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“I was in hospital and I thought: this is fun, too”

“I was in hospital and I thought: this is fun, too” “I was in hospital and I thought: this is fun, too”

Alumni about their dreams: did they come true?

He always wrote long articles, filling entire pages with them. “You paid us per word, that’s why,” laughs Marc Bonten (1964), who worked as a student freelancer for Observant between 1987 and 1989. His writing was great, but his future wouldn’t be in journalism. He was studying medicine, but did he want to be a doctor? He was in doubt about it. By now, he’s a professor and an internationally recognised expert in the field of infectious diseases who has received an NWO Vici grant. And spends a lot of his time in meetings.

He will be available by telephone at 9 a.m., Marc Bonten lets Observant know via email – and not a minute sooner, as it turns out. When his phone rings at 8.58 a.m., he’s still in a strategy meeting of the University Medical Centre Utrecht, which began at 7.30 a.m. All these meetings are driving him mad. It’s a good thing he no longer sees patients: “Back in my day, you could just grab a cup of coffee and go see a colleague if you wanted to talk about a specific patient. These days you have to schedule an appointment, organise an MDD…”

A what now? “Sorry, a multidisciplinary discussion. I’m 55 now, I’m the head of the medical microbiology department. The fun part is being at the controls. But all these meetings… will I do this for ten more years? I think about it a lot.”

He had very different plans when he was in secondary school. He liked to exercise. “I wanted to become a PE teacher until I tore my cruciate ligaments, playing football when I was seventeen. I had a limp for a year and playing sports is still difficult.” He had a few surgeries, which introduced him to hospital life. “I thought: this is fun, too.” Unfortunately, his grades weren’t good enough for him to be admitted to study medicine. “That’s when I followed a friend to Tilburg to study journalism. I was accepted. I was still there, crashing with friends, when my father let me know there’d been a phone call for me from Groningen. They had a spot for me after all, at the Faculty of Medicine in Maastricht. We didn’t have mobile phones back then, so a decision had to be made straight away. My father told me, ‘I said you’ll take it.’”

 

Being a student means having a student life. “Yes, I definitely made the most of that, haha. The educational system afforded us a lot of freedom. Passing exams wasn’t a problem.”

That said, it took him six years – rather than the prescribed four years – to complete the first part of his degree, from 1983 to 1989. “I held a position on the board of student association Koko for a year, worked at a café, worked for Observant and wrote freelance football match reports for De Limburger. And I was having serious doubts about becoming a doctor. I even switched to studying Dutch law for a year, to at least keep my scholarship. I came to a few conclusions about my future that year. It wouldn’t be in law, hospitality or even in journalism. Working as a student assistant helped me realise I wanted to go into medical research. As a journalist, you write about other people’s achievements; as a researcher, you create something yourself.”

 

Around 1990, he did a clinical rotation in Leiden in the department of infectious diseases. “The AIDS epidemic was spreading. It was new and not yet understood. Young people were presenting terrible symptoms, dying. I wanted to know everything there was to know about it.”

Infectious diseases and the increase in antibiotic resistance became the subjects of his research. The realisation he came to while working as a student assistant eventually led to him completing his PhD in 1994. The next year, he left for Chicago for six months. “I was rather ambitious, looking to connect with the leaders in the field.”

He became an expert himself. He even made it to the Dutch eight o’clock news, sounding the alarm about antibiotic resistance. “I was one of the first people to do so. I’ve changed my mind about it, though. I now think we shouldn’t exaggerate the problem, at least not in countries like the Netherlands. It’s not the end of the world. There are much bigger problems. We’ll develop new types of antibiotics, and also: let’s focus on prevention instead. On preventing infections, but also on preventing the spread of the resistance. We’re much better at that in the Western world than they are in poor countries, where antibiotic resistance is or will be a big problem.”

His life revolves around science. This became even more true for him when he moved to Utrecht in 1998 and his relationship with his girlfriend of almost ten years ended. “It had run its course. But it wasn’t a great time for me. All of a sudden, I was on my own in a city I didn’t know. Most of my colleagues had young families, so it took me a while to build a new network. My memories of Maastricht didn’t help, either; Utrecht kept coming up short in comparison.” Did he have new girlfriends? Yes, he did, “but they never stayed very long”.

There were advantages to this, though. He worked hard and made great strides in his career. “I didn’t have anything or anyone holding me back. I could just hop on a plane to attend a lecture in the US or Barcelona. Of course I felt lonely sometimes, but it’s not like I spent all my time sulking in a corner.”

In 2005, he met someone who stayed. She’s his wife now. “Helen Leavis. She’s a general medicine specialist and a much better doctor than I ever was.” Their son was born in 2010, followed by two daughters. “I’m an old dad, but I always say: the first 45 years of my life were for me. I am a sweet dad, I think. We do have to be strict with them from time to time. All three are quite stubborn, just like their parents.”

Do you still write? “I do. I write a blog in English on a website about infectious diseases. “It’s quite casual, but a lot of people approach me about it.” And my son wants to be a writer. He’s already working on a semi-autobiographical book about a nine-year-old boy who plays football. We get to read it; that is lovely.”  

(Un)fulfilled dreams

In 2003 we interviewed UM students about their dreams for the future. Now, in 2019, it’s time to check in with them and see where they’re at. They’re about forty years old now; did their dreams come true? We’re using this special year (Observant is celebrating its 40th birthday!) as an opportunity to find out. Former student journalist Niels van der Laan, who wrote the majority of the interview articles in 2003, is writing a fair share of this year’s articles as well. In addition to the previously interviewed alumni, we’re interviewing former Observant student journalists about their fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams.

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