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Dies Natalis all about innovating and connecting

‘We could share our knowledge more with others and apply it more widely,’ said Annetje Ottow, President of the Executive Board, while presenting the new Strategic Plan on the University’s 447th Dies Natalis. The new Strategic Plan therefore focuses on innovating and connecting, among disciplines and with society. The speakers also emphasised how important collaboration is to drug development, for instance, or fighting inequality and forming new partnerships in academia.

After two years without a large procession, this tradition was now reinstated – in part at least, because the procession was still smaller than before the pandemic.  Sixty professors walked together to the Pieterskerk church, where the University’s birthday was to be celebrated. Coronavirus prevented two of the speakers from attending the celebration in person: Matthias Barz and Meta Roestenberg both had to give their Dies lectures from home instead.

The professors walk together from the Academy Building to the Pieterskerk church for the ceremony.

Innovating and connecting in drug development

It is of huge importance to society that university researchers connect with industry, in the field of drug development for example. This is what Matthias Barz, Professor of Biopharmacy at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research, called for in his Dies lecture this afternoon. In his own research Barz has been working for some time with German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, known for its mRNA Covid vaccine. His research focuses on what are known as nano-sized drug delivery systems. The development of these makes drugs and vaccines safer and more effective.

Matthias Barz gives his Dies lecture from home.


‘The collaboration with BioNTech will hopefully lead to clinical trials that support our preclinical findings and improve our mRNA vaccines that bit more,’ said Barz. He thinks it is essential that researchers at the university be given the right support to start partnerships like this. He added that it was important to maintain academic freedom. Barz ended his speech with a prediction: ‘The next generations of researchers in the life sciences will consider collaborations between scientific disciplines and institutions as the new normality.’

Professor Meta Roestenberg gives her lecture, also from home.

Fighting inequality

Professor of Vaccinology Meta Roestenberg also reflected on the lessons learned from the Covid crisis. They present opportunities to fight inequality. Not so very far away from our own country, people’s lives have been shaped for generations by infectious diseases, diseases that we didn’t even know existed. As with Covid, developing vaccines and drugs to fight these diseases requires innovation and a global approach.

Both during and after vaccine development, connections are important for reaching the people who need these vaccines. ‘If we want to arm the world against infectious diseases, we must not allow ourselves to be limited to national borders or the boundaries of our discipline,’ said Roestenberg. She believes it is our duty to master the new languages of other disciplines.

Honorary doctorate awarded

After a musical intermezzo by members of the Practicum Musicae Orchestra, led by Aafko Boonstra, it was time for a special tradition: awarding an honorary doctorate. This year’s recipient was Rosemary Joyce (1965), Professor of Anthropology and Social Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. An important question in her research is how people use objects to negotiate their place in society. She was awarded her honorary doctorate by Marja Spierenburg, Professor of Anthropology of Sustainability, and Maarten Jansen, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Central America.

‘Professor Joyce has made great contributions to Archaeology and Social Archaeology by situating them in broader social contexts,’ Spierenburg said just before the honorary doctorate was awarded. ‘She has put gender and power on the agenda of archaeology.’ Jansen added that he had been in intensive contact with Joyce in recent years. Not only in personal conversations, but also because she had been involved in conferences and guest classes for students. ‘I’m really pleased that you are receiving this honorary doctorate at this special occasion.’

New strategic plan launched

‘It truly is a plan by and for us all,’ said Annetje Ottow, President of the Executive Board, at the presentation of the new Strategic Plan ‘Innovating and Connecting.’ She referred to the many meetings, online and offline, with students, staff and critical friends who all offered their opinions on the University’s new course in the coming years. The meetings provided a valuable insight, said Ottow: we could share more of our knowledge with others and apply it more widely. The focus of the new strategy is therefore on strengthening connections, among disciplines and with society. ‘Scientific and societal challenges make this necessary and we in Leiden, with all we have to offer, can provide outstanding added value.’

Building on a healthy, engaged and learning community

It is not just important what exactly we are going to do, but also how we do things, said Ottow. She emphasised that the staff workload and a safe environment are high on the agenda. ‘We want to continue to build on a healthy, engaged and learning community, where issues can be identified and addressed in open discussions, with respect for one another.’ Ottow called on everyone to ‘put their shoulders to the wheel’. She ended by looking both back and ahead: ‘Leiden University has weathered many storms and pandemics and is ready to face the future. Our new strategic plan will point us in the right direction in the coming years.’

Annetje Ottow presents the new Strategic Plan.

On the same day as the Dies Natalis, a new website was launched about the Strategic Plan with all the information about the new course that the University has charted and what this will mean in practice.

Bart van Zijll Langhout was awarded the University Medal by Martijn Ridderbos.

University Medal for Bart van Zijll Langhout

Bart van Zijll Langhout is the quintessential innovative connector between science and society, as chair of the Leiden Bio Science Park Foundation and, until last year, lead at Janssen Campus the Netherlands. For his achievements, this Leiden alumnus was awarded the University Medal by Vice-Chairman Martijn Ridderbos. Van Zijll Langhout studied biology at Leiden University, where he also received his PhD in genetics, before going on to join Janssen. Ridderbos gave the unique example of the Janssen vaccine: its development was in part in collaboration with the LUMC and the Centre for Human Drug Research, and the technology was co-developed with Leiden University. Ridderbos: ‘In your role as innovator and connector, you have shown clearly the strength of collaboration among knowledge institutions, businesses and the city in the innovative ecosystem that is the Leiden Bio Science Park.’ A pleased-looking Van Zijll Langhout received the University Medal and emphasised the value of innovative cooperation: ‘This can mean the different to patients.’

Hester Bijl gives her Dies speech.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Anyone who works with colleagues from other disciplines can come up against an unexpected language barrier, said Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl, who said she had also experienced this. Working together was still very much worthwhile, she said, because you learn new ways of thinking and work on new issues. She too emphasised the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, a strategic priority of the University and one of the ambitions in the new Strategic Plan.

Bijl called for better facilities for interdisciplinary cooperation, such providing more opportunities for meetings, developing joint infrastructures and creating free spaces for unfettered interdisciplinary research. ‘A broad research university such as ours, with strong disciplines, offers a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of new combinations of science and new interdisciplinary forms of research.’

After Bijl’s speech the Dutch national anthem was played, as is customary, and the University’s 447th birthday came to an end.

Videorecording Dies Natalis

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Photos: Marc de Haan and Monique Shaw

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