show our resilience that is an integral part of the jobs that we do.

The title of this contribution to FLASH may sound a bit strange given the times we live in. However, VLAG has started the annual visits to the research groups; the visits to the PhDs, chair holders and other staff, and is thus on (virtual) tour. We have visited the first groups of PhDs and are currently planning the other dates, and look forward to ‘seeing’ you all. It is a bit of a tradition that a broad cross-section of the group is present during these meetings so that you can share your experiences. It is important for us to hear your stories, and discuss with you how things are going, and also offer a listening ear where needed. Because of the special circumstances, we will ask the groups to bring points forward that are currently most relevant to the meeting, and will not work with a set agenda. 

Being on tour, and staying on track also reflects the preparations for the external peer review that is lined up for October. This year, the review is all about getting feedback on the strategies of the four VLAG themes. So it is less on all kinds of countable things (h-index etc.), but more about the vision that the themes have on future developments in the respective fields they operate in. The themes have all put a writing team forward. Two themes put tenure trackers in the lead to accumulate stories present within the themes, and come up with overall story-lines that are resilient. The first drafts are now ready to receive feedback from our international advisory board members, who have been asked to supply the writing teams with comments as one would get from critical friends.

It is needless to say that I appreciate the great amount of work that the writing teams are putting into making the documents. It is really a challenge, and at the same time a wonderful opportunity to get to know ‘the stories’ present in other groups that they otherwise may not have been aware of. In that sense, this entire process is a real catalyst for exchange of ideas, and hopefully also for future joint projects that will strengthen the themes and VLAG as a whole.

Within VLAG office, we have been busy organizing many things as usual. Besides that, we have updated the training and supervision plan that will be shared soon, organized an additional course on on-line presentations (which was very popular), made a start with the monitoring program that I talked about in the previous FLASH, and been in the middle of a discussion on teaching load that is still very much on-going. I feel that this is a very important topic, and it is good that now many are actively participating in the discussion.

Before I wrap up, I would like to say some words about the arrival of many new tenure trackers during the last year. I feel that we can give these people and everyone involved in VLAG a real boost by making good use of all the knowledge and ideas that they have. I have recently held a virtual get together with those TT-ers appointed within the ‘sector plans’, and found this very inspiring. There were ideas for general courses (e.g. how to make really good graphics), more topic specific work groups (e.g., bio-nano physics) and so on. If you have any suggestions, please always know where to find us. It is incredibly important to keep evolving as a VLAG community, and we may help through financial support by the fellowship program that you can use to invite high-level speakers. 

Kind regards, also on behalf of the entire VLAG team, and please stay safe and healthy!

Prof Karin Schroën

Communication within the VLAG community in times of COVID - March 2021

For the time being, Covid still has us in its grip, which is far from pleasant. Still, I hope that you are doing well, are in good spirit, and are taking good care of each other. It is important to keep an eye on what is feasible given the circumstances, as also stated by the management of the department and university. It is absolutely valid to rethink the criteria that we have, and maybe be content with less, simply because that is what can be realistically done. For this, communication between team members is essential to prevent expectations that are not shared and that may lead to situations that are not constructive, or even counterproductive. Please help each other going through the ‘Covid motions’ by starting these discussions, as a supervisor or as a PhD candidate, and reaching out. This is the most important thing that we need to do, as I experience in my daily work, as VLAG director and group leader. 

 Besides, I would like to update you on other VLAG activities that are also related to communication and exchange of ideas. The VLAG open round ‘new style’ has resulted in highly innovative projects. Basically, teams were formed that developed topics that bring research fields together that normally would not have been on each other’s radars, and I am very happy that we could grant half of the applications. Congratulations to Julia Krug, Guanna Li, Silvie Timmers, Marie Hennebelle, Julia Keppler, Elske Brouwer-Brolsma, Etske Bijl, Gert Salentijn, Sarah D’Adamo and Nico Claassens. I encourage the teams that were not granted to submit your projects elsewhere; the proposed ideas were really great!

Communication, networking and exchange are also targets of the VLAG Fellowship Program that enables our young researchers to visit expertise centers. We received four requests at the end of last year, and we were able to grant them all, about which you can read more in this FLASH. Moreover, the coaching program for the PhD council started in January. I was really happy to see this initiative take off, and I am convinced that it will help various aspects related to communication and representation of our PhD community, consequently making the whole VLAG community stronger.

In the last FLASH I mentioned that we are preparing for the scientific external peer review which takes place every 6 years. We have been supporting enthusiastic teams of researchers that are now writing the contributions for the four VLAG Research Themes. I know that a lot of people contribute to make this process a success, and I also feel that this is of essence. The peer review is perhaps the most ultimate opportunity to get high-level feedback on how we operate and are seen within our fields, and I would like, together with you all, to try to get the most out of this process.

Before wrapping up, I would like to introduce our newest VLAG team ‘recruit’: Dr Jochem Jonkman. He will set up a PhD monitoring program, which I feel is essential to allow VLAG to contribute even more to progress and well-being of our PhD candidates during the entire trajectory of their project. He has consulted many, is currently developing his ideas, and will start a pilot soon. I hope that you are all enthusiastic about the prospective of having a program in place that will contribute to making the PhD trajectory even more valuable, and help VLAG keep in touch more closely.

As you have read, we are pretty busy with new initiatives to keep the VLAG community vital and hope that this also affects you positively. We want to be there for you, and do useful things for our community. Ideas are always very welcome, never hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards, also on behalf of the entire VLAG team, and please stay safe and healthy!

Prof Karin Schroën, Scientific Director VLAG

Season's Greetings - December 2020

This year has been a special one in many different ways, and I would like to thank you all for all your efforts to keep things running in 2020; a year that will go into history because of the many challenges that it put on our plates. I feel that many of the solutions that we searched for to keep things manageable were found! What I appreciate is that these solutions were found within ourselves, and the team / groups, and this is something that I am very grateful for. I am very aware that this did not materialize just like that, and that you all needed to put a lot of extra effort in, so thank you all very much, and keep up the good work!

I hope that you all have a wonderful festive season (as far as covid allows of course) and wish you all the very best for 2021!

Kind regards, also on behalf of the VLAG team

Prof Karin Schroën

Building a strong VLAG community in times of COVID - November 2020

With the number of Covid currently surpassing the values that we experienced in Spring, I sincerely hope that you are all still doing well, are healthy, and in good spirit.

There is no denying that these times are challenging, and I was happy that a number of compensation options for PhD candidates and post-docs have been put in place. It is not possible to compensate everyone, and everything, but every little bit that can be done helps. I was especially glad that now also PhD candidates without a WUR contract have an option for compensation. I will actually be part of the jury that will decide on the applications, and hope that we can help many, thus keeping the VLAG community strong.

Within VLAG we are not only trying to be instrumental to the whole VLAG community, but also try to attract talents, and do so through the VLAG graduate program, and this year also through a special round that was held together with TKI agri&food. Within both programs, we were able to give grants to talented MSc candidates who wrote their own PhD proposals. You can read more about this later in the FLASH; for now, congratulations Nicola, Marion, and Ferran! Both programs are really very close to my heart, and it is great that our MSc students are able to write innovative project proposals based on their own ideas, convince a jury, and get the opportunity to carry them out. 

Another thing that I am very excited about is the VLAG open round. This time we decided to make it a special round for the newest tenure trackers, and we already have had an energizing match making event (on-line, because it was at the time that the more severe Covid rules were put in place). It was great to hear all the enthusiastic stories about all the work that is currently done within VLAG from Anouk and Vesna (from VLAG office) who were there all day. Besides that this new ‘generation’ of scientists operating within VLAG can now look specifically for a partner to write an exciting research proposal with, it also really helped in generating a lot of curiosity about the work done VLAG-wide. I am sure that this will be very instrumental in getting great research ideas to fruition, and the beauty of this is that this cross-pollination action is not limited to the open round!

What I also would like to share is that we have initiated a VLAG grant to further develop the four VLAG research themes and more specifically help with the preparation for and execution of the 2021 external peer review (EPR). For those of you that may not be familiar with the EPR, during this review, all research themes will receive feedback on their common vision and strategy to drive science, and how they exploit potential synergies and complementarity. Clearly, this is important for the research themes and as VLAG we want to facilitate our research themes with this. It was really nice to see that most research themes have suggested that young researchers would be put in the lead for this. I think that this is a unique option for our newest talents to get to know a whole research theme, and also build their networks based on this. 

Whenever I am writing my pieces for FLASH the end of the page is in sight before I know it. So I will wrap up, and even before I have told you about my presence at the live PhD week (see also later in FLASH), and the newest addition to the VLAG team, but I will keep that for next time. You see we are busy trying to keep the VLAG community vital and hope that this also rubs off on you all individually.

Never shy away from contacting us with innovative ideas to make science even more interesting. But most of all, please stay safe, and healthy!

 

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

VLAG gives research a boost - August 2020

Above all, I hope that you are all doing well, and are in good spirits. That is a prerequisite for working well on all the things that the VLAG community excels in, and also to enjoy a nice holiday! I hope that either of the two options holds for you, and that you are not too affected by the Covid-conditions.

In one of my previous messages, I mentioned that we are very busy at putting new initiatives out: geared toward giving the VLAG community a boost, mostly in relation to research, and PhD candidates. However, these initiatives are not limited to that. We work with talented MSc students, who are truly challenged by having to write their own research proposal within the VLAG graduate program. The candidates do this while being coached on the content by their prospective supervisor, and on skills through the VLAG program (digital this year). The rewards can be great, since there is money to award two projects! In this way, VLAG supports blue skies research and puts some of our newest researchers in the lead, as we have now successfully done for a number of years.

It is also good for you to know that we revisited the way of financing various things within VLAG, while trying to keep the paperwork to a minimum! Please check out the research page, and more specifically the VLAG fellowships section. We now have fellowships for both PhD candidates and post-docs for short stays (secondments) at renowned institutes. In this way the projects can get a boost, making use of the knowledge and infrastructure that thus becomes available to our young researchers. The deadline for the current call is November 1st 2020 for activities starting in 2021. A second deadline for activities starting in 2021 is expected May 1st 2021.

Furthermore, there are options to bring renowned researchers to Wageningen, through our visiting guest researcher program for sabbaticals, master classes and symposia. For this there are not specific deadlines, and you can also continuously apply for extra funding for PhD trips which has been a recurring theme within VLAG from the first year of its’ existence. What you can no longer apply for, and I know that this is a disappointment for some of you is supporting the drinks for the various activities that you organize. We prefer to spend the money on supporting science directly, and creating unique opportunities by giving the grants mentioned earlier.

Because traveling is a challenge, we launched an initiative to support on-line activities. One of our chair groups (Microbiology) embraced this opportunity, and are the first to organize a workshop supported by VLAG on: “In vitro models to study the effect of dietary and pharmaceutical components on human health”.  In this way, existing knowledge is made much more commonly available. 

The next step that we will take is to redefine the VLAG open round. This time the program will revolve around recently (from January 2018 onward) appointed tenure trackers, in combination with the VLAG research themes, and in support of highly innovative ideas.

I guess that is all for now. You see that we have been pretty busy in trying to get all kinds of initiatives launched, and hope that you will actively make use of the options at hand. Never shy away from contacting us with innovative ideas to make science even more interesting.

Please stay safe, and healthy!

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

VLAG brings the message of researchers home - May 2020

In the times that we live in, traveling and giving presentations in just about every corner of the world is not what the VLAG community is doing. We as VLAG team thought that this should serve as an excellent opportunity to bring all these ground breaking ideas, cutting edge knowledge, and expertise of the VLAG community home. In a sense, it is very strange that we do not share our knowledge that much within WUR, and yes, I am also guilty as charged. As a matter of fact, I do (read: used to) run into researchers from Wageningen University in faraway places to find out that there is a common interest that should have made us work together for years. But somehow that simply did not happen often enough, and thus we missed out on an opportunity that should not have been missed in the first place.

As a first new step to bring the VLAG community closer together (yes, I said first, so you can expect more steps to follow), we will start with an on-line lecture series. The underlying idea is of course to share knowledge and get everyone more broadly interested in work done at WUR. Ideally this also acts as a nucleus for discussion, and maybe even collaborations. Since the PhD candidates have to cope with postponement or cancellation of courses, we came up with the idea to use the lecture series as a means to modestly supplement ECTS for the Training and Supervision Plan. Please keep in mind that actively participating in the lectures by reading a paper prior to the lecture, and sending in questions  before the lecture, is a prerequisite for this. Vesna has already sent out a message with all the details on how things will be organized to all VLAG PhDs and postdocs.

I hope that you are all enthusiastic about the initiative, and I look forward to giving the first lecture that will revolve around the use of microfluidic tools. I apply them to investigate ‘processes’ in great detail, and based on that design sustainable food processes and products. Furthermore, I will share my vision about how these devices can serve as a means to bring technical and nutritional functionality of food together, and how both researchers interested in fundamental and applied sciences can contribute to this.

It is a challenge to bring this message that I have presented at ICEF (a very large food conference) home to a community with a very diverse background in disciplines. At the same time, I feel that it is my duty (a very nice one) to share what I know, and make that information accessible since it is my very strong opinion that researchers should always be curious about what others do, and take inspiration from that for their own work. I love crazy ideas, so if that is what I create in your minds, I have done what I have set out to do, and would also like to help you further explore what is possible.

For now, stay safe and stay healthy.

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

 

VLAG PhD candidates in time of Covid - April 2020

This time I would like to share my observations on how I see that VLAG PhD candidates cope with the current Covid-19 situation, and also offer to listen to you if you need it either now, or later.

We all live in a different world compared to half a year ago. Covid-19 has changed how we view and do things, most probably for quite a while, and maybe even forever. We were pushed to re-think things, also how we work, and do science within the projects that we work on. Given the fact that these are very drastic changes that needed to be made, it would have been logical to see many people detached from their work. What I see is quite the opposite.

Yes, the way we work needed to be re-thought, but I am under the impression that this imposed reflection on the way of working has also generated many positive things. There are on-line coffee breaks, and other activities to keep social aspects running, and there are many, many skype, team, zoom etc. meetings to keep each other updated on how things are going. Also the entire teaching has been transformed to on-line in just about no time, also with the help of many of us. If you would ask me whether this is my ideal way of working, I would tell you for sure not, but does it work, yes, wholeheartedly yes. And that is only possible if everyone is constructive and willing to work in this ‘new normalcy’. I want to applaud you all for coping so well with the situation at hand. When looking at my own research group, I would not be surprised that in terms of scientific output this could become a very fruitful time given all the outlines, and drafts that I discussed with my team recently.

Still, it is not that easy, and where some discover that they are very productive while working in ‘isolation’, that may not be the case for everyone, and also reshaping the project to allow for working from home as an effective alternative for working at the research group is also not that easy to implement for all of you. If you for example happen to be the PhD candidate carrying out a large human trial at the time of the outbreak in the Netherlands, there are serious issues if this happens to be one of the last things you need to do before completion of your work.

I would like to conclude by saying that I am very impressed by the way that PhD candidates manage to cope with the situation. So thank you all for all the things that you are doing, and please let me and the VLAG office team know if we can do something for you if you run into possible delays. I would be happy to help where needed.

For now, stay safe and stay healthy, and keep doing all these things that you are doing so well!

Kind regards,

Prof Karin Schroën

Introducing the scientific director of VLAG - January 2020

On January 1st 2020, professor Karin Schroën started her term as scientific director of VLAG, following prof. Renger Witkamp who has held this position for the last 4 years. During the 25-year jubilee meeting that was held on 12 December, the new director already lifted part of the veil that currently still hides the vision that she is developing for her term as scientific director. The main theme that she addressed was that she wants to ‘create interaction on many different levels’.

The first level that was addressed was, logically, that of the PhD candidates, who quite often are very focused on their thesis while not really connecting to other fields of research. Prof. Schroën pointed out that fundamental scientists would benefit greatly from interaction with applied scientists, and vice versa. As a matter of fact, many fields of science need to come together to face the challenges that we face as mankind, which can be ultimately realized in Wageningen. Starting this as early as possible is something that prof. Schroën would like to realize through ‘open science forums’, of which she will organize the first one around ‘Nanotechnology and food’, and that later would need to be picked up by the PhD community.

Besides the PhD candidates, also their primary caretakers that are mostly in tenure track were addressed during prof. Schroën’s speech. She indicated that mutual understanding of the stressful situations that occur during a PhD project would help in creating a common ground between candidate and supervisor, and thus make them work together in a more constructive way.

Prof. Schroën holds MSc and PhD degrees of Wageningen (Agricultural) University specializing in food process engineering. She did post-docs at University College London, and the biotechnology group of WU, after which she started as an assistant professor in food process engineering. As soon as it became available, she entered the tenure track and became a personal professor in 2012. Besides this she is a chair holder for one day a week at Twente University, specializing in membrane processes for food. She is also a member of one of the management teams of 4TU, the technology dean organization, the board of Nano4Society, and many more. Through these positions she puts interaction within various fields in science in practice!

Her door is always open; any suggestions that you may have are very welcome.