Science Research at UvA-VU: Amsterdam Soft-Bio Initiative

“We’re great and we should take some credit for that,” says Daniel Bonn, Director of the Institute of Physics of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and as Professor of Complex Fluids, one of the founders of the Amsterdam Soft-Bio Initiative.

09/08/2015 | 12:43 PM

The statistics do not lie: Physicists from Amsterdam are quoted more often per article than Harvard, MIT and Cambridge, even though they score higher in scientific rankings. According to Bonn, this has a lot to do with perception. “We are authoritative, but simply too small.” He expects that increasing the collaboration within organisations, such as the Amsterdam Soft-Bio Initiative, will increase their visibility.

This collaboration took shape in 2013. Biophysicists at the VU University Amsterdam (VU) and FOM Institute AMOLF conduct theoretical and experimental research on biological systems, whereas Bonn and his colleagues at the UvA study soft condensed materials. “The research takes place at this interface,” says Bonn. “They have interesting but complicated systems; we have the necessary technology and baggage to help solve existing questions.”

He gives a joint research project into biopolymer gels as an example. One of these gels is the network formed by fibrin, a blood-clotting protein. “Fibrin knits fibres together into a kind of netting, which eventually leads to the formation of scabs on wounds. We call this netting a gel,” Bonn explains. The VU researchers approach this system from a theoretical angle, whereas AMOLF carries out experimental research and the UvA’s input is a toolbox characterising mechanical properties in a very detailed manner. “By doing this, we hope to find out why the characteristics of the fibrin network are so different to those of other polymers. Eventually, we may even be able to find out more about coagulation in general.”

Roughly one hundred researchers are involved with the Amsterdam Soft-Bio Initiative, including physicists and biophysicists, but also information scientists, chemists and sometimes biologists. According to Bonn, the collaboration is more of an idea than an entity: “We work together if we come across an interesting subject.” But researchers often don’t know what their colleagues are currently dealing with, says Bonn. “So the number of coffee breaks should be increased. My main motto with regard to the collaboration between the VU and the UvA is: We should all drink our coffees from the same machine.”

And this coffee machine exists, so they are in regular contact. On top of a Master’s degree in Physics and Astronomy, the VU and the UvA are now also offering a joint Bachelor’s degree in the same field as of 2014, with all courses taking place in the Science Park. The VU physicists therefore have access to their own room on this site. In 2018, their whole department will be transferred, something that Bonn can only encourage. “In addition to the UvA, Nikhef, AMOLF and ARCNL, the Science Park houses a whole host of physics institutes, which means a gigantic number of top researchers in one place. Hopefully the VU can join us as soon as possible.”

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