Henk Heijnis: ‘I help archaeologists find out when the first Australians arrived’
January 2015 – A boy got interested in stones. He became a researcher in Australia, appeared in the journal Nature and is now helping many scientists in their discoveries. Not bad for someone who as a young adult still felt nervous about relocating from one small Dutch town to another, as Henk Heijnis recounts via Skype.
Henk passed his pre-Master’s exam in Physical Geography in 1984 and then went on to gain his Master’s in Quaternary Geology and Lowland Genesis at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 1988. After getting his PhD at the University of Groningen he emigrated to Australia where he began work at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Sydney. Here he led research into human influences on ecosystems and climate change. He hadn’t been there long before he made it into Nature with groundbreaking research:
“At that time the hole in the ozone layer was a highly topical issue. Everyone thought that the unfiltered UVB radiation coming through the hole was harmful to the coastal diatoms in Antarctica. These single-celled algae form the basis of the food chain there and it was feared that the whole system could collapse. In collaboration with the University of Tasmania, ANSTO examined the remains of diatoms in soil samples from Antarctic fjords, mapping out every year over a period of more than 200 years into the past; I helped with my isotope research. We discovered that the weather exerted a much stronger influence on the composition of the samples than did UVB radiation. So that was a big relief, and our research also appeared in the science supplements of Dutch newspapers.”
In 2011 Henk was appointed Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.