Leiden and Delft universities have launched a new joint minor: Sustainable Chemistry and Biotechnology in September 2021. It is a selection minor aimed at students with a solid chemistry or biotechnology background, who are interested in solving urgent matters in the field of sustainability.
‘A minor that focuses on sustainability from a chemistry and biotechnology point of view does not exist,’ says Marcellus Ubbink, program director of the bachelor Life Science and Technology at Leiden University. ‘I felt we needed a modern minor that appeals to students, who are concerned with sustainability issues.’
The aim of the minor is to give students a good view of where the big questions and problems regarding sustainability lie and how they can approach these problems, regardless of whether they will work in academia, industry or politics. Ubbink explains: ‘Students wishing to follow the new minor need a solid background in chemistry or biotechnology,’ Ubbink explains. ‘The idea is to combine that knowledge with sustainability issues and make them feel the sense of urgency.’
Training sustainability awareness
The minor is the result of long-standing cooperation between three departments: the Leiden Institute of Chemistry and the Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology departments of the faculty of Applied Science at the TU Delft. These departments collaborate by providing the joint degree bachelors Molecular Science and Technology (MST) and Life Science and Technology (LST) and now join forces in organizing the minor and providing the teachers.
Whereas Leiden has a clear focus on fundamental chemistry, the emphasis in Delft is on biotechnology and chemical engineering aspects. Students from the Erasmus University Rotterdam are welcome to apply (as are any other students), provided they can demonstrate sufficient skills in chemistry, says Ubbink: ‘We need that level of chemistry to reach the required depth of understanding of the sustainability problems.’
If we educate the bachelor students now there will be a new generation that knows how the circular economy works, also from a technological point of view. - Yuemei Lin
Content coordinator from Leiden University is Dennis Hetterscheid, an associate professor in Leiden in the area of energy and sustainability. He stresses the importance to train new students in the field of sustainability: ‘The transition to a circular system is the biggest challenge of mankind in the coming years. Chemistry and biotechnology are a huge part of that. It's important that we make students aware of this and train them.’
Coordinating the course for the two departments at the TU Delft is Yuemei Lin, an associate professor of biotechnology. Her research focuses on the use of the biopolymers produced in the excess biomass that is produced in biological processes. ‘If we educate the bachelor students now there will be a new generation that knows how the circular economy works, also from a technological point of view,’ she says.
One of the main parts of the course is a group project that runs over the full length of the minor. Students choose their own topics and in mixed groups set out to find a solution. Hetterscheid says: ‘The students have to work together, come up with solutions and help each other. We give them different roles during the project, everyone gets to be leader once. So we can also connect this to leadership training.’
Lin says: ‘During the group project the students really have to work as a team. We think that is important to learn before they go and find a job in a company or an institute. There they will always have to work together with other people.’
Ubbink says: ‘Especially solving this kind of sustainability problems is always multidirectional in teams with different backgrounds. People from the industry ask us to train students to work in multidisciplinary groups because that is what they do. We also have guest speakers from the industry to learn from their approach and to hear about new issues. You can have beautiful theories on how to go circular, but in the end, you need customers, it needs to be cheap, implementable and large scale.’
The application for the minor closes on April 15th. The organizers hope for a sizeable group, but not too large, says Ubbink: ‘The first time you run a course is always a try-out. It would be good if the group is not too large. But we received some good interest during the new minor online markets last week in both Leiden and Delft. And mouth-to-mouth will be important.
Marcellus Ubbink - Program director bachelor Life Science and Technology, Leiden University
'I found that we needed a more thematic minor aimed at the modern topic of sustainability that appeals to the students, so I started the process of setting up the new minor. We believe that there is a strong biotechnological and chemical aspect to sustainability, so these students will be able to really contribute as leaders in the future to the changes that are necessary. We want to convey a sense of urgency. Our students tell me they find this a really important topic and they have chemical knowledge. In this minor, we combine these two. It is very much not a minor about hard-core chemistry and technology but about sustainability.
Within my research group, I study proteins on a very fundamental level. What inspires me is that nature recycles almost everything all the time. We should do that in the same way and that is what I want to teach to students. If all people want a washing machine and a car we have to do as nature does.’
Dennis Hetterscheid - Associate professor Fundamental research in Energy and sustainability, Leiden University
'I think it's a really important topic. How are we going to continue to live on this planet? If we continue on a path where everything is linear, from a starting material that you use and then throw it away, I don't think this planet will be inhabitable in a couple of centuries. I think we have to go to a circular system, that's the biggest challenge of mankind in the coming years. Chemistry and biotechnology are a huge part of that. It's important that we make students aware of this and train them. The goal for me is not to get more students in my research group, although my topic fits very well. But this minor is more important than just getting students in the group.’
Yuemei Lin - Associate professor Environmental Biotechnology, TU Delft
'In my research, we recover waste materials. For example, bacteria that treat wastewater produce biopolymers that we can use as a resource for new chemicals to replace oil-based materials. My experience is that students sometimes think that waste can only be waste. I think it's important to educate them that we can upcycle these materials and use them as a resource. If we educate the bachelor students now there will be a new generation that knows how the circular economy works, also from a technological point of view.
The cooperation between Leiden and Delft is certainly also an advantage from a teachers point of view. You can see how the others teach. And it extends our network which is beneficial for our research. Organizing a new course forces you to meet with people from the other universities. I certainly wouldn't know Dennis if it wasn't for the cooperation on the new minor. Certainly in the first years of setting up a course, we discuss and learn a lot about how to organize the course smoothly.’