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Young researchers looking for partnerships in Indonesia

A number of young researchers recently took part in a knowledge mission to Indonesia, aiming to build a lasting relationship with the country. How did they find the trip, what did they do, and how are they creating new connections with scientists in Indonesia?

Nick Tomberge

PhD candidate Nick Tomberge is researching tourist travel writing about the Dutch East Indies between 1870 and 1945. ‘This can be travel journals but also travel guides, postcards, or letters in which someone has written about a trip. We use these texts to try to gain an understanding of the relationship between colonial ideology and tourism, and of how this developed over the course of time.’

During the trip to Indonesia, Tomberge managed to visit a number of the sights that he had studied. ‘That gave me not only more chance to research what these places looked like in the past but also to see how tourism has developed since the end of the colonial period. How does this colonial history of tourism continue to affect Indonesia today?’   

Traditional Dutch bicycles on Fatahillah Square in Old Batavia

Tomberge saw how an increasing number of colonial buildings are being renovated. ‘The tourism market in Indonesia is triggering a kind of nostalgic experience of colonialism.’ He gives the example of Fatahillah Square in Old Batavia, where tourists can hire traditional Dutch bicycles and have their photos taken with actors dressed as Dutch women from the colonial period. ‘At first glance, it seems like they are embracing an aestheticised image of Indonesia, whereas here in the Netherlands we are looking increasingly critically at the colonial past. It’s very strange to see. At the same time, the re-enactment is a reversal of colonial relations: now it’s almost exclusively Indonesian families who have donned pith helmets and are riding traditional Dutch bikes across the former town square.’

Together with his fellow researchers Arthur Crucq and Rick Honings, Tomberge visited universities in Bandung, Yogyakarta and Jakarta and the ANRI national archive, aiming to develop joint initiatives with Indonesian researchers. ‘There are several researchers in Indonesia with PhDs in colonial tourism. I talked, for example, to Achmad Sunjayadi from Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta. We are currently working together on an article about the ethical dilemmas that colonial tourists faced, and this knowledge mission was a good opportunity to talk to him again and strengthen our alliance. You really do see that projects get off the ground much more easily when you sit down at the table with each other.’

Nick Tomberge (top right) and his fellow researchers visiting ANRI in Jakarta

Vincent van Unen

University lecturer Vincent van Unen is researching illnesses where the immune system plays an important role. ‘Genetics has a fairly limited influence on this. There are very different environmental factors at play in Indonesia, and the immune system therefore develops differently. I want to investigate how that affects disease profiles.’

Van Unen is aware that autoimmune diseases are becoming more prevalent in Indonesia. ‘Diseases like Crohn's disease used to be more common in Europe and the US, but in recent years, we have also seen these syndromes increasing in low- to middle-income countries, including Indonesia. As yet, we don’t fully understand why that is.’

Van Unen’s main aim with the trip was to make new contacts and learn from his Indonesian colleagues what immune-related problems they are witnessing. ‘Building a collaboration between Leiden and Indonesia gives us the opportunity to gain new insights. I see that there is a lot of interest in immunology in Indonesia, especially since the pandemic. I’ve really benefited from the network built up by my colleague Maria Yazdanbakhsh, who has been conducting research here for the past 35 years. That has made it much easier for me to gain contacts here.’

Vincent van Unen at the Universitas Indonesia

Van Unen is also researching new techniques to better study the immune system in health and disease. ‘We are developing software for this together with TU Delft. By looking at Indonesia to see what techniques there are, and where there is a need, we can help them with specific software. For example, you can use algorithms to automatically classify millions of cells from a biopsy. To do that, though, we need to see what equipment they have available here.’

During the trip, van Unen also spoke to Indonesian students who had spent some time studying in Leiden and have now returned. ‘You realise what a big impact that exchange has made on them. Some even described it as “life changing”. They have become stronger scientists because of it. This new generation is able to improve health in Indonesia even further.’

Konstantinos Zoumpoulakis

Teacher Konstantinos Zoumpoulakis also travelled to Indonesia to look for research opportunities for the Faculty of Law and build links with Indonesian researchers. His research is on the harmonisation of criminal norms in Europe. ‘You might wonder what that has to do with Indonesia. A new criminal code has just been adopted here. That was long process, marking a fundamental change. It’s very interesting to follow the implementation process when you are researching criminal justice and legal reform.’

Konstantinos Zoumpoulakis attending a dinner with Indonesian alumni in Yogyakarta

Zoumpoulakis discussed with several universities the possibilities for doing research together and giving guest lectures, possibly in person but also online. He also gave a guest lecture to students at Universitas Indonesia on developments in criminal law in Europe. ‘I was afraid it might not be very relevant to them, but from the questions they asked it was clear that they had done a lot of preparation. From the interaction with them, I realise that there are a lot of similarities with recent developments in Indonesia.’

By participating in the knowledge mission, Zoumpoulakis has been able to broaden his research focus. ‘Basing my argument not only on European sources, but also finding support in similar developments in other parts of the world has made my research stronger.’ He has also met many young researchers with whom he would like to collaborate in the future. ‘It’s good to see the research network that Leiden has with Indonesia being expanded with young people.’

Text: Tom Janssen

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