4 November 2015

Four opinions about the Science Honours Academy

“Interdisciplinary researchers are just doing the coolest stuff!”

Do you know the Science Honours Academy? The SHA brings together all of the honours students from different fields within the Faculty of Science, allowing them to see how their field of study relates to other scientific disciplines. In this interview, Koosje Lamers (Master’s student Environmental Biology and a graduate of the SHA) and Rineke Gordijn (Bachelor’s student Pharmacy and 2nd year honours student) explain why they feel that participating in the Science Honours Academy has made a difference for them. Rob Bisseling (SHA-director) and Filipe Freire (SHA-coordinator) also share their vision on the importance of honours education in the future.

Koosje, at this moment you are a Master’s student. How did the Science Honours Academy help you in what you are doing now?

“Being part of the SHA helped me a lot in becoming more pro-active in stuff like e-mailing and choosing the right words in a correspondence with important professors abroad, for example when you are organising an excursion to Cambridge. Last spring, I saw an advertisement for a vacancy in Oxford, and I didn’t hesitate to apply. That’s the spirit I learned at the SHA: just go for it. And it has brought me a lot, because I got the research position in Oxford, and they even asked me to come back next year.”

And you, Rineke, are in the middle of your SHA education. Do you agree with what Koosje says?

“Yes, I do. I’ve grown from someone who didn’t interact that much, to being pro-active in every part of my life. That’s something I learned in the ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’-workshop at the SHA. I also learned more about the different disciplines here at the Faculty of Science. I always thought that Pharmaceutical Sciences was very interdisciplinary, but there is a lot more to discover when you immerse yourself further. I have enrolled in courses at different faculties, and even at different universities. That’s definitely something I’m doing because of my membership in the SHA.”

At this point, Rob and Filipe, both supervisors within the Science Honours Academy, smile and nod approvingly. “This is so good to hear,” Rob says, “we see it happening all the time: SHA-students or graduates build relations quickly, and they definitely benefit from that.”

So, Filipe, what was the goal of the Science Honours Academy when it was founded in 2010?

“At that time, every field of study already had its own honours program, but we wanted to connect all those programs to create awareness about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach in education. Many of the problems we experience today require solutions from different perspectives. In order to properly deal with global challenges, such as a shortage of food for the world’s growing population, or a shortage of energy, we need people with a broad scientific training who are ready to solve these issues. Take the problem of climate change, for example. What is causing the carbon footprint? It’s not only you driving your car to work every day; it’s cattle! And cattle are vital to the food industry and our diets. That is what I mean by an interdisciplinary approach: you start asking yourself questions about energy, but you end up thinking about cattle and the food industry. So we need to become familiar with all the different issues that form the foundations of these problems.

But why in a separate academy for honours education? Shouldn’t interdisciplinary education be integrated into every programme we’re offering at our university?

Rob is enthusiastic about answering this question: “If you integrate it into the existing programme, there is a chance that you might still not have enough contact and interaction with people from other disciplines, or from other universities or countries. And we want students who are not participating in the SHA to benefit from students who do. If, like Rineke, you notice that you are becoming more pro-active because of the SHA, and you talk to a regular student about it, maybe he or she will become more pro-active too. A trickle-down effect; that’s the idea.”

Koosje immediately confirms what Rob says: “I’ve made a lot of friends inside the interdisciplinary programme and I know a lot of other people who have as well, and who are now applying their knowledge of math to problems in the field of biology, for example. They’re doing completely different things than they thought they would at the beginning of their studies.”

Rineke also endorses the interdisciplinary approach and its benefits for every student: “Since I started talking about doing electives in a field other than Pharmaceutical Sciences, I have become acquainted with lots of fellow students who have decided to sometimes choose a different field too.”

To take part in the SHA, you have to fulfil certain requirements, such as an average grade of 7.5 and no delay in your studies. Do SHA students have any free time or other hobbies at all?

Koosje starts laughing: “Of course we do! I think it’s important to have other things besides your studies that define you. We’re not just studying all the time. We all do have a life outside of our education.”

Rineke nods: “I think honours students are all very interesting people. I’ve never met someone in the SHA that wasn’t an interesting person. We all have very different backgrounds and different extracurricular activities, but we’re definitely not just studying all the time.”

So an SHA student is a special kind of student then?

Filipe nods: “Yes, they are all motivated to make the best out of their studies and make a difference. One of the most important characteristics of an SHA-student is that they go against the traditional structures of a university. At the SHA, students can choose their own topics or organise their own excursions or experiments.”

Rob complements: “But to do so, they need some supervision from people within the faculty with a broad perspective that transcends the limits of a single field of study. We always need more supervisors. It’s really fun to do and it doesn’t take too much time, because SHA students do a lot of work independently. That’s a typical characteristic of SHA-students: you just have to feed them a little bit and they share very interesting perspectives with you, from which you can learn yourself. I’ve read some final reports, after which I thought: Wow, I’ve never looked at this problem in this way!”

What is the future of SHA? It sounds like something we will need more often and an approach that’s becoming more and more important.

Filipe answers: “I have a vision that SHA could grow to be a real home for Interdisciplinary Studies. Student-driven, but with supervision from researchers from different areas. We could become some kind of centre with a different message, and with its own research and focus areas. There is potential for growth, especially within the Natural Sciences.”

What would be an important reason for other students to take part in the SHA?

Koosje: “What I really love about the SHA is that it offers a lot of room for personal exploration and growth. All students organise their activities themselves, with just a little supervision on the side, and that’s really great. It allows you to select your own subjects and organise talks that are most appealing to all students. True interdisciplinary research is still rare, so there are so many things yet to be done. It’s really hard to find someone who is really interdisciplinary, but the people that are, are just doing the coolest stuff!”

Rob concludes with a motivational vision: “Think about the job descriptions of the future: people with a broad understanding are becoming very desirable. Organisations will be looking for people who are rooted in a certain discipline, but who are able to talk to and understand the other disciplines as well. So my message to motivated students would be: get out of your comfort zone. Do something crazy that you otherwise would not do, and all of a sudden you could really appreciate it.”

More information about the Science Honours Academy can be found on its new website.