New director with a familiar face

13 March 2012

As of January 2012, professor A.B. Smit is appointed as new director of the CNCR. He took over the position from professor Arjen Brussaard (NCA).

Professor Guus Smit’s career has run in parallel with the emergence of neuroscience at the Vrije Universiteit. He was a PhD-student when molecular biology crossed over to brain science in the department of Zoology during the 1980’s. In 2003, he was one of CNCR’s founding heads. As of January 2012, he is appointed director of that very institute. It’s time for a retrospective and a look ahead.

by Kevin Janssen
The beginning
As a first recollection of conducting research, Smit names working on transcription factors as an intern while studying biology at the VU. His first encounters with studying the nervous system date back to 1983. It was the great pond snail, a popular model organism in biology in those days, that lured Smit into neuroscience. “What appealed to me was the all new combination of applying molecular biology to the nervous system,‚ he says. “It opened up unprecedented possibilities for research, for instance to study the pond snail’s neuropeptide producing system.‚ A subject that will later serve as topic for Smit’s PhD-thesis.

As a PhD-student in the department of Zoology, the lab of the late Professor Joos Joosse, it was Smit’s task to find the hormone responsible for the great pond snail’s growth. That hormone turned out to be insulin. An unanticipated finding that put Smit in a rather unique position: his first study as a PhD-student, eighteen months underway, was published in Nature. Once he had obtained his PhD in the early 90’s, Smit left for a post-doc position in the US. Only a couple of months later, he accepted an offer to return to the VU to start his own group.

A Center for Neuroscience at the VU
Neuroscience developed rapidly near the end of the 20th century. Basic science and translational studies became more and more intertwined.
In 1993, Joosse was succeeded by Professor Wijnand Geraerts as head of the Zoology department. Under his direction, the snail was gradually replaced by the mouse, as primary model organism. Geraerts devoted the last two years of his professorship to the initiation of a new, multidisciplinary center for neuroscience at the VU. It would incorporate the field’s full spectrum: from psychology and psychiatry to molecular biology and genetics. In 2003, the campus-wide Center for Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research (CNCR), nine departments strong, opened its doors.
The center’s current configuration, with its three departments working on animal models, commenced in 2007. The campus-wide institute continued as the Neuroscience Campus-Amsterdam (NCA). As of January 2012, professor Smit took over the position of CNCR director from professor Arjen Brussaard.

Times Ahead
The CNCR is considered as a research center of excellence. The umbrella organisation for Dutch universities, VSNU, examines biology labs across the country on factors as publication record and viability. CNCR was recently granted a spot in the top category for the second time in a row. Preserving and strengthening this status of excellence is what Smit sees as the single, most important issue as a director.
In line with emerging views in politics and society, Smit also stresses the importance of basic science to benefit clinical purposes. Smit reassures: “Many of our projects have great translational potential. I think of studies on white matter disease, Alzheimers, forms of mental retardation, addiction and stem cell therapy. The CNCR frequently takes part in consortia that bring together basic scientist, clinical parties and pharmaceutical companies in order to collaborate intensively.‚
The CNCR’s current position among competitive institutes of science is a cause for satisfaction for Smit: “From the very beginning, our aim was to be competitive with top-level research centers, worldwide. Not a trivial task for a newly founded institute. One needs at least four, five years of investment and hard work, only to get a firm start. CNCR is underway for almost a decade and as of now we have our series of, say ten, top-shelve publications to ground our claim of competition. My job is to strengthen our position even further. That’s on me, that’s on us for the years to come.‚