NWO crowns best Dutch scientists

NWO crowns best Dutch scientists

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research has awarded the NWO Spinoza Prize, the highest award in Dutch Science, to microbiologist Mike Jetten, mathematician Ieke Moerdijk, anthropologist Annemarie Mol and astronomer Xander Tielens. Each of the laureates receives 2.5 million euros to spend on research of their choice.

NWO awards the Spinoza Prize each year to a maximum of four Dutch researchers who belong to the absolute international top of science. The prize is the most prestigious scientific prize in the Netherlands. An NWO Spinoza Prize is an accolade for what the researchers have achieved in their scientific careers as equally an incentive for further research.

Mike Jetten (RU)
Mike Jetten (1962) is Professor of Microbiology at Radboud University Nijmegen and an eminent researcher in ecological microbiology. His research has led to radical new insights. For example, he has demonstrated that reactions previously considered ‘impossible’ are used by bacteria as a source of energy and play a vital role in the global cycles of nitrogen, methane and sulphur in particular. Jetten discovered that under anaerobic conditions (without oxygen), anammox bacteria (ANaerobic AMMonium OXidising) can convert harmful ammonium together with nitrite into nitrogen gas and water. Half of all the nitrogen in the atmosphere is made through this reaction.

Besides the world-famous anammox reaction, Jetten has also discovered other ‘impossible’ reactions, namely for the aerobic and anaerobic conversions of methane and sulphur. Hundreds of research groups throughout the world base their research on Jetten’s discoveries.

Jetten’s research stretches from the discovery and culture of organisms to unravelling the reactions at the biochemical, molecular biological, cellular and ecosystem levels. His research includes fieldwork, experimental work, molecular biology, structural chemistry and metagenomics.

Jetten combines his pioneering fundamental research with efforts to facilitate the practical application of mechanisms he has discovered. His research into the methane cycle has provided important insights into climate change. Thanks to his research, anammox bacteria are used in more than forty installations throughout the world for the purification of sewage water. This approach gives energy savings of 80% and a reduction in CO2 emissions of 90%. An intermediate product of the anammox reaction, hydrazide, is a rocket fuel.

Mike Jetten studied molecular sciences at Wageningen University. He gained his PhD cum laude from there in 1991 for his research in anaerobic microbiology. From 1991 to 1994 Jetten carried out research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with funding from NWO. From 1994 to 2000 he was an associate professor in the Department of Biotechnology at Delft University of Technology. Since 2000 Jetten has been Professor of Ecological Microbiology at Radboud University Nijmegen. In addition to this, he has been Extraordinary Professor of Environmental Microbiology at Delft University of Technology since 2002. In 2004 Jetten set up the Institute for Water and Wetland Research (IWWR) and he was its director from 2004 to 2010. Jetten received the prestigious European ERC Advanced Grant in 2008.

Ieke Moerdijk (RU)
Ieke Moerdijk (1958) is Professor of Algebra and Topology at the Faculty of Science at Radboud University Nijmegen. Topology is an abstract, modern area of geometry in which mathematicians try to understand and characterise geometrical objects (spatial shapes). Moerdijk is a leader in his discipline. When he was a postdoc back in 1992 he wrote the book that is still the standard work for topos theory: Sheaves in geometry and logic. A first introduction to topos theory. Moerdijk bucks the prevailing trend of specialisation among mathematicians. Instead he seeks out the boundaries of his discipline and finds connections with other mathematical specialisations, and with other subjects. For example, since 2011 he has been investigating the logical structure of quantum information theory.

Ieke Moerdijk is a renowned mathematician and the author of five authoritative books and more than 100 articles. His book Sheaves in Logic and Geometry provides an enduring introduction to topos theory, an area of pure mathematics located between logic, set theory, topology and geometry. Moerdijk’s approach to very abstract mathematics has led to its adoption in various application areas, especially with respect to category theory. Moerdijk is one of the founding fathers of algebraic set theory, a field that provides insight into the basic rules underpinning modern mathematics as well as providing possible extensions to this. Later Moerdijk increasingly concentrated on algebraic topology and differential geometry, which is the subject of his books Classifying spaces and classifying topoi and Introduction to Foliations and Lie Groupoids that he wrote with J. Mrčun. His most recent work is about operads, an algebraic structure with a broad range of applications from combinatorics to mathematical physics.

Moerdijk studied mathematics, philosophy and general linguistics at the University of Amsterdam and gained his doctorate cum laude in 1985 from that university for a thesis about the links between mathematical logic and topology. He then worked as a postdoc at the universities of Cambridge and Chicago. In 1986 he received a Huygens Fellowship from NWO, followed by a PIONIER grant in 1995. In 1988 he moved to Utrecht University where he was Professor of Topology from 1996 to 2011. In 2011 Moerdijk moved from Utrecht University to Radboud University Nijmegen. He has been a visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Montreal, Sydney and Aarhus.

Annemarie Mol (UvA)
Annemarie Mol (1958) is Professor of Anthropology of the Body at the University of Amsterdam. In her research she uniquely combines philosophy, medical sociology, anthropology, sociology of science and social theory. From an anthropologist’s perspective, she studies how we deal with our bodies and in so doing changes deep-rooted paradigms. How do we cope with illness? How do we think and talk about illness? What is eating actually about? Her approach to such questions influences and inspires researchers throughout the world.

Mol studied medicine (flexible degree programme) and philosophy at Utrecht University and gained her PhD in philosophy from the University of Groningen in 1989. She has been able to carry out her research with a high degree of independence thanks to grants from NWO and ZonMw and her appointment as a Socrates Professor funded by the humanistische stichting Socrates. Between 1990 and 1995 she worked as a postdoc at Maastricht University and Utrecht University. In 1996 she was appointed as Socrates Professor of Political Philosophy and senior researcher at the University of Twente. In 2008 she was appointed as Socrates Professor of Social Theory at the University of Amsterdam and since 2010 she has been Professor of Anthropology of the Body at the University of Amsterdam.

Annemarie Mol has published many acclaimed books and articles on a wide range of subjects. For example, she has written Ziek is het woord niet [Illness is not the right word](1989, with Peter van Lieshout), The Body Multiple (2002) and De logica van het zorgen [The logic of care] (2006). In The Body Multiple she argues that a disease is not a well-defined entity but rather a collection of facts that is defined differently by different groups. Her research has shown how sociological and physiological definitions are intermingled. This premise yielded new insights for many other disciplines. In De logica van het zorgen, Mol describes how the ideal of ‘choice’ conflicts with the reality of life with an ill body. In 2009 Annemarie Mol received an ERC Advanced Grant for research into the ‘eating body’ in the Western world. That research revealed, for example, that enjoying food can be more important in a diet than counting calories. Not only is her research relevant in everyday practice but it also exerts a particularly large influence within the social sciences: Mol changes the paradigms in which people think and do research.

Xander Tielens (UL)
Xander Tielens (1953) is Professor of Physics and Chemistry of Interstellar Space at Leiden University. He is the most cited active astronomer in the Netherlands. He is well known for his groundbreaking work into polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) particles and on photodissociation regions (PDRs). He was among the first to recognise the importance of large molecules in space. With this he has advanced our understanding of the origin and development of our universe. Tielens’ work lies at the basis of current research and his influential textbook is widely used.

Tielens’ research covers various disciplines: he combines astronomy with the chemistry and physics of large molecules. He made major contributions to the study of interstellar ices, interstellar grain surface chemistry, processing of interstellar dust, and the physics and chemistry of gas in photodissociation regions. Tielens discovered that much of the interstellar gas resides in photodissociation regions whose chemistry and energy balance is controlled by the flux of far-ultraviolet radiation upon them. The photons in this radiation can ionise and dissociate molecules and heat the gas up through the photoelectric effect on the dust grains.

Xander Tielens is often closely involved in the development and use of large equipment and satellites to make observations of the universe, including the SOFIA telescope and the European Herschel satellite. The HIFI instrument constructed by SRON is on-board the Herschel telescope. HIFI was mainly designed to detect water and other molecules. Tielens is one of the lead scientists at the HIFI project based in the Netherlands.

Tielens gained his doctorate in 1982 from Leiden University. He then worked as a National Research Council Associate at NASA Ames Research Center, California for several years. In 1985 he became a researcher at the University of California in Berkeley and in 1989 he started as a senior researcher at the Ames Research Center. Eight years later he returned to the Netherlands to become Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Groningen and senior researcher at the NWO institute SRON. In 2004 he became a full-time professor at the University of Groningen. In 2005 Tielens once again became a senior research at Ames but retained a visiting professorship at the University of Groningen. Since 2009 Xander Tielens has worked at Leiden University and in 2009 he also received the prestigious Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

About the NWO Spinoza Prizes
The NWO Spinoza Prizes have been awarded since 1995. Scientists receive the prize for their outstanding, groundbreaking and inspiring research. The laureates are internationally renowned scientists and know how to inspire young researchers.

The awards are made on the basis of nominations. Those allowed to make nominations are the principals of universities, and the chairs of the departments of Literature and Physics of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the advisory councils of the KNAW, the Netherlands Academy of Technology and Innovation, the Dutch National Network of Female Professors and the NWO Divisional Boards.

The official presentation of the monetary prize and Spinoza statuette will take place on 7 September 2012.

See www.nwo.nl/spinozawinnaars (latest news, photos, jury reports, previous years) or www.nwo.nl/spinoza (information about the procedures, etc.) for further information about the Spinoza Prize.

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