‘The Spinoza Prize provides opportunities for excellent scientists’

NWO Spinoza laureates present their research plans to the public

12 September 2017

Today State Secretary Dekker from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science presented four leading researchers with the NWO Spinoza Prize in the Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague. The Spinoza Prize is the highest award in Dutch science. Developmental psychologist Eveline Crone, analytical chemist Albert Heck, physical chemist Michel Orrit, biophysicist and biologist Alexander van Oudenaarden presented their plans for the research prize of 2.5 million euros per person during the festive award ceremony.

Spinoza Laureates 2017 | left-to-right: Alexander van Oudenaarden, Michel Orrit, Albert Heck en Eveline Crone together with State Secretary Dekker and NWO chairman Stan Gielen (credits: Melvin Tas)Spinoza Laureates 2017 | left-to-right: Alexander van Oudenaarden, Michel Orrit, Albert Heck en Eveline Crone together with State Secretary Dekker and NWO chairman Stan Gielen (credits: Melvin Tas)

Pioneering research

The NWO Spinoza Prize enables the four recipient scientists to conduct pioneering research. ‘These are scientists who have earned their spurs with top academic performances,’ said NWO chairman Stan Gielen. For example, Michel Orrit, professor of spectroscopy of molecules in condensed matter at Leiden University, made his name with his method for detecting a single molecule with laser light. ‘I would like to use the Spinoza Prize to expand my research group and develop a new method for filming protein.’ Albert Heck, professor of chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences at Utrecht University, wants to use the Spinoza Prize to improve technologies that make it possible to study how proteins interact with their environment. ‘What I’d like most is to just sit in a cell, as if in a children’s book, and experience what the protein is experiencing.’

Drive

The laureates’ performances demonstrate great drive and curiosity. ‘Understanding things is what drives me,’ said Alexander van Oudenaarden, professor of quantitative biology of gene regulation at Utrecht University. The biophysicist and biologist believes that there are many undiscovered areas in his field of research and wants to develop new methods to explore them. He hopes that his insights will be used to fight diseases such as cancer. Eveline Crone, professor of neurocognitive developmental psychology at Leiden University, was taken by surprise when she heard that she would receive a Spinoza Prize. ‘There’s so much you can do with that money! I was inundated with ideas that wouldn’t stop coming.’ Crone would like to combine her lines of research.

At the end of the afternoon, the four laureates received a bronze statuette of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677). The statuette is a symbol of the prize.


The 2017 laureates

Eveline Crone

How does the adolescent brain work? Professor E.A.M. (Eveline) Crone (1975) will use her Spinoza Prize to delve into the development of the connections in the brain. To do that, she will need to monitor adolescents over a longer period of time. She wants to predict young peoples’ development by means of individual profiling, in which she integrates attributes such as upbringing, social networks and brain function. This will make it possible to offer adolescents who fall behind – at school, for example – the right kind of help at an early stage. 


Albert Heck

How does life work at the molecular level? Proteins are the most important building blocks of our life, and they ensure that we function. Professor A.J.R. (Albert) Heck (1964) studies their function and attempts, in particular, to gain a better understanding of how proteins communicate with each other. He would like to use the Spinoza Prize to improve technologies that make it possible to study how proteins interact with their environment.


Michel Orrit

Protein molecules are important mechanisms in our bodies. They are extremely dynamic and can fold and unfold again. It is crucial for us to understand how protein molecules move and change shape. A different shape often also implies different properties. That is important for how we design medicines, for example. Professor M.A.G.J. (Michel) Orrit (1956) is going to use his Spinoza Prize to monitor and shed light on the behaviour of individual protein molecules with his special single-molecule technique.


Alexander van Oudenaarden

The human body consists of approximately 10 billion cells, none of which is exactly the same as the other. It is therefore important to develop methods that are sufficiently sensitive to precisely measure the properties of individual cells. Professor A. (Alexander) van Oudenaarden (1970) has developed a new technology in recent years that measures which genes are on and off in a cell. This information helps us to determine whether it is a brain cell or an intestinal cell, for example. Van Oudenaarden would like to use the Spinoza Prize to develop new methods that reveal how the history of a cell determines its present.


Source: NWO

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