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‘Sometimes it helps to take some time to think’

He started his career as a part-time PhD candidate and a reading volunteer at his children's school. Now, as a professor, he looks back on forty years of research and education: Peter Klinkhamer of the Institute of Biology Leiden, ecologist in heart and soul.

Peter Klinkhamer

First of all, congratulations to Peter Klinkhamer, professor of Evolutionary plant ecology. As of 1 April - no joke - he celebrates his forty years of service. Klinkhamer: ‘Thank you. It came as a bit of a surprise when the scientific director called me. I knew that I joined Leiden on the first of April, but that was 39 years ago. Before that, I worked for 1 year at Utrecht University, which apparently counts as well.’

Klinkhamer started his biology career in Utrecht. After graduating in 1980, he stayed to teach ecology. He worked together with Tom de Jong, with whom he would continue to work for a large part of his career. Klinkhamer was not sure if he wanted to go into research, but he was inspired when he saw  ecological research being used in a relevant way for society - something that was not common at the time.

Part-timer in the eighties

In 1981 a PhD position became available in Biology at Leiden. Later this part of biology became the Institute of Evolutionary and Ecological Sciences. Klinkhamer and De Jong applied for the job together. ‘It took some courage at the Institute,’ Klinkhamer said. Together with De Jong, he filled the PhD position: ‘I spent two or three days working and I helped at the child care centre. Later I was a reading volunteer at school. I was very involved in raising my children, which is now much more difficult for researchers to combine.’

'Inspiring ideas do not depend on whether you work 40, 50 or 60 hours a week.'

Supervisor Eddy van der Meijden gave Klinkhamer and De Jong a lot of space for their research. They studied the population dynamics of biennial plants, combining ecology and evolutionary biology and designing and testing mathematical models in the field. Twelve published articles have emerged from their joint thesis. They both obtained their doctorate cum laude.

The book that Klinkhamer and De Jong wrote together.

Golden advice

After the promotion in 1985, Klinkhamer and De Jong continued to share a job in Leiden. Slowly, the position expanded to two jobs in the field of ecology. Two decades later, there was an unexpected shift in Klinkhamer's research focus. ‘In 2005 Tom de Jong and I published a book, Evolutionary Ecology of Plant Reproductive Strategies. In retrospect, the book turned out to be a closure of the research that I had done until then.’

'Success in one’s career depends strongly on the privilege to have inspiring and nice colleagues.'

After professor Paul Hooykaas had ceremonially handed over the book, he told Klinkhamer that it was a fantastic book, and he advised Klinkhamer to move in a different direction. According to him, research into the defence system of plants was more likely to be financed. Eddy van der Meijden and Klaas Vrieling were already working in this field and Klinkhamer joined them. In the following years, he managed to obtain some major grants. ‘Paul Hooykaas was right with his advice. I am grateful for that.’

Stormy period

A difficult time began in 2008. ‘I was asked to become the director of education. The dean at the time told me that he was going to appoint me as director of education and that reorganization was needed.’ A quarter of the staff were made redundant. ‘Before the reorganization, the atmosphere was not optimal, and the new start was also a relief. Everyone went for it, especially in education.’ Together with study advisor Karin van Wanrooij and teacher Tonny Regensburg, Klinkhamer reorganized the education: ‘Without those two people, biology education would not have gone well here in Leiden.’ His time as education director has been behind him for several years now, but as chairman of the examination board, he is still involved in education.

There is a lot of horticulture near Leiden, like chrysanthemum breeding.

Green Campus Leiden

Since 2009, Klinkhamer is professor of Evolutionary plant ecology at the Institute of Biology Leiden. Lately, he has been busy setting up a Green Campus in Leiden together with the oresent director of education Han de Winde. ‘It is a collaboration between companies, institutions and management, the so-called triple helix. We want to start a partnership with the municipality of Leiden, Naturalis and the CML for a professor position in the field of urban ecology. Also, we want to collaborate more closely with the horticulture top sector that surrounds Leiden, with breeders and growers of plants. We want to exchange knowledge and help each other. But because of the corona crisis, things are going slower than I would like.’

Klinkhamers retire is not far away; he calculates this will be at the end of February 2021. Looking back, he is happy that evolution has once again found a place within the IBL. He does, however, notice fewer ecologists walking around than before and hopes that this field will stay at the Institute: ‘After my retirement, an new ecologist should join the team of Martijn Bezemer.’

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