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Faculty of Science opens academic year with live stream in homely setting

From a white leather armchair, on which Barack Obama once sat, Dean Michiel Kreutzer opened the academic year. This time not with visitors, but completely corona-proof via a live stream. In a homely setting, Kreutzer spoke with several guests, including Covid-19 researcher Thomas Hankemeier and brand new assessor Joost Barendse.

‘It is a weird year’, Kreutzer said at the beginning of the live stream. ‘We did not reach the ambitions that we formulated at the start of the year, but we are more proud of our community than we could have dreamed of. I constantly repeat a B- is now an A+. So thank you, well done!’

Dean Michiel Kreutzer (left) and Joost Batenburg are ready to start off

‘AI is all around us’

In a mini-presentation, the first guest Joost Batenburg told the audience that artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us. Since 1 January, Batenburg is a professor at SAILS, the collective for AI at Leiden University. ‘In hospitals, we use AI to make care more efficient and in industry, it offers solutions for better logistics or greener production.’ But AI can also be found at our Faculty and University, said Batenburg. ‘For example, our pharmacologists use AI to make the search for medicines more efficient.’ AI is also making its appearance in less obvious fields such as archaeology. As an example, Batenburg mentioned the research of computer scientist Suzan Verberne. She is looking at how the computer can automatically extract data from texts, a technique known as text mining.

‘AI is only getting more important,’ said the SAILS professor. ‘Fortunately, we form a strong cluster in South Holland, together with Delft and Rotterdam, the university medical centres and, of course, the business community. In addition, Leiden professor Holger Hoos is the founder of CLAIRE, the organisation that brings AI in Europe together.’

More about AI at Leiden University: The future of AI is human

‘I am proud of our teachers and students'

Kreutzer and professor Han de Winde spoke about education: ‘Our teachers did a fantastic job, and so did the supporting staff. The Teacher Support Desk has worked very hard to support teachers in online education.’ De Winde also said he is proud of the students. ‘On their understanding and patience, and the fact that they hardly complain.’ Via the live stream chat, viewers were able to ask questions. For example, Walker Smith asked whether hybrid education works and whether full online education wouldn't be better. De Winde: ‘With only online education you would miss the real contact. And that's exactly what makes our education so valuable.’

Thomas Hankemeier

Investigating corona with mini-organs

The next guest, Thomas Hankemeier, is a leader in metabolomics, a research field that looks at so-called metabolites in the blood: intermediate and end products of our metabolism. As early as March, Hankemeier switched to Covid-19 research to investigate what the virus does to our body and which treatments could work. For this purpose Hankemeier and his team use artificial, patient-derived mini-organs, also called organs-on-a-chip. From the LUMC and other surrounding hospitals, they received blood samples from corona patients to examine.

Viewer 'MK' asked the following question: ‘What would be the best thing, a vaccine or a medicine to combat the symptoms?’ Hankemeier didn't have to think long about his answer: ‘There are so many scientists that it's best to focus on both. A medicine to help corona patients in the hospital, until a vaccine is available.’

More about the research of Thomas Hankemeier: Predicting and preventing serious COVID-19-symptoms

Talking to students

New assessor Joost Barendse, who started his new job last week, told about his own experiences in the past period. ‘I was lucky because I was able to carry out my bachelor's project in astronomy completely from home. But unfortunately, many other students weren't that lucky.’ He looks forward to representing the students next year: ‘A lot will be different this year, but I will make sure that the interests of our students are taken into account in the Faculty's decisions.’ 

After this, the five presidents of the study associations called in via a video connection. Kreutzer wanted to know how they were doing, how they dealt with the current situation and whether they were ready for the new academic year.  

Science in turbulent times

At the end of the opening, Kreutzer addressed the Faculty briefly. ‘We are curious people who work at a research faculty with beautiful research, where we train young people in science. Fortunately, we are back in the lab, bachelors and masters are graduating, people are getting their PhDs and we are still producing good papers. But these are also turbulent times, in which the position of science is often under a magnifying glass. It is up to us to keep on doing good science and to come to new insights, which we also help society with. Let's try to turn our focus on that in the coming period.’

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