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Ritsert Jansen

"Universities are first of all training institutions and leadership should be supportive to create a pleasant and open environment where people can develop their talent and skills."

Groningen Bioinformatics Centre (part-time) and Dean of Talent Development, University of Groningen
www.rug.nl/research/bioinformatics/
Group size: 14 (within Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences)

1. What is the leading research theme in your group?
"We work on determining how genetics and genomics are connected. In each organism, DNA knows numerous variations. We want to correlate those variations on the genetic level to variations at the phenotypic level."

2. With what type of groups or organisations do you collaborate most and why?
"Our main projects are all part of large-scale collaborations with multiple partners. This creates the opportunity for us to integrate large volumes of many different types of data. Our involvement varies from contributing to experimental design to more supportive activities like databasing and software engineering to developing new, smart analysis tools. As to the organisms involved, we work on model organisms like worms and mice, but also on plants and on human studies using real data from patient populations."

3. From your research perspective, what are the main challenges in bioinformatics right now?
"The gap between bioinformaticians and 'the others' is widening. It was noted in a recent report by the Dutch Health Council that many new techniques are approaching clinical application, but that problem is the increasingly specialized bioinformatics knowledge that is required to understand these techniques and interpret the outcomes. We as bioinformaticians may think that we are making progress, but 'they' are losing track of what we do. Bridging that gap is becoming more and more important. What to do? First, increase the contribution of bioinformatics to education. That is gaining importance. We also should actively equip our partners with the knowledge to understand what we are doing and enable them to really participate in and assess this type of work."

4. What is the most important task of a group leader?
"Create room for talent to grow and develop, so that they can surprise me and rise above my and their own expectations. I try to achieve this by providing the context, but letting them define their own niche and unique position. Universities are first of all training institutions and leadership should be supportive to create a pleasant and open environment where people can develop their talent and skills. When I came to Groningen about ten years ago, I was the only bioinformatician and I built this group from scratch, which meant that I had to develop myself into a group leader. In 2011, I published at Cambridge University Press "Developing a talent for science", a book describing my experience and ideas on talent development. This year, a second book will follow, entitled "Funding your career in science." I think it is important that group leaders actively think about their role and responsibilities on this front."

5. Where do you see room for improvement in your group?
"That is a nasty question. What we could on a more general level improve is how to cross organisational boundaries. Bioinformatics is relevant for all research relating to living organisms, but this interdisciplinary nature is often hard to reconcile with the way universities are organised, which is still very fixed on faculty pillars. It would be good to have more modern, flex-type organisation to work in."

Text by: Esther Thole.