Ron Plasterk on Teaching at CSHL
  Ron Plasterk     Biography    
Recorded: 07 Jun 2004

One of the strengths of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is that it is a center; it is a node where people pick up things, take them home and then spread it around. That’s true for people who are here for meetings and for courses. But actually it’s also true for the teachers. So, I think I learned a lot from teaching a course because before that I’d seen a lot of graduate school courses where basically what you do is if you organize a course, you pick up the phone book, you call up a few friends, you put them on the list, those are the speakers and you give it to a student and the students—that’s organizing a course.

The way it’s done here is very intense. For one thing the teachers attend all the lectures and all the discussions, so they know what the students hear. And then in the morning you have a teacher, the teacher of the day basically—the speaker of the day who gives a lecture, one or two hours and then there’s a lunch break and then you come back and then what we do here is then the teachers go back up in front of the group and say, well, so this is what we heard our guest say this morning. Let me summarize. So we would summarize what we heard that morning. That’s really important because for one thing, it’s just a repetition—spaced training, which is a good way to remember what you’ve learned. The second thing is that as a teacher, because you interact with your students for two weeks or three weeks, you know what they know. You know that some of the things were just too difficult for them or were not clear, so you can clarify. And also because standing up there giving a lecture is more difficult than just sitting there and listening. So we as teachers would sit there and listen and we would recognize that the lecturer sometimes was not clear. They were not clarifying the point long enough. So we could go over that again. So I was sort of impressed. I said, “This is the way to teach a course,” and it is. So I’ve learned a lot. First time I tried that actually was back home in Amsterdam. I gave a course and we invited a professor from the University of Amsterdam who gave a lecture. When he was done, I said thanks and I got up and took a piece of chalk and said, so what you’ve heard this morning is the following, let me explain what you’ve heard. And he was so upset. He was actually very angry. He said, “If you know it so well why did you even invite me?” You know, he was offended. And that was an incident.

But what I do like about the attitude here and I think there is something generally American about it actually, is this attitude of “can do.” It’s important. The point is the goal is that the students learn and no nonsense about the pride of the teacher or the lecturer, that’s not what this is about. This is about making sure that the teaching really works. And these sensitivities of whether it is impolite to go over the stuff that was introduced by the morning speaker, nobody worries about that. I think that’s good.

Ronald Plasterk, is a Dutch politician of the Labour Party and successful scientist and molecular genetics. He studied biology at the Leiden University and economics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1981 he received the Dutch doctorandus degree in biology. In 1984 he earned a doctorate in mathematics and natural sciences from the University of Leiden.

After receiving his Ph.D. he moved to California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and worked as a post-doc (1985-1986) on the transposon sequences in DNA in the parasite Borrelia hermsii. Plasterk was also a post-doc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (1986-1987) where he studied Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode that is used as a model organism. His major area of research include genetics and functional genomics.

He came back to the Netherlands in 1987 and became a group leader and member of the board of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Between 1989 and 2000 he was director of the research school of oncology at the institute. From 1997 till 2000 he was professor of molecular genetics at the University of Amsterdam. In 2000 was appointed director of the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology (Hubrecht Laboratory) and at the same time he was a professor in developmental genetics at Utrecht University.

In February 2007 Ronald Plasterek was appointed minister of Education, Culture and Science in the fourth Balkenende government and he decided to end his scientific career. He held this position until February 2010. He is a member of the House of Representatives and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

More Information: Wikipedia