Quick Chats with Professors: Prof. Dr. Cees Cornelisse

By Kurt van Wyk

What is your favourite book, or do you have a favourite author?

Hmm, I have several ones. Now I am very much taken by the works of Chaim Potok, who wrote several books about the history of the Jewish population. I’m not religious anymore, but I’m still very much interested in the development of religion, and from the path of the natural sciences – the knowledge that I have – how people have come to these concepts. Also his books about the modern history of Jews interest me, as in the field of science we have many Jewish authors who have made very important contributions.

I think you are quite well known among your students for your love of music. That considered, what is one of your favourite pieces of music, or do you have a favourite artist? 

Schubert. Among others, but Schubert. The String Quartet, Der Tod und das Mädchen, the Winterreise. I have sung part of them myself, though not with my hoarse voice now. I think that, although Schubert is romantic, he is still very realistic. Of course Mozart is also one of my favourites, and many other composers, but the one that conveys the most emotion is Schubert. I get tears in my eyes.

Wonderful. Completely different question, but what is your favourite animal?

Hmm… I think it’s a cat. We had one once, but then my daughter got allergic. I think they are very well adapted but they still keep their own identity, in contrast to dogs. I was bitten by dogs when I was a child so I have always been a little bit cautious. 

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Why did you decide to specialise in cancer research? Or how did you come to specialise?

I studied initially biology. And in biology at that time, there was very little known about diseases. I got did some internships during my bachelors studies, and I did my final internship in Leiden, in their department of pathology. Then I entered a completely different world. I got very much interested in pathology, particularly because the professor that was supervising me had developed a microscope where you could measure individual cells’ DNA content, and an interest in that led me to aneuploidy and cancer cells. Then I was able to start my own group with some technicians, where we had semi-automated microscopes to measure DNA content. That’s when I thought, “How many fundamental biological questions are involved in understanding cancer?” It was completely out of the picture that I had once studied snails and spiders. But of course from a biologist’s point of view, it’s all about evolution. I call it sometimes “EVILution”, an appropriate term for it. How can it be that a society of cells can exist, carrying information, and then some cells get misinformed and behave asocially? I find it a very interesting perspective to think about, how this society consists of individuals where nobody’s the boss, there’s no prime minister, no dictator. The cells together, communicating and of course evolving, are very interesting. For me, particularly the aspects of information and misinformation, or loss of information, remain intriguing.

Looking back, what do you wish you had done differently when you were a student?

I think not much. I made the decision not to study music as my brother did. He was a violinist and my younger sister a recorder player, both professional, although my brother is not alive anymore, and at that time I was playing the flute. I also loved singing, and I’ve always been in choirs, but when I was in the army I met some other boys who already had passed university and said it was very interesting. I was very interested in biology as well, and one day I thought, I still remember the moment, “I don’t want to be a slave to my instrument.” Since I was 11 years old, we had a group here in Middelburg that was interested in, say, going to the beach and looking for plants and shells and so on. We had camps and I was very much involved, also collecting fossils and shells. It was not so much a problem for me to make this decision, no. The decision was particularly also because of evolution. I did not, of course, learn about evolution in church, but my mother, who had no higher education, was very much interested and showed me that she did not quite trust the classical bible story about creation.

Interesting. So what would you be if you hadn’t become a professor?

That’s an interesting question. Maybe, now with the experience that I have, I would have become a teacher. I find it very important to teach, and particularly to transmit not only the facts but also the context of knowledge and the possible implications to young people.

If you could change one thing about UCR, what would it be?

I think it would be very important for our field if we would much more closely collaborate with university labs and research groups. There are students who have internships but it’s very difficult for them, and that also has to do with our location or distance here. But I really would welcome it if we would have, for instance, more visiting professors who could become acquainted with our students. Although I very much appreciate this new lab facility, this is, let’s say, good for basic techniques but not state of the art research. University groups, with much collaboration between different departments and things like that, are only possible if we could bridge the gap, even with Utrecht University. That is not easy, we are too independent actually, and I am worrying about that a little bit.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

I find it important to teach important chapters, or parts, let’s say, of biomedical science and biochemistry – basic concepts – but also to try and show the association with other related disciplines. When possible, the impact on society is important to mention, sometimes ethical issues as well, which are particularly now important with the gene modifying CRISPR/Cas and technologies like that. So, actually what I want to do is to provide a scientific view on reality next to philosophy and other ways of looking at society – to analyse from a scientific perspective how the world has developed, how we have developed, and have evolved, with interactions with other disciplines. I think that’s very important, and it is also a strong motivating aspect for me.

And finally, what is the best part of being a professor at UCR?

That’s the contact with the enthusiastic students. When I was a professor in Leiden, of course I had contact with students, but only very briefly. When I gave a lecture, or sometimes organised a small working group, that was for maximum of two weeks or so. Of course, when you have a student who ends up doing research, and I have had some with several PhDs later, that is also fantastic. But this contact I have now is very stimulating, particularly because the students are also all very different. There’s a lot of diversity, to speak in modern terms. They’re from different backgrounds, different countries, different cultures, even different religions. I think it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to teach science, or what you think is very important, to these few students. The reactions of the students in class are great to hear, and also sometimes years later you receive a PhD thesis or they ask for a reference. I value it very, very much, and that’s really a strong feeling for me.

Kurt van Wyk, Class of 2019, is an Environmental and Life Science Major from Frankfurt, Germany.

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