Before They Were Scientists: Eefjan Breukink

In planning a trip to the Netherlands for some secret missions for Your Wild Life, I reached out to area scientists to get a different perspective on middle school life. Motivated after reading about his involvement in a scientific debate, I contacted Dr. Eefjan Breukink at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Read on to learn about how this accomplished scientist decided he did not want to become a vet, has a fresh perspective on the meaning of “right” and “wrong” in science, and at the heart of it all — is still a kid inside.

Lea: Can we start with you telling us about this photograph?


[in a lilting Dutch accent] My uncle had this photograph and it was probably taken during a family gathering – I think I looked a bit bored. [laughs]
Do you think you were often bored as a middle school student?

Sometimes when there were these obligatory family gatherings… I may have been a bit bored, like any teenager, I think.

Tell me a little bit about middle school for you.

The difference in the Netherlands is that we don’t have any “middle school.” We go directly from primary school to high school. The primary school is eight years and then high school is another six years. The first year of high school is an in-between year called a “bridging year.” That year is so that you can adapt to the novel system of changing classes in high school. I think the last couple of years of primary school and the first few years of high school are comparable to middle school.

Do you have any memorable classroom experiences from that time?

I can think of fights that I was in. [laughs] Those memories are still there.

What did you get into fights about?

I don’t know, I just remember the fights… I wasn’t in that many fights… for some stupid reason, of course. I almost got caught in German class “cheating” – that’s memorable. The extreme things are still there, but I didn’t have that many extreme things. I was a lay-low student who didn’t get into trouble, especially with the teachers.

What was one of your biggest worries during those years?

I’m not a person that worries that much. I just hang in there, did my normal stuff… and everything was OK. I didn’t worry that much, but of course as a teenager you worry about the opposite sex. Everyone did that – either boys or girls. I think that’s normal at that age. I did a lot of sports, so besides doing school I did lots of sports. I had a good time in those years – nothing really dramatic.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?

I think they just wanted me to be successful, independent with a good job and to do well at school. They really pushed me. I was a bit lazy, and I think they had a difficult time. My dad is a veterinarian; he was at the University here at Utrecht before. My mom was a housewife before and later she went into accounting. My mom really pushed me [wags finger in the air], “You should do your homework. Otherwise you will grow up and be nothing.” I owe her for that.

Every now and then I hear from my mother that she’s really glad that we turned out to be OK — with families and a house. All three of us; my younger brother – my older sister – earn good money… have a house. We all have nice kids. My mother also hears all sorts of different stories and she thinks, I’m glad my kids turned out to be OK. I think she can be proud of us, so to speak, and she probably is.

How did you get to school?

The primary school I could walk to – it was nearby – 500 meters or so. To high school I cycled. It was about seven kilometers. Mostly cycling – I had a few friends and we all went to the same school and we went together. We met at a specific place in the village where we lived and then we started cycling.

Your bike rides to school sounded fun!

I think the most fun was when one of my classmates had a small motorcycle. Not a real motorcycle, but a small one – like a moped. It was easy to get to and from school because I could grab onto his bike and head home pretty fast. When it was really raining, that wasn’t so fun.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

Anything but languages. I was really a “data” person – the alpha gamma languages. I’m more of a mathematics, physics, chemistry type of person. I think the most interesting subjects were biology and chemistry. That’s probably why I became a biochemist!

What was it about biology and chemistry that intrigued you so much?

I’ve thought about that because I guessed that this was a question that was coming. I don’t really know what it was. My dad is a farmer’s son. A lot of the time I was on the farm and around animals. I like animals, but I didn’t become a vet; my sister did. I like to see how things work – watches or stuff like that. Any apparatus that broke down I’d try to fix it… or I’d try to see how it worked and then it was broken down if I couldn’t fix it again. I was curious how stuff worked; and then I got into contact with biology in high school and that’s what I found most interesting. To try to figure out how life works – you’re never done. There’s always a second question around the corner.

To try to figure out how life works – you’re never done. There’s always a second question around the corner.
The more you find out the more you realize that there’s so much more we don’t know.

Yeah – and I’m only working on a very little piece of the life sciences, it’s pretty interesting.

Were you in any clubs, have any hobbies or do anything after school?

I played tennis and field hockey. If I say “hockey” Americans think ice hockey, but it’s field hockey here. That’s a big sport in the Netherlands. I was part of the tennis club and the field hockey team. That took up lots of my free time – I’m still doing field hockey, but not tennis anymore.

Did you ever think that you would become a scientist? What did you think scientists did all day?

No. I thought about getting old. I wondered what I would be when I was 30-something, like really old. [laughs] Now I wish I was 30- something! I just wondered what I would be doing. I didn’t say, “I want to be a scientist.”  I didn’t have those kind of thoughts at that moment in time. It only grew on me after I became a chemistry student. When I started my studies I thought, Well this is very interesting, I want to work in biochemistry and be a scientist. When I was in middle school I just thought, Let’s get through school first, and worry about other things later.

Did spending time on your family farm get you into science in the first place? Or was it something else?

No, I liked being around the farm and helping my uncle to earn a little bit of money. Having free time and shooting birds – which maybe wasn’t a good thing in retrospect. But I spent quite a lot of vacation time there. I think if I really liked that I would be doing something with animals, but I really don’t. Maybe because some of them smell a lot – I thought, I better not be a vet, I can’t stand the smell.

If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
[laughs] Work a little bit harder! I was kind of lazy. I still am a bit, but I’d really advise him to do a little bit more homework. In the end I’m OK now, but that’s my advice. I have small children now and the oldest is now 10. My daughter is the oldest and I think girls and boys are a little bit different – the girls at least, in my experience, do it by themselves – you don’t have to push them. The boys, like me, I had to be pushed a lot by my mom. If I would go back I would push myself more.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?

That I’m really old. [laughs] I’ve thought about this – it depends on if he just knows that I’m doing or what I’m thinking. Let’s suppose he knew what I was thinking. He would be surprised that I would be young inside, instead of being an old whatever. When you’re young you look at old people, like 30 plus, and you think, God, they’re really old. When you look back on life, kind of since middle school, you don’t really change that much – you know more, but you’re still the boy inside. You still like to play with radio-controlled airplanes – which I do with my brother. I play with my girls now and play hockey with my youngest. That’s still nice. I think the most surprising thing is that even though you’re old… you’re not that old inside.

I don’t think he would really be surprised that I was doing science.

I think the most surprising thing is that even though you’re old… you’re not that old inside.
Is there a memento that you keep from your childhood?

I wasn’t attached to anything in particular, so I don’t have anything.

Did you play an instrument?

Unfortunately, no. Now I’m a bit too old to start learning. Both of my kids play the flute and it’s really nice when they play – they’re really good and fast learners. That’s one thing that my parents did not do very well in my upbringing – they didn’t put me into music classes. I really would have liked to be able to play the piano. I guess somewhere back in time my dad decided he didn’t want to hear the noise of my younger sister and me and my brother trying to practice and make lots of noise. If I could go back in time, I would go back to when I was five or six and talk to my parents – I’d tell them to teach their son to play the flute or piano. I always envied people who see a piano and sit down and start to play. I wish I was able to do that.

When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?

Um… Astronaut. [he answers immediately, rolling his eyes as if there couldn’t be any other answer] Like every other kid. I grew up in the period when people landed on the moon. It was 1969, so I was six. Later on with the Apollo missions [reminiscing] – I wanted to be an astronaut, but became a scientist instead.

How much did you play outside? What did you do?

Lots of time – we  lived in a village with lots of trees and a forest. We were always making tree huts and walking around the forest. We were always preparing against an enemy attack. I was always wondering who the enemy was, walking around the bush with a couple of friends. Later on, I played lots of sports.

Did you collect anything?

Stamps. I gave that up when I went to study chemistry. I gave my stamp collection to my niece… I wonder what happened to that.

Did you ever have a professional crisis? Think of throwing in the academic towel?

In my junior PhD studies; you always have a time when experiments don’t work out. And you think, I really hate this. Or when there’s a time, at least in my career now, when there’s a lot of bureaucracy around you and it’s a challenge. There’s still some times when I think, Well, maybe I should do something else. But the times that I really like it are far more than the times than I hate it. The balance is still there.

We had a major car accident last year. Nobody was hurt, just the car. It makes you think about life a little bit differently. At that point in time, I thought maybe, Science is not that important. But it still is. That crisis is over, and I still like it.

Can you think of a specific point when you said, I’m going to become a scientist?

I think when I was in university and deciding my major – when I did my major in biochemistry I thought, This is really very nice and I’d like to stick around here. Getting your PhD here used to be more like a job that you could apply to and become a PhD student. I didn’t apply – my professor at that point asked me if I wanted to stay and do a PhD. Of course I said yes; then I really became a scientist.

I didn’t apply – my professor at that point asked me if I wanted to stay and do a PhD. Of course I said yes; then I really became a scientist.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?

There’s always a bit of luck involved. Most of it is hard work. The major discoveries – let’s say 50/50. You start doing something and it doesn’t really match. You start thinking about it and you try a different thing. A lot of stuff was just scratching things off – this isn’t it, this isn’t it – it’s something else.

But then it turns out what you’re working on gets published by someone else in Science – that was the work that was highlighted in the Scientific American piece that you referred to. And that research team has a totally different opinion that what I think is happening.

Do you want to expand on that?

I still think I’m right. That’s me. We’ll write a piece to Science to counter that; hopefully soon.

Do you think that disagreements like this help to propel scientific discovery?

It can go both ways. It can be destructive or constructive. I think as a good scientist you should just look to what’s real. What’s really going on? Not focus on just proving your point, but figuring out what’s really going on. What’s the real answer? Just as CSI always said, “Follow the evidence.” It’s a bit of CSI we’re doing. You follow the evidence and then we think we know the answer… but it may be something different. You should always be aware of that.

I think that’s the major thing: you’re not trying to prove your point, you’re trying to look to see what’s right, to determine what’s actually happening. But that’s just my opinion.

I think that’s the major thing: you’re not trying to prove your point, you’re trying to look to see what’s right, to determine what’s actually happening. But that’s just my opinion.
I work in the classroom also; you find that students as scientists formulate a hypothesis and say, This is what I think is going to happen. And then when that thing doesn’t happen you feel like you did something wrong. But that’s just the evidence; it’s just what happens in science.

I’ve had lots of hypotheses that were refuted later on when I did experiments. Now I know that, of course, you start off with a hypothesis, but assume that your hypothesis is wrong. You have to formulate another one. You have to think about what you did – what was the result? If I’m wrong – what can then be right. I think that’s an important lesson to be telling to the students. I always try that myself as well.

Are you in the classroom now?

At least 40% of my time I have to teach – but that’s normal in the Netherlands. I do science and teach mainly undergraduates and a few PhD students.

Are you able to allow your students to fail in order to learn?

Of course. One of the things that we try to do for seniors is that we don’t give them experiments that are set already in advance. They have to figure out how to do it themselves. Sometimes we let them do experiments where we don’t know if they will work. Of course we tell them in advance that there may be a chance that they will fail and we’re not right and it’s important that we know what will happen. They like that; some fail but some are pretty successful. They’re extra happy when they’re successful. I think it’s a good experience if they ever have a failed experiment. It’s a learning experience. I think at least 90% of your initial experiments fail.

I’ll be teaching thermodynamics, but I found it a little bit boring when I took it. Now it’s up to me to make it a little bit livelier.

If you’re bored as an instructor you know your students are bored.
Did you have any adult role models? Did you try to emulate them at all?

My PhD advisor was a big role model. Ben De Kruijff. I always think, If other people can do it, I can do it as well. That’s my incentive.

How often did someone tell you that you were wrong?

There was one big occasion. This concerns the Science paper again. I was giving a lecture on my system – what I think is the correct system. It was already four years ago and somebody in the audience, I won’t mention his name, he said, “HE’S WRONG!” Pretty loud. I wasn’t even talking at that point, I was just being introduced. That was someone telling me I was wrong. In the Scientific American article, that other researcher said you have to take my studies “with a grain of salt.” It’s a pity she even said that. I try to refrain from those kind of remarks, but it’s there.

But I hear it all the time from my kids.

…he said, “HE’S WRONG!” Pretty loud. I wasn’t even talking at that point, I was just being introduced.
Whenever some big new discovery in science happens, they’re always told they’re wrong. You’re in good company, I think.

I tell them they’re wrong. We’ll see.

We’re all on the same team, though, right?

Like I said – it’s good to be right, but at the end we should know what’s happening. That’s the main thing. It’s good to be right, but we’ll see.

Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?

Nah. No. I didn’t consider myself superior or different or inferior. I was just… I think the high schools in the Netherlands are different than in the States. If you look at the movies that you see about high school life, I’m not sure whether that’s real, but based on that, it’s totally different in the Netherlands. It’s much more relaxed. It wasn’t so important to be popular and a cheerleader – we don’t even have cheerleaders. We don’t have college football. There’s hardly any sports in high school. We have gymnastics but we didn’t have a team. If that’s not there then you don’t have the incentive to be part of the “popular girls” or the “popular guys” so it was more relaxed, I think.

If you look at the movies that you see about high school life, I’m not sure whether that’s real, but based on that it’s totally different in the Netherlands.
So you could focus on school and not have that be “weird”?

Just be yourself and have friends. Maybe there were some more popular people, but we did not have trouble. At least not at that point; there was not that much bullying around. At least I was not involved, either on the receiving or giving side. It didn’t happen that much. But of course, now, you hear more about bullying. Maybe it was there when I was around, but I didn’t see it, so to speak.

What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
[pause] I think that the discovery of how a particular type of antibody works – that would be attractive to my middle school self. To figure out how stuff works – that was always what I liked. Antibiotics are important. So from what we learn we may be able to create novel antibiotics. I think that would be something he would be amazed about or look up to.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

There are always pros and cons to a superpower. I wouldn’t really know… maybe reading minds, but then there’s always stuff out there that you really don’t want to know. There are lots to choose. Only one or can I have them all?

Time travel… reading science magazines from 10 years from now — that would be easy. But that would be cheating.

The only thing that I really want would be able to be financially independent as a researcher. If any superpower could help me achieve that… my dream is to have this one patent that gives enough revenue to not have to write grants all the time… Have my own research group and if we need a new machine, we just buy it. If you have millions of dollars in revenue from one patent… you could do all the science you want. That’s my dream.

So I guess I’d want to have a super-patent.


Dr. Eefjan Breukink is an Associate Professor in the Department of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and he is part of the Bijvoet Center for Biomolecular Research. In his free time he plays field hockey and was on the Dutch Veterans Hockey team. He played in the field hockey World Cup for the Netherlands; his youngest daughter cried when they lost to Australia and got third place. 

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:57+00:00 August 14th, 2014|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

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