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From research in space to director on earth

After ten years and one day, Leiden Observatory has a new director. As of 1 September, Ignas Snellen will set the course for the astronomical institute. In this interview, you will get to know Ignas. Or at least a little. That is why we gave him five dilemmas and asked the people around him who he really is.

In June, you received the Spinoza Prize. Is it possible to be a top researcher and a director at the same time?

The Spinoza Prize is actually very convenient. My ERC Grant is due to expire in a few months' time and because I received the Spinoza Prize, I don't need to apply for grants now. So it actually saves me time.

But it is going to be tough. Certainly the first few months, when I still have to get used to it. However, I won’t be doing so much practical work myself anymore. I manage, coach and look at the bigger picture.

Do you regret that you no longer spend a lot of time doing research?

It is just like with athletes. The muscles become a bit stiff and so you become a coach and start leading the football club. The same applies to many researchers. You become more broadly oriented, you start to supervise younger researchers and you try to receive grants.

Do you know how to manage? As a researcher, you are not trained to be a manager.

- laughs - Of course I have asked myself whether I can do this. I have taken a number of courses and I have been watching Huub Rottgering (the previous director, ed.) for some time. In those courses, I mainly learned that in management positions, you bring your own qualities with you. And that the most important quality is that you are aware of your good and less good qualities. And I can do that, I can reflect on myself.

Ignas in 5 dillema's

  1. Fundamental or applied research
    Fundamental, that is close to my heart.
  2. Extraterrestrial life or life on earth
    On earth, of course. Let's try to be careful of it.
  3. Old building or new building
    New building. Doing new things that no one has ever done before is the most fun.
  4. North Brabant or South Holland
    North Brabant. I'll be always a 'Brabander', someone from Brabant. I also like it in Leiden though. But I'll never deny my 'soft g'.
  5. Dog or Cat
    Dog - Marcellina and Sissi. Our cat Gizmo unfortunately died at the beginning of this year. it didn't go very well together, with two dogs and a cat. Unbelievable how bad they understood each other. 

Why do you think they chose you?

You shouldn’t be asking this to me. But if I have to answer, I think I am a good listener. My predecessor Huub Rottgering, for example, is more of a doer. He contributed to the fact that the space research institute SRON is now located next to our Faculty. And he has built good relations with research school NOVA. I am more a of a calm person and that is also my task. We have grown a lot and we have experienced a pandemic. How can we become an institute again? People management is very important now, and that's what I'm going to focus on.

What does people management mean in practice?

Many people still work at home. That makes it harder to meet colleagues. Corona has dealt a huge blow to the connection between colleagues. How are we going to get that back without forcing people to work in the office? That is an enormous challenge. I will be talking to people a lot in the near future.

Corona is not over yet

Don't underestimate the post-corona syndrome. Going from ordinary life to corona was very stressful, but going from corona to a life that is no longer the same is at least as stressful. I notice that myself. Suddenly you have to travel again, for example. I have not been abroad for two years for my work and it is a shock to suddenly have to do that again.

How is Leiden Observatory doing?

We have grown considerably in recent years. Our institute mainly does research. Nevertheless, we have a large education sector with 130 first-year students in the bachelor's programme and 60 students in the master's. This makes us the largest astronomy master's programme in the world, that is really something.

In terms of research, we depend on very expensive equipment. Collaboration is therefore very important. We have NOVA, the research school in which we cooperate with Groningen, Amsterdam and Nijmegen. This enables the Netherlands to be an international partner in building instruments, for example within ESO, the European Southern Observatory.

Such as large telescopes

Our researchers are involved in the development of two high-profile telescopes. The first is the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been much in the news in recent months. We are closely involved in building the important instruments on board.

In addition, we are building the ELT, the Extremely Large Telescope, in collaboration with ESO. This 'biggest eye in the world' will officially be ready in five years' time. The Netherlands is in charge of the construction of one of the instruments. And that is exactly the core of the research that we do at Leiden Observatory. And it all runs like a well-oiled machine.

What do you hope to discover with these telescopes?

We are going to measure and study Earth-like planets. Don't expect that in the next few decades we'll find incontrovertible evidence of life on another planet. I do hope that we will discover oxygen. And that, at least, is an indication of life.

We are also investigating how other worlds are formed. How unique is our solar system and how does it relate to other systems? Those discoveries are what I like best about my job.

You come from an academic family

I was brought up with science. My mother is a doctor, she is almost 90. She was always closely involved in the development of the Medicine curriculum at Maastricht University. My father was a professor of Public Administration. My mother was the beta at home; I probably inherited that from her. My father was into science planning and the philosophy of science. That's a nice combination for me; as a director you need both.

And what do they think of your new role at home?

My wife and son are very proud. My wife is Professor of Veterinary Medicine in Utrecht and therefore knows the academic world well. Our son is sixteen and already has his own company. He is completely into economic things. He does things very differently from us. It's nice to see him following his heart.

What others say

‘It was Ignas' big dream to become a professional footballer. For Leiden Observatory it is very nice that this did not work out...' - Evelijn Gerstel, Institute Manager at Leiden Observatory

‘Ignas is a fantastic scientist, a warm personality and is very involved in our institute and University. Very happy that he is now the Scientific Director.’ - Huub Rottgering, Scientific Director of Leiden Observatory until 16 August 2022

‘Ignas will bring 'extraterrestrial' life to Leiden Observatory. We are looking forward to it.’ - Alexandra Schouten, Executive Assistant at the Leiden Observatory

‘Ignas is curious, creative, and he was a fantastic PhD advisor. One of the things which makes him such a great scientist is that he actively seeks out counter arguments about what he (and others) currently thinks. This leads him and his team to a number of very interesting discoveries.’ – Simon Albrecht, former PhD candidate of Ignas Snellen

Text: Christi Waanders

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