It’s the only one in the world: the BSc programme in Nanobiology of TU Delft and Erasmus MC, launched in 2012. Its first 16 students have now graduated, with most of them continuing directly into the MSc programme in Nanobiology. Renske Voerman is one of these pioneers. She recalls how she felt like a guinea pig at times, “but this also allowed us to participate in developing the programme.” Serge Donkers, the programme’s coordinator, is proud of the students. “It isn’t easy being the first in a new programme. I can’t wait to see how they will continue and what careers they will venture into.”
– Medical Delta electronic newsletter, September 2015
The name ‘nanobiology’ might have been deceptive for the first group of students who signed on for the BSc programme. Donkers: “It’s definitely not just biology with an emphasis on the nanometer scale. It’s a proper technology programme, with challenging components of mathematics and physics.” Programme director Prof.dr. Claire Wyman adds: “The challenge is worth it, because students get to enter a field with really exciting possibilities for the future.”
The reason for combining these disciplines into one educational programme is a fundamental one. The advent of tools that can reveal the inner workings of cells – the building blocks of life – on the scale of individual molecules enables a physics and mathematics approach to better understand biology. The field is still young but breakthroughs are at the horizon, for example in the medical field. Here, nanobiologists use their toolbox to study and manipulate the molecular interactions that are at the origin of diseases such as cancer, thus revolutionising medical diagnoses and treatment. Voerman’s BSc thesis project is testament to this multidisciplinarity. “I used a mathematical approach to study errors occurring when RNA-polymerase enzymes transcribe DNA into RNA. The modelling results yielded some surprises and should eventually be tested experimentally.”
Best of both worlds
As the programme is a collaboration between the Erasmus MC and TU Delft, classes take place in both Delft and Rotterdam. “Luckily,” explains Voerman, “they’re planned in such a way that you don’t have to switch cities mid-day.” Students get the best of both worlds; the state-of-the-art biomedical facilities in Rotterdam and the renowned physics expertise in Delft. Of all the joint programmes organized by the Medical Delta partners in Delft, Leiden and Rotterdam, this one relies more on interactive teaching methods than science programmes usually do. The students have many practical assignments and work together in projects. Wyman: “Nanobiology is not only an innovative field of study but an innovative educational programme as well.”
The number of students in the programme is exceeding expectations. This September, a total of 100 students started their Bachelor’s in Nanobiology. Will the field be able to accommodate so many graduates? Donkers is convinced it will. “Moreover,” he says, “the collaboration among students, the need to cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines and the use of high-tech approaches to unravel complex systems such as the living cell, all instil problem-solving skills that will be relevant to careers far beyond the realm of nanobiology.” Not only students are enthusiastic about the new programme; their teachers are, too. Donkers: “These researchers were all trained in one discipline and had to learn the other disciplines by themselves. Now students get the multidisciplinary training they wish they had received.” When asked when the programme would be a success, Donkers quotes one of the teachers as replying: “as soon as we deliver graduates who can actually teach us”.