An illustrated portrait by Ewine van Dishoeck

Ewine van Dishoeck is Professor of Molecular Astrophysics at the Leiden Obervatory in the Netherlands and President of the International Astronomical Union. As one of the pioneers in astrochemistry, she deals with interstellar molecules and their development during the formation of stars and planets. She has received numerous prestigious awards for her research, including the Spinoza Prize 2000 and the Kavli Prize 2018.

On the birth card my parents made for me You see a little baby crawling on a university building. So my parents clearly had an academic career in mind. I also really like the quote they gave me: ‘Vires aequiret eundo“, She will gather her strength on the way. I think that is a very important message. You don’t go from a doctoral student to a star in one fell swoop, you have to gather strength to make it work.

When I was 13 years old, my father retired and he was on a sabbatical in San Diego. We dated for six months and I enrolled in a public high school. In Holland I went to the Dutch Grammar School, which was very thorough – a lot of Latin and Greek. And here in this high school I could choose whatever topics I wanted. That was my first contact with science. My teacher was very inspiring. Teachers are incredibly important.

Dare to look elsewhere. Your research career never goes from A to B to C to D – be ready for an interdisciplinary leap. I wanted to do my doctorate in Leiden, but the professor had just died. My friend (now husband) Tim just had a talk from an astronomy professor about interstellar molecules that had just been discovered. He said to me, ‘Well, there are molecules between the stars, isn’t that something for you?’ I am very fortunate to have landed in this area.

It was so important for me to be in the US for six years. You make so many connections at top institutions in the USA that you only realize later how important they are. It is so important for young people to build their network around the world. Do not go to a faculty position too early because the teaching takes up a lot of time – extend the postdoc years because they never come back.

In astronomy, much of our data becomes public after a year, sometimes they are even immediately public. It’s good! But someone outside of our collaboration can just grab our data and publish it in front of us. Although I have to say that in many cases the culture is that someone using your data will contact the PI and say, ‘Am I mixing in the work of some PhD students?’ Because we try to avoid that.

It is so important for young people to build their network around the world

We let PhD students, sometimes even Masters students, be principal researchers on a suggestion for observation, even on the most powerful telescopes. If your suggestion is accepted and you get the data, you will be super excited. That certainly helps in terms of motivation and ownership of the data.

Having a passion for what you do is incredibly important. I try to show that to the students I teach and to inspire them. What I miss most about Covid is the direct interaction at eye level – ask a question and get an answer, have a little conversation in class.

I think an optimal group size is between 10 and 15 people. I like a diverse group in terms of gender, nationality and background. Some people in my group come from chemistry, some from astronomy. I try to lead my group as openly as possible, that is, I encourage them to work together as well as possible instead of having to go through everything and express themselves in meetings.

From home, I miss the round table in my office that holds about five people. On a normal working day when I wasn’t having committee meetings or classes, there would be non-stop meetings around the table on a variety of topics. That was just what I enjoyed the most.

My advice to young people is to make sure you excel in one area. Take the steep path at the beginning of your career – seize the opportunity. Position yourself in a way that gets noticed and you have a better chance of ending up where you really want to go.

We go camping every summer somewhere in the western United States, in the middle of nowhere. I turn off my iPhone and my laptop. It is really very important that you retire from your work from time to time.

I curated an exhibition on art and astronomy last year in one of the museums in Leiden. It just ended when Covid struck. It was much fun. I collect some art myself, but it was also an opportunity to bring it to a wider audience. We had 60,000 visitors.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to play the violin at the moment. I used to love playing in a more classical orchestra as well as playing Hungarian and Romanian folk music. That’s wonderful. I met my husband, who played in a gypsy music orchestra.


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