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‘It’s important that people are happy in their work’

As Director of Education, Marcellus Ubbink learned to work together with many different people. For him, the social aspects are one of the key areas in his new role as Scientific Director of the Leiden Institute of Chemistry. Who is this new manager and what can we expect from him?

Did you always want to be a manager?

‘No, I wasn’t really interested in that at all. I did learn that I like working in committees as I was a member of the Faculty Council for a while and was also in examination and programme committees. I enjoyed those roles, but I never expected to make a career out of management.

It was also by coincidence that I got  into the Director of Education role.  My predecessor Mathieu Noteborn suddenly became seriously ill and someone was needed to take over the role in a hurry. So I stepped in. Very sadly, he passed away a few months later. All the students adored him.  After Mathieu died, it was logical for me to carry on, at first as interim but then permanent.’

What was it like to suddenly become Director of Education?

‘It’s a great job. You work together with a lot of different people: students, lecturers, the study associations and study advisers. I really enjoyed working with all these different colleagues to get things done together.

As Director of Education, you’re also closely involved with the curriculum. We’ve started a new minor:  Sustainable Chemistry and Biotechnology. We’re organising it together with Delft, so you have discussions with two universities. That’s complex, but also a very nice thing to do.’

Do you still have time to do research yourself?

‘Working as Director of Education takes around two days a week. During corona, it took up even more time with all the new government rules that kept being introduced. And, yes, that time has to come from somewhere. I found it harder to apply for subsidies. For that you need a calm few weeks and enough time to throw yourself into it. That’s much harder with a full agenda.’

And now Scientific Director. Was that also unplanned?

‘Actually, I did not expect that Hermen Overkleeft would stop now. But when that was a fact, I did find the job interesting, particularly because of what I’d seen of it. As Director of Education, I was automatically in the management team. You see what’s going on in the institute and within the faculty. And I believe it’s really important to have a good relationship between the institutes and the faculty. That’s something I’m determined to work hard for.’

Can you elaborate on that?

‘As Director of Education, I’m asked to think about the transition of our faculty, particularly about how we can improve the way we work together, new management methods and good working relationships. That’s a whole process, and it’s complicated too. It’s a complex faculty. There are a number of old disciplines, like Chemistry, Physics and Maths, with longstanding traditions, and a high level of independence. And then there are new disciplines that are organised totally different. We all work on research and teaching, and that needs operational management. But these three areas don’t always communicate well. So, we need to find the best way to organise that.

It’s important to clearly define what we do in the institutes and what we do at faculty level. That’s a long process, but it’s really good to be working on it together. And there needs to be a focus on important themes such as recognition and appreciation, diversity and inclusion and a safe working environment for all employees.’

‘Things are going well at LIC. We’re a close-knit group of people who are all committed to the institute’

What are your plans for the coming years?

‘Things are going well at LIC. We’re a close-knit group of people who are all deeply committed to the institute and we work closely together. We share labs and discuss teaching. LIC is also in good shape scientifically and financially. I would like to contribute to the social side of the institute. I want to give postdocs, PhD students and support staff more of a voice. What are their concerns, and what do they need? I think it is important to hear what everyone has to say, including those who normally don't speak up immediately.

I also think the relationship with the faculty is important, as is working together well with other institutes and other universities. Hermen started a close collaboration with LACDR and IBL, for example.

It’s also important that we’re prepared when major subsidies become available. That means we have the right partnerships on particular research topics. Oncode-pact is a good example here. That subsidy from the Growth Fund has just been awarded.’

Are you a people person?

‘I was not like that before. People say I’m rather reserved, and you really have to get to know me. But after I became Director of Education, I started to develop that side of me more. I’ve had to deal more with people, and I’ve learned a lot from that. For instance, that it's important to respect everyone's dignity, even when things aren't going well. That sometimes happens with people who have been there longer. Then the trick is to see why things aren't going well and to work together to make the best of it. I am learning all these things. The thing is, you learn to do research during your studies, but not to be a manager. Of course you take courses, and you learn a lot from peer review, from talking to each other.’

What does the home front think of it all?

‘To answer that, I’d first better describe the home front. My wife is a Dutch specialist and she writes school textbooks. We have three children, the youngest of them, our daughter, has just come back home for a while. Our two sons are 26 and 24. The oldest is a PhD candidate in Delft and the youngest is studying in Utrecht. Our daughter has just graduated and she had to leave her student house as she’s now working, but it’s difficult to find a house straight away. She thinks it’s great that I have this new opportunity. But for them, it doesn’t mean any big change.’

What kind of manager are you?

‘I like to be open and honest. I’m not the kind of person to do things behind someone’s back. Putting everything on the table and trusting each other: these things are important.’

Is this job challenging for you too?

‘It certainly feels like a responsibility. There are around 300 people working at LIC. All these people have their own wishes and ideas. It's important that they're happy in their work. At the same time, we are working hard on our mission to do excellent research and to train excellent chemists for the future. The trick is to find a balance. Fortunately, I won't be doing it on my own. We have a very capable team and we do it all together.’

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