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Hans Slabbekoorn appointed professor: 'There are still gaps in our knowledge'.

Hans Slabbekoorn is specialised in animal sounds. On 1 July, he was appointed professor of Acoustic ecology and behaviour. A great honour, according to the new professor. ‘This job never gets boring, whether I am investigating the urban jungle or marine noise.’

Slabbekoorn's career revolves around animal sounds. ‘After my PhD-project in Leiden, I travelled as a junior researcher to the jungle of Cameroon. It is a cacophony of animal noise there. For birds, that is extremely important for their communication,' says Slabbekoorn. It gave him the idea of studying the influence of traffic noise upon his return to the Netherlands. He discovered that humans have a major influence on urban ecology. The worldwide spread of traffic noise drives the evolution of bird song just like animal noise in the jungle. His first article on great tit song and urban noise was immediately published in the renowned scientific journal Nature.

From the jungle to the sea

Slabbekoorn's research evolved, from production to perception of sounds, and from air to water. ‘We have to realise that we hear and interpret things differently than animals do. It continues to fascinate me that there are still important, fundamental gaps in our knowledge. ’This was also the reason why he included marine acoustics in his research, about fifteen years ago. ‘Humans and fish have the same hair cells in their ears to pick up sound waves. Yet, hearing works very differently under water. Only when you understand that, you can grasp the possible impact for fish of an altered shipping route or pile-driving event for wind farms.’

Opportunities for scientific research in Suriname

The new professor wants to set up a research and education project in Suriname in the coming years. Not just because the country offers many great opportunities for research and collaboration.  ‘Suriname is still one of the most forested countries in the world. Rivers flowing from the jungle to the coast are crucial for biodiversity, industry, tourism and for access to clean water. Rising sea levels and climate change will alter the pressures on the ecosystem and increase the societal challenges. I would like to do research here, and hope to offer talented Surinamese students opportunities to develop into role models for the academic world. That is desperately needed and will benefit science,' says Slabbekoorn.

Never a dull moment

Becoming a professor may help him to realise his plans in Suriname. He also proud of getting the title. ‘It was never my explicit aim to become a professor. It is my curiosity and enthusiasm that brought me here. I am always in search of new knowledge and I enjoy working with many enthusiastic colleagues and students from different disciplines. Because of the diversity of people around me and the things I do, I can keep doing the same work for years without getting bored.'

‘Being your own boss’ as professor

His function comes with responsibilities in education and organisation. Still, Slabbekoorn feels like he is his 'own boss'. ‘I have great freedom in my work. I have done research in Cameroon, Ecuador, China and Brazil, and hopefully soon in Suriname as well. Those are freedoms you don't find in any other job.'

This enthusiasm for research and the feeling of freedom also reflects on the courses he teaches. ‘I hope to inspire students. I want to bring across that researchers are not simple executors of straightforward jobs with fixed targets, but creative minds who come up with something new every time. You often have to argue and make a case for why you want to study something, but you should not wait for someone to ask. You select your own quest into the unknown.’

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