Lecturer in the Spotlight: Tonny Mulder

'I want to impress upon students that they can bring about the research of tomorrow.'

29 March 2016

Tonny Mulder is a lecturer for the Bachelor's programmes in Psychobiology and Biomedical Sciences. He left behind his career in cognitive neurophysiology research to devote himself to his passion: developing and teaching neurobiology education.

While studying Animal Physiology in Groningen, Mulder shadowed a researcher who was investigating how cerebral cell measurements relate to cardiac rhythm and respiration. That was the first time he saw cerebral measurement in action: 'Incredibly fascinating to me.' When it came time to choose a work placement, he told his professor he wanted to get into neurophysiology. 'He replied, and I quote, 'There are two people in the Netherlands that can guide you well in that field. With one I'm not on speaking terms, the other is in Amsterdam.''

From research to education

Mulder ended up at the University of Amsterdam, where his internship turned into a PhD position. After completing a postdoc in Paris followed by some years at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, he became head of the Cognitive Neurophysiology research group at VUmc. 'After five years, I reached a turning point. I loved doing research, but the further I got, the less time I got to spend on actual research as I got caught up in bureaucratic red tape. Meanwhile, my passion came to lie more and more with education.' Mulder left his job and applied for every teaching post he could find. The Faculty of Science offered him a position as Academic Skills tutor. For him, the lower salary was just part of the deal: 'I was doing what I wanted to do.'

Grounded in research

He never completely cut ties with research. Due to his background, he quickly became involved in developing and teaching a neurobiology curriculum, which includes the EEG practical training for second-year psychobiology students. 'The training is structured to teach students research skills. In two weeks' time, they have to come up with and write the design for their own experiment, perform it, analyse it and report on the results.'

He stresses that it is not like following a recipe from a cookbook. 'Students have to find out a lot for themselves. In the process, they also encounter frustrations and limitations. Not all experiments are automatically successful.' So learning the ins and outs of doing research is a steep learning curve, but Mulder's extensive research experience makes him well-suited for the role of supervisor. 'As my colleagues and I sometimes say: with our feet firmly grounded in research, we create education with our hands.'

Roll up your sleeves

These colleagues are Sandra Cornelisse and Ilja Boor, with whom Mulder develops new educational formats within the Psychobiology curriculum. 'Students have increasingly high expectations, as well they should, considering the fast-paced world in which we now live and in which we are always online. The challenge for us is to respond to this appropriately.'

Psychobiology operates according to the 'bring your own device' principle, meaning that students have to bring their own laptop to lectures. 'We make use of this by incorporating assignments into the larger lectures, where the students have to look up information themselves and discuss it in small groups. So they have to roll up their sleeves and actively engage with the material.'

In the textbooks

Even though lecturing methods are being modernised, history plays a key role in Mulder's teaching: 'These days, we have EEGs, but who invented them? What did people think about anatomy in the Middle Ages? When did we start to consider how our brain relates to our behaviour?' It is often an eye-opener to realise the course material did not come out of nowhere. 'Students start to understand that they can contribute to textbooks published a few decades from now. That they are the next generation who could bring about that kind of research.'

Published by  Faculty of Science