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Marnix Medema new visiting professor Van der Klaauw chair

The Institute of Biology Leiden has a new visiting professor as of the first of May. Bioinformatician Marnix Medema holds the Van der Klaauw chair for a year and looks forward to scientific collaborations and to boost the bioinformatics education.

The acquaintance with Marnix Medema takes place through Skype. He currently works from home, but fortunately, he can do a lot remotely. As of the first of May, he holds the Van der Klaauw chair at the Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL) for a year. Holders of the chair bring inspiring research and education in theoretical biology to Leiden University. Medema succeeds Vera van Noort, who held the chair from 2015 to 2016 (see frame).

Marnix Medema

Predicting molecules

According to Medema, he started to enjoy programming during his study in molecular biology. Since 2015, he leads a research group at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). ‘We predict which molecules a bacterium, fungus or plant can produce. We base our predictions on the genome, which is the complete DNA of an organism’, says Medema. An example of his work was published in Science at the end of 2019. In that study, he worked with researchers from Leiden, among others. ‘In the paper, we demonstrate that certain types of soil bacteria work together to protect plants against fungi. We investigated which bacteria protect the plant and which genes are involved using data analysis techniques.’

Chemistry and microbiology together

Medema has three goals as a visiting professor. First of all, he wants to further strengthen scientific collaboration with the IBL. Medema mentions the Leiden research into new antibiotics and studies into interactions between micro-organisms and plants, animals and humans as examples. 

‘Bioinformatics plus experimental work can lead to beautiful things’

‘What I think is powerful about the IBL is that both chemistry and (micro)biology are represented within the institute.’ Medema wants to strengthen existing collaborations in Leiden and set up new ones. ‘Bioinformatics plus experimental work can lead to beautiful things.’

Boosting bioinformatics

Medema's second goal is to contribute to the further development of Leiden bioinformatics education. At WUR he gained a lot of experience in setting up courses for a new minor in Bioinformatics and a new data science track for master's programs. He uses his experience to boost the bioinformatics curriculum in Leiden. His third goal is to organise an interactive scientific symposium in 2021. ‘In the symposium, we want to discuss the integration of –omics data. Think of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, et cetera. If circumstances allow it by then,’ he adds. ‘Otherwise, it will be a virtual meeting.’

Lots of coffee

Looking ahead, Medema hopes that in a year from now the visiting professorship will have yielded some nice joint papers. But mostly he looks forward to new collaborations: ‘In the first time I will be having a lot of cups of coffee with people, or online meetings depending on how things are going.’

About the Van der Klaauw chair

The Van der Klaauw chair is named after the zoologist Cornelis Jakob van der Klaauw (1893-1972). Van der Klaauw studied biology in Leiden and made it a leading professor. He had a great interest in theoretical biology and managed to captivate his students for this part of biology. Among other things, he was responsible for establishing a chair in theoretical biology in Leiden.

The last time the chair was held was in 2015-2016 by Vera van Noort, now Professor of Computational Biology at KU Leuven and the Institute of Biology Leiden. She established more familiarity with bioinformatics among students during her visiting professorship. Among other things, this has resulted in more consideration for bioinformatics in research and in education, and more students who are doing their graduation work in bioinformatics.

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