It has already been a joint Master’s programme for more than five years now, but as of 2018 Bioinformatics & Systems Biology will officially become a joint degree. Programme directors Jaap Heringa (VU Amsterdam) and Huub Hoefsloot (UvA) offer an inside look of this special programme.
The Master’s programme is a combination of molecular and cellular biology, computing science and mathematics. In other words, it is a multidisciplinary programme, and that multidisciplinarity is reflected in the students. ‘We enrol students from a variety of disciplines. A couple of years ago, we had a situation where 37 of our 40 students came from different areas of study,’ explains Heringa. ‘That diversity works incredibly well,’ adds Hoefsloot. ‘Knowledge is pooled and students learn a great deal from each other.’
When starting the two-year programme, students take a test to establish their knowledge level in each of the three disciplines. ‘During the first two months, students attend crash courses in which we brush up their knowledge in areas where they need it,’ says Heringa.
Composing working groups is always a bit of a puzzle: ‘We take care to ensure that groups include students from different backgrounds so they’ll complement each other,’ says Hoefsloot.
UvA and VU Amsterdam contribute equal shares of expertise. ‘Our specialist areas have already blended in with each other to a large extent, and our expert knowledge is an integral part of teaching and research,’ says Hoefsloot, who has a background in mathematics. According to him, biology has become increasingly focused on quantification in recent years. ‘In the past, the emphasis was on phenomenological analysis, where you describe what is happening. Now, people want to explain how something works quantitatively.’ Heringa, the first person to obtain a PhD in Bioinformatics in the Netherlands, agrees. ‘Capacity for knowledge and the quantity of data has increased. Technology is playing an important role in that.’
Students do two internships during the programme, one of which many do abroad. ‘We often receive compliments about our students by people who work with them abroad,’ says Hoefsloot. ‘Just yesterday, I received an email from a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. ’He’s better than some of my PhD students,’ she wrote.’
The assessment panel that accredited the programme at the beginning of this year was also complimentary. The panel was very positive about the way in which students from different programmes had been brought together, and described the cooperation between VU Amsterdam and UvA as very special.
Sixty per cent of the programme’s graduates go on to pursue a doctorate. The programme directors do not have an immediate explanation for this high rate. ‘Selection certainly seems to be one factor. In general, it’s the better students who opt for this Master’s programme. They have the confidence to do it, and the ability to think outside the box’, says Heringa. A broad skills set helps, because what it ultimately boils down to, according to the directors, is how you tackle problems and questions.