Inaugural lecture Niels Bovenschen: synergy between education, research and society

Inaugural lecture Niels Bovenschen: synergy between education, research and society

Portrait photograph of Niels Bovenschen, made by Ed van Rijswijk.

By stimulating Medicine and Biomedical Sciences students to work together on scientific research early in their education, we can better address complex social problems. That is what Professor Niels Bovenschen stated in his inaugural lecture, which he gave yesterday in Utrecht University's Academy Building. Read more about his educational model in this interview. 

Your lecture is titled: Synergy between education, research and society. Why is that synergy important?

Niels: “The challenges we face as a society are becoming increasingly complex. In the health domain, these include increasing aging, expensive medicines, the threat of a new pandemic and the huge rise of technology such as artificial intelligence. We can face these problems even better by forming collaborations that create a win-win situation for all parties. The totality thus created becomes greater than the sum of its parts. That is synergy.

During their bachelor studies, students in Medicine and Biomedical Sciences can participate in real research and work on solutions that address these complex social problems, such as diseases for which no good treatments are available. This gives the students a solid training in academic skills they need later in their careers, such as critical thinking, communication, creative problem-solving and collaboration with each other and other disciplines.

The students are instructed by researchers and doctors. These individuals benefit from students' brainpower and their critical thinking skills. They can use students’ research results and data in their own work. Teaching also enhances the growth of researchers and physicians. After all, Aristotle once said, 'Teaching is the highest form of understanding'. Ultimately, patients benefit from research that might otherwise never have been done.”

So to achieve that synergy, do you actively involve students in scientific research early in their education, and have researchers and physicians teach more about their own work?

“Yes, but that's not the whole picture. Addressing these complex issues cannot be done from a medical or biomedical perspective alone. It requires other disciplines, such as economics, humanities, social sciences, and technical disciplines. In our education, we have students from different fields work together, after having first built a strong knowledge base in their own subject. This is why we increasingly seek cooperation with other faculties of Utrecht University and with other universities, such as Wageningen University & Research and Eindhoven University of Technology. But it doesn't stop there! To integrate our findings with society, we also involve patients, patient organizations, foundations, and the business sector.”

That sounds very positive. Do you already have results that show this approach is working?

“Absolutely! A few years ago, we set up the Bachelor Research Hub: a well-equipped laboratory where bachelor students conduct research together with doctors, scientists and patients. In 2021, a group of students came up with a new treatment for a specific type of brain cancer that is especially common in children. Investors and foundations noticed this and wanted to fund follow-up research. There is now a PhD student in my lab who is continuing the students’ research.” 

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In this video (Dutch), you can see how students are working with doctors, scientists, and patients in the Bachelor Research Hub to research the development and treatment of long-term problems after a corona infection (long covid).

Students had a pretty tough time in the past few years. With your new teaching model, aren't we asking too much of them?

“This is an important issue. The danger with educational innovations is that the new education is added to what was already there, which is not desirable. I believe it is essential that the course load remains manageable for students. Therefore, I regularly evaluate my new teaching methods and actively involve students in these evaluations. Student well-being is an important consideration in this regard. When something new is added, I remove something elsewhere.

The first few years of the Bachelor Research Hub also show that research-driven education increases students' intrinsic motivation. The collaboration with researchers, physicians and involvement of patients and societal organizations makes the students' work more significant. This greatly stimulates their commitment and ability to learn.”

You are head of the laboratory in the Department of Pathology and you conduct research on how the immune system can fight cancer and viral infections. How do you ensure synergy between your own research and teaching?

“I often integrate my own research into my teaching. For example, by having 100 undergraduate students critically review a new scientific paper written by my research group. Based on the students' feedback, we adjust the article before submitting it to a scientific journal for publication. I also share the latest data from my research with students and have them contribute ideas for the next steps. Sometimes I also submit my own research to the Bachelor Research Hub.”

In 2019, you became Teacher of the Year of Utrecht University and have since become one of the senior fellows at the Center for Academic Teaching. What do you believe makes a lecturer at the university a good teacher?

“This is a difficult question. Good teachers are diverse and can have different characteristics that make them effective. In my case, I think four qualities are important: the ability to explain well and clearly, patience, the ability to motivate students intrinsically, and availability to students.”

In your inaugural address, you also emphasize the importance of international collaboration in research-driven education. Why is this important?

“I think international cooperation and exchange are indeed very important. By having students from different international universities work together, we promote inclusion and gain insights into different cultural perspectives. Utrecht University has a European partnership with universities in Barcelona, Dublin, Budapest, and Montpellier called CHARM-EU. In this international consortium, I set up a network of research hubs. This allows groups of students from different nationalities and disciplinary backgrounds across Europe to collaborate with researchers and societal organizations on overarching health challenges.”

Can patients who read this interview participate in your students' think tanks or research hubs?

“Definitely! We'd love to. In our think tanks, patients can share their stories with a larger group of students. During tutorial sessions, they can discuss possible solutions for their condition with smaller groups of students. In the laboratory, patients are welcome to observe scientific research and discuss the results with students and researchers. Societal organizations and patient associations are also welcome. Anyone who feels an interest can contact me by email:”

Read more about Niels Bovenschen, his teaching model, and the institutions involved

Photo in header was captured by Ed van Rijswijk.

Working at UMC Utrecht





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