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“I can choose from London, Delft and Lausanne"

“I can choose from London, Delft and Lausanne"

Photographer:Fotograaf: Simone Golob

First Science Programme graduates fly out

The Maastricht Science Programme will award its first bachelor’s diplomas in three weeks’ time. Where will the students end up? Are they unsure about their future? A talk with dean Thomas Cleij and with three students. “Study delay has become a dirty word."

It is 9:00hrs, at the end of May. In the courtyard of the building on the Kapoenstraat 2 you could fire a gun. Not a student in sight. Even the common room is deserted. It is exam week. And the third-year students are putting the final touches to their theses.

The peace and quiet at the home base does not mean that staff are putting in fewer hours. “The bureaucracy continues,” says programme director professor Thomas Cleij. “Everything is new for us. We are putting together a graduation ceremony for the first time. In the Bonbonnière, on 4 July. Nothing spectacular: we hand out a sheet of paper, make sure there is food and drinks and have a party. There won’t be a fireworks show or anything like that, we are boring scientists. We will get help from University College, but still: what should such a diploma look like, who is to do the printing, how to handle printing errors, where to order caps and gowns?”  

So not too much fuss, but nonetheless this first awarding of diplomas is very important, says Cleij, professor of Polymer Sciences. “Also because we never had a celebratory kick-off. When you start with a new programme, you invite someone to come and cut the ribbon. We didn’t do that because the programme was controversial from the beginning. Other universities were not pleased with our initiative. So this graduation ceremony is in fact our first party.”

75 newcomers

The first batch of students started off in 2011. They chose something new: the Science Programme was actually the first liberal arts programme in the science world. Students choose their own set of subjects, varying from linear algebra, thermodynamics, genetics, to cognitive neurosciences. They do so under the supervision of lecturers, who act as academic advisors.

Setting up a new programme was a rude awakening, says Cleij, as he takes stock. “We worked our asses off. The staff had trouble keeping up, sometimes someone drops out. We struggled with this. We recently posted another vacancy.”

What exceeded the expectations? “Recruiting good students. That was much easier than we thought. The UM has hardly any reputation in the field of science programmes, and yet we receive a lot of enrolments. That is why we can afford the luxury of a strict selection process and refusing students. The bar in our education programmes is much higher than three years ago. The present first-year students solve more difficult issues in chemistry than the first batch. The price we pay for this is a smaller number of students. We now have 75 newcomers a year, while we had planned 90. The UM likes to see a table that rises steeply, but you shouldn’t mix good students and students who are not so good.”

For the moment, this philosophy leads to high study results: of the 49 students who started in 2011, 24 will now receive a diploma. This means that 50 per cent has completed the programme within the prescribed three years, so without any study delay; after four years the percentage will most likely be 80 per cent. Cleij: “The Science Programme suits these times, in which study delay has become a dirty word. Things used to be different. I myself took six years to complete my studies.”


Cleij assured us in Observant three years ago that his students “would be some of the best graduates in the world of science”. He still thinks that way. “They have learned to think broadly, to make links between subjects, they are strong communicators and they are creative. Some of them have already been accepted to master’s programmes in Liege, Groningen, Zürich and Maastricht. But we still have to wait and see: we will know exactly in September where everyone has ended up. That will be an exciting moment. I hope a few will find their way into top programmes in the US or England and that some will choose to stay in Maastricht, for example for a medical or neurosciences master’s. The aim of the programme was after all to strengthen the region.”

According to Cleij, the students are less unsure about the future than their peers were at University College (also liberal arts), for whom a web tool was designed to provide insight into relevant follow-up studies. “We only concern ourselves with science subjects and that makes matters easier. What you do see, is the second and third batch watching those who are first to graduate. It is mainly the parents who are unsure at the open days. ‘What can you do with this study?’, they ask. ‘Where will my son end up?’ I am pretty clear on that: ‘No idea.’ We will only know when the first batch has left.”

It is important that the UM develops a coherent vision about the role of natural sciences in Maastricht. “There are plenty of initiatives, recently we appointed a professor who knows a lot about nanobiology, a new research group from Twente that are dealing with technology and regenerative medicine, all well and good, but these are still loose pieces. We also have to think about the connection between the bachelor’s and the future master’s programmes and PhDs. That can’t wait for years. Something that is being discussed at the moment is whether there should be a faculty of Natural Sciences. I cannot say anything about that now. Hopefully there will be more clarity by autumn.”


Name: Daniel Gregory (21)

Nationality: Belgian

Specialisation: chemistry

Why the Science Programme? “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do chemistry or physics. In Maastricht I didn’t need to choose and I could put together my curriculum the way I wanted. I eventually specialised in chemistry.”

The programme’s strength? “The learning environment, working in small groups, the contact with the lecturers who are very accessible. They encourage you to think for yourself, to choose your own route. I thought that was very good.”

Its weakness? “It would be a good thing if more subjects were offered. For example, I was interested in materials science but I was only able to choose physical chemistry and solid-state physics, which is not the same. At other times, if more students missed a subject, then sometimes a subject was added, such as data structures and algorithms.”

What now? “I have enrolled for a master’s in material science at Imperial College London, the TU Delft and the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne. I was accepted by all three. I still have to do an interview but my preference is for Delft and Lausanne, because I won’t only be taught in English but also in Dutch or French. Those are the languages that I want to train myself in. I am a Canadian who went to a British school in Belgium. I would like to write my thesis in London, because of the excellent reputation that Imperial College has. I did my student research and wrote my thesis here, so I know quite a few people already.”


Name: Marjolein Sliepen (20)

Nationality: Dutch

Specialisation: chemistry

Why the Science Programme? “To find out what I wanted to do. I liked all of the science subjects at secondary school. I eventually chose chemistry.”

The programme’s strength? “I found it very inspiring to study with not just chemists but also with physicists and mathematicians. That provides exciting dynamics in the group. Everyone has a different view of things, has other suggestions and ideas. That makes the discussion in the group meetings interesting. I think that is why we communicate more easily with other science students.”

Its weakness? “In the first year, the number of subjects was limited, approximately five per block. For example, I would like to have chosen biochemistry but that wasn’t possible at the time. It is understandable when a programme is just starting up. Still, as a student in the first batch, I never felt I was at a disadvantage.”

What now? “I am going to do a master’s in organic chemistry in Helsinki. I am from Geleen and first wanted to go to Eindhoven or Nijmegen. But along the way, I have become ‘jealous’ of my fellow-students, some of whom have seen quite a lot of the world already. Why Helsinki? Good question. There is something about Scandinavia and this master’s appealed to me.”


Name: Paolo Marangio (20)

Nationality: Italian

Specialisation: biology

Why the Science Programme? “I was interested in biology when I was in secondary school, but I wanted to combine it with chemistry. That is why I chose Maastricht. I am mainly interested in molecular biology and if you apply that knowledge, then pretty soon you will need chemistry. Just think about the development of medicines.”

The programme’s strength? “The fact that you can combine all kinds of subjects. I think that multidisciplinarity in science will become more important.”

Its weakness? “That we are the first who have taken this programme. You don’t know if you will be accepted to the master’s of your choice. It is possible that universities will reject you, fortunately that is not the case for me.”

What now? “I enrolled for the master’s of biotechnology in seven universities. I was accepted in Edinburgh, London, Birmingham and Lund, in Sweden. I have more or less made up my mind, it is to be Edinburgh. This programme is in the top 20 in the world. And the lecturers work closely with businesses. So I think I can find a traineeship or a job more easily there than at other universities.”



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