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Interview: Spinoza Prize winner Marileen Dogterom

Physicist Marileen Dogterom is one of the winners of the Spinoza Prize 2018. She is a professor at TU Delft, where she has her lab, and is also affiliated to Leiden University as a Medical Delta Professor. She receives the prize for her research on the skeleton of the cell.

You study the physics of the cytoskeleton, the skeleton of the cell. Can you explain that?

'The cytoskeleton is a dynamic polymer system, it is constantly changing shape. So it is different than for example a human skeleton. The microtubules (tubular proteins that form the cytoskeleton, ed.) generate forces by growing and shrinking. The same microtubules also help with cell polarization, making a cell’s front look different from its back. A cell needs this for example to be able to walk. So the cytoskeleton also has to do with the spatial organization of the cell.

An important question in your research is how cells divide. How do you find this out?

'The motivation for our research comes from cell division, that is the relevance, but in order to ultimately understand that, we first do experiments where we simplify things. In the past we have already looked at some microtubules to see which forces they generate when they grow shorter or longer. Or at a structure from which microtubules grow in all directions so that it can position itself in an enclosed space, so actually within a sort of artificial cell. Now we are trying to build a spindle apparatus to understand its mechanics. That is the structure of microtubules that captures the chromosomes in the middle of the cell, and then pulls them apart for cell division. We can now reproduce the basic organization of a spindle apparatus, but right now the various stages of cell division cannot be simulated.

What makes cell division so special?

'Cell division is a very regulated process, because it almost always happens perfectly. It actually goes well surprisingly often. Especially when you consider that there are all kinds of thermal fluctuations where everything moves. Apparently it has evolved in such a way that it almost always goes well, thanks to sufficient checks-and-balances and redundancies. We focus on the forces at play. That is a very physical process.

You spend most of your time in Delft, where your lab is located. What is your role in Leiden?

That has a long history. I have been affiliated to Leiden University since 2000. While I was building a group at AMOLF in Amsterdam, I was extraordinary professor in Leiden. In those days I regularly lectured in Leiden and my PhD students graduated there. That was very important to me because Leiden wanted to put this type of research on the map at that time. In 2014 I went from AMOLF to Delft, where I became a professor. We decided to keep my Leiden appointment as part of the Medical Delta program. Right now I don’t give lectures in Leiden, but it could happen again. And I participate in events such as the laptop days for girls.

How do you fill in your Medical Delta professorship?

‘The program is a collaboration between Leiden, Delft, Rotterdam and the two hospitals Erasmus MC and LUMC. It consists of a series of double appointments and is intended to strengthen mutual cooperation around applications in the healthcare sector. In 2016 I officially became a Medical Delta professor. For me that didn’t change much because I already had a double appointment.

How did you hear about winning the Spinoza prize?

'That was already in early May, when Stan Gielen (NWO chairman, ed.) called me. That caught me off guard. Luckily I was allowed to tell the news at home. After the phone call, my husband and I went out for dinner. Of course the real party will be on September 12th, after the award ceremony. So then we will celebrate it more extensively.

How will you spend the prize money?

’I can still think about that a little longer. I don’t have to submit a plan until autumn. One of the other laureates is Anna Ahmanova, with whom I share an ERC Synergy grant. That will end in 2020, but the cooperation is still very valuable. So we’re certainly going to continue that. Anna and I interpret this simultaneous award as an encouragement to keep working together. And we recently started a program with a Zwaartekrachtpremie, Building a Synthetic Cell. Also for that this prize is useful, because the challenge is so enormous, and the money is divided over ten years and seventeen groups. The Spinoza prize allows me more freedom.'

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