Jan van Hest, director Insitute of Complex Molecular Systems (May 2018)

From basement to boiler room, the top researcher is always the focal point

ICMS celebrates its First ten years with a change of director

More than ten years ago, the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS) started in the basement of the main building (Hoofdgebouw). Content, people and interdisciplinary work were and are the key guiding principles for founder prof.dr. Bert Meijer. Now, exchanging the three rooms in the main building for its own accommodation in Ceres, Meijer thinks it’s time to transfer the leadership of a leading, innovative and, in view of the many waves of awards, very successful institute. Incoming scientific director Prof. Dr. Jan van Hest and his ‘old mentor’ look back and look forward.

In 2008 Meijer (62), together with fellow professors Mark Peletier, Rutger van Santen and Jaap Schouten, initiated the founding of a new institute aimed at focusing on bringing together academics and different disciplines from the five cooperating departments: Mathematics and Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, Applied Physics, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering. For Meijer himself, the mechanism of self-organization is central: how do functional molecular systems arise from individual building blocks? This knowledge will enable the building of molecular mini-factories that produce a new generation of catalysts, nano-containers and functional materials. A relatively new field of research, and precisely for that reason it is essential to stimulate interdepartmental collaboration, Meijer explains. “A lot can be gained by bringing together people who are very strong in their discipline. And at the same time we attract people who come within two traditional disciplines. Through this interaction we can realize things that we would not otherwise be able to achieve. Moreover, from day one we have set out our stall: the institute is only about science and technology. We encourage and facilitate researchers in doing groundbreaking research. Money and organizational structure are subordinate to this. And that makes our institute essentially different from the other academic interdisciplinary institutes in the Netherlands. TU/e is the only Dutch university where the disciplines - chemistry, physics and mathematics - have not been merged as Natural Science. Institutes that fall under this denominator are relatively powerful within the university. In America you often still see the classical departmnmets, also at the University of California in Santa Barbara; the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS) is modeled after their Materials Research Lab. Due to the lack of a structure in which there is administrative power and responsibility, we have plenty of scope to pursue our passion for scientific research.”

"The appeal of the institute is enormous, we are highly valued, visitors are impressed."

The approach is successful. Soon its foundation, one ICMS article after the other was published in the leading scientific journals. Research areas are expanding rapidly - according to Meijer, the name is no longer representative - and researchers are joining the new institute in increasing numbers. An animation studio is also being set up. Meijer: “If you talk about something complex that is dynamic, it is very difficult to communicate with static pictures. You must also do this in the language of complex molecular systems. And besides that, you make the science more transparent to your fellow researchers, you also make it more accessible to a broader audience. For example, the first film of the animation studio, which was made for the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai at the time, is still exhibited worldwide.” In 2012 came a major step with the accommodation of the institute in the specially renovated Ceres Boilerhouse, in which Sagitta Peters, former business manager of the ICMS, played an important role. Transparent, space for a large atrium to stimulate discussion – “we never get together” - and the most technically optimal environment possible for state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. “Even our building has won a prize, the BNA Building of the Year Award” says Meijer with a wink, which he follows with a more serious remark: “The appeal of the institute is enormous, we are highly valued, visitors are impressed. And the flow of subsidies and awards that we gain continues to grow, which is one of the things that I am extremely proud of. In the world of chemical engineering we are internationally acknowledged in our discipline, in the Netherlands we are a household name across all disciplines. This ensures that we can retain top researchers and bring in new top talents and esteemed academics in a high-tech environment. For example, we are currently setting up a state-of-the-art 4D characterization lab for soft materials, which will result in a lot of innovative research. But I cannot emphasize enough: the ICMS is not after anything itself, it’s just four letters. It’s about the people. We can bring these together, stimulate them, help them do better, create new visions. And so together we shift the scientific boundaries.”

One of the top researchers who came to Eindhoven in recent years, thanks to the ICMS, is Professor of Bio-organic Chemistry Jan van Hest (49). He began his academic career as a PhD student in Bert Meijer’s group, returning to TU/e in 2016 after, among other things, appointments at chemical group DSM Research and Radboud University Nijmegen. This spring, he will take over Meijer’s role as the new scientific director of the ICMS. Van Hest: “The ICMS is certainly one of the reasons for me to come to TU/e, it is a fantastic place for academic and scientific interaction. Eindhoven has always played a pioneering role in complexity conceptualization. Several international groups were already working on supramolecular chemistry but the complexity that is entailed in gaining a better understanding and to take the next step in the control of molecules, materials and processes was initiated here ten years ago. The Complexity Hub, one of the current three research lines, is a great success. Look how it attracted people like Ilja Voets and Patricia Dankers as well as the Winter Schools about complexity that we have been organizing for several years. But we have to make sure that we continue to stay ahead, technology is developing very fast.”

Initially, Van Hest will work with Meijer, who remains involved as co-director at ICMS, to further develop the position of the ICMS. He will certainly put his own stamp on the institute, emphasizes van Hest. “I will work hard for ‘ICMS Global’. For a next step, it is essential that we continue to internationalize. We will have to extend our network to partners, sister institutes and connect ICMS with other international institutes. This should not remain a paper exercise, but really be of added value. Think of the exchange of knowledge and people; this may be temporary such as a research assistant or postdoc, but also permanent positions or a tenure track. This gives us access to the talent pool that wants to come here, but it is also possible for our people to continue their careers with our partners. Managing the network is important. In addition, we should be more self-confident and realize that as a partner we now really have something to offer.”

In order to increase the visibility of the ICMS (internationally), van Hest and the current business manager, Dr Monique Bruining, have restructured the research lines and shaped them into seven pillars (see box). This should also make it clearer to researchers, too, what happens within the institute and where they could make an innovative contribution. Collaboration with the business community is also important for this. That does not have to be at the expense of fundamental science, but can actually contribute to it, Meijer emphasizes. “It is not always about applied research. With our expertise and advanced equipment we can, for example, carry out measurements on a certain industrially used material and can contribute to new understanding through more knowledge. And that very understanding is crucial for a university. In today’s society, much attention is paid to appealing science and technology, such as self-driving cars, soccer robots and student teams. For fundamental research it is much more difficult to share the results with a wide audience. That is why we are so enthusiastic about the different gravity programs and the ICMS, where many of these programs come together. Collaborations where we can lay the fundamental basis for a flourishing university in the future; after all, students also need to be trained to solve the problems of twenty, thirty years’ time and not just those of today.”

Interdisciplinary, complex, fundamental

Interdisciplinary, complex, fundamental. These are ICMS keywords that van Hest also sees jump out as chair of a study group within TU/e Expedition 2030, a project in which van Hest analyzes university-wide which research spearheads TU/e can continue to play a prominent role in the coming decade. “Exciting developments often take place at interfaces and then we need knowledge from several areas to move forward. Interdisciplinary work seems to be an open door, but for many it is really a change of perspective. We see that it is very important for a technology university not to stay within departmental boundaries, but to sit right in between. You see that coming back into the research themes of the future: development of new materials, complex systems, biology as engineering science. We, ICMS, also contribute to this. How do we look at biological systems with molecular knowledge? It’s very important to take the next step from phenomenological science - viewing - to creative, synthetic science - where we can build things to study them. In terms of both content and interdisciplinary approach, TU/e will soon pursue the path within which we are already doing pioneering work. And we will follow this direction in the next ten years, continuing to innovate and stimulate.”

In order to continue this upward trend, Meijer believes that now - with the celebration of the tenth anniversary as a symbolic benchmark - it is a good time to pass on the directorship to his former pupil. “At one point the danger of going to autopilot lurks and a fresh look is desirable. The most important thing is that the work done within the institute is of the highest level. In that sense, top science is just like top sport. If you really want to achieve something within it, then every detail must be optimal and you can’t let anything get in the way. As an institute, we can offer top researchers the right climate, as researchers things are already so complicated as we have to jump through so many hoops. No obligations, this is another point where I am proud that we did things as we did. The choice is up to you. No mandatory weekly meetings. If you are interested, then you will come and be inspired.”

“But remember that top sport also needs friendly competition,” Meijer concludes. “Let's continue to challenge each other to add that extra little bit and make sure we don’t rest on our laurels.” Meijer makes a fist, Van Hest rolls up his sleeves: “Come on guys!”