Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes/ Electronics Lab
Report on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus
The presence of Maastricht University can be felt not just in the inner city and Randwyck. A whole range of activities are underway in different places around the province, such as on the Chemelot campus near Geleen. But what exactly? Observant paid a visit to Center Court, which came into operation in August.
During a tour of the labs, laboratory coordinator Paul Lemmens comes across a student. He is working on his own, walking around in a white coat and safety goggles. Lemmens knocks on the door. “Is that your coat?” The student nods. “Could you please put on one of ours instead?” Lemmens asks. “Is there a size 48 though? They’re always so big”, the student replies, to which Lemmens shrugs. “That hardly matters, does it?” The young man changes into a different coat (unfortunately not one in size 48) and returns to the lab. “I don’t want them accidentally taking chemicals home on their coats and exposing themselves and others. Our coats stay here and get sent out to the drycleaners.” So why do students still buy their own coats? “Vanity”, Lemmens laughs.
Entering a faculty in Maastricht is a simple matter; the doors open automatically. No so at the Chemelot campus in Sittard-Geleen. Wandering around unannounced is not on the cards. Registered? Check. Day pass collected? Check. Car parked in the underground car park? Check. And don’t forget: taking photos beyond Center Court is prohibited.
The first thing you notice about Center Court is the sea of space. Neither money – some €45 million – nor trouble has been spared to make it a showpiece. There is an à la carte restaurant, a car park, sports facilities, an auditorium with three hundred seats and umpteen flex desks. Maastricht University has a strong presence on the second and third floors, home to the labs, offices and classrooms for students and researchers from the Maastricht Science Programme and the Master in Biobased Materials.
“Sorry, I just need to do something. Be right back.” Lemmens stuffs his phone into his pocket and dashes to an equipment lab, where a vat of nitrogen for the Ultrashield 300, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, needs refilling. A red and white chain makes clear to unauthorised personnel: you can go this far and no further. A log also has to be kept. “We want to know who did what and when.” This is not to suggest Lemmens doesn’t trust the staff. “But I do want to make sure the procedures are followed. It’s an expensive machine.”
This Tuesday afternoon, in the first week of the new block, all is quiet in the labs of the Maastricht Science Programme. Biologist and tutor Roy Erkens is holding his “smallest class ever”, the skills training Tree of Life. Four students are busying themselves with ferns, mosses and microscopes. They were bussed in from Maastricht to Chemelot this morning, and will head back to the city at five p.m. “The bus is organised by the course”, Lemmens says. “It’s expensive, but necessary.”
Lemmens made the transition over four years ago from the labs at Universiteitssingel 40 to the Chemelot campus. He found himself rattling around in an old building. “Prehistory”, he laughs. “Fortunately I’ve now returned to the 21st century.” “Back then the instruments were worth more than the building; now it’s the other way around”, jokes physicist and tutor Bart van Grinsven. “This is a step up, it’s so much more spacious”, Erkens says. The workbenches are arranged lengthwise rather than in rows, “so you have a better view of what the students are doing.”
One of them is Ilaria Oldrini. She is sketching out the characteristics of moss on an A4-sized piece of paper. During the course students learn about the life cycles of ferns, mosses, conifers and flowering plants, but also animals and fungi. For instance, how is a new plant ‘born’? Erkens points to a number of stems sprouting from a patch of moss. “The patch is made up of separate plants that create egg and sperm cells. After fertilisation you get these stems – a separate, second plant. Then these separate plants form spores and they in turn grow into a patch of moss”, he explains. Oldrini rummages around in a container for the right slide and places it under a strong light microscope. “An egg cell. They’re beautiful, these structures.”
A number of students in white coats enter the room, carrying test tubes. Researcher Erik Steen Redeker points them to the refrigerator. The first lesson of his synthetic biology practical has just come to a close. “We work with modified bacteria that smell like bananas”, he says. “Have a smell.” Wafting from an enormous bottle of isoamyl acetate is an odour that recalls banana sweets. During the course his students are faced with questions such as to what degree the bacteria smell like bananas over time.
Odour seems to be a common theme: in some labs an unbearable smell of sewage hangs in the air. “A teething problem,” says Lemmens, “but one we need to find a solution to.” He turns on taps here and there in an effort to alleviate the problem.
Most students have to be at Chemelot once a week. But final-year students like Sinan Őzkoc typically put in more frequent appearances, and there are even special ‘thesis labs’. Őzkoc is working on an antibacterial coating for silicone, a synthetic substance used, among other things, as a casing for breast implants. A large fume cupboard holds several flat dishes containing pieces of processed silicon. Fume cupboards are special work areas with sliding windows, “so you can work without being overly exposed to harmful substances or vapours”, Lemmens explains. Őzkoc has added to the silicone a synthetic and silver layer in order to enhance its antibacterial effect. A handwritten note on a yellow post-it reads: “Please keep these petridishes sealed all times! Thanks Sinan.” Silicone breast implants can be rejected by the body, says Őzkoc; some women become seriously ill or even die. Because silicone can ‘push away’ the skin, the risk is that a hotbed of bacteria develops under the skin.
Őzkoc is, with Lemmens’s permission, allowed to leave his things out – but further on, in the analytic lab, surrounded by all sorts of instruments and equipment such as spectrometers and a gas and liquid chromatograph, Lemmens spots a device that has been left running unattended. “What is this? I don’t want them just doing something and then taking off. I’ll have whoever it is by the scruff of his neck.”
Brightlands Chemelot Campus
Center Court is located on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Sittard-Geleen and will be officially opened on Wednesday 16 November. It lies on a separate part of the industrial park with fifty to sixty small businesses and larger companies, including Sabic (petrochemicals), Technoforce (a manufacturer of physical separation devices) and the new lab built by the biotechnology company Isobionics.
Some facts about Center Court:
* Who works there? Researchers and students from Maastricht University, the CHILL project (Chemelot Innovation and Learning Labs, a joint venture between Maastricht University, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences, Arcus College and the Leeuwenborgh regional training centre), and the cross-border research institute AMIBM (Aachen–Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials). In addition, the DSM Innovation Center and Chemelot Ventures have taken up residence on the site.
* Area for rent: 18,317 square metres
* Cost: Center Court cost around €45 million, half of which was provided by Chemelot Campus Vastgoed CV (UM, DSM and the Province of Limburg); the other half consists of bank loans and grants. Of the half put up by the campus partners, 94 percent came from the Province of Limburg. UM’s share was 2.8 percent, or €630,000. UM also invested approximately €4 million in the spaces it is renting in Center Court (fittings, inner walls, interior decoration, etc.).
Maastricht Science Programme
The Maastricht Science Programme is a broad-based, English-language bachelor’s programme in the sciences (including biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and neurosciences). The programme was launched in September 2011. In 2016 a total of 93 new students joined the course in the February and September intakes, up from 88 in 2015.