Spanish wine, Italian pasta, and cake on the deck

Professor Ellen Blaak shares a meal with the student drama association 'Alles is Drama'


It's raining cats and dogs, so everyone arrives somewhat bedraggled at Sophie van Rijnbach's studio. Zjuul Bartels takes the biscuit, but fortunately he has the solution in his bag: a set of dry clothes. He puts on his bow tie just in the nick of time for him to rush downstairs to greet Ellen Blaak, professor of Physiology of Fat Metabolism, with a glass of wine. She remained dry, thanks to the car. “I normally do everything by bike, but I got drowned once already today.”

“Do you all go to the Academy of Performing Arts?” Blaak asks after she has been given a chair and Van Rijnbach puts the spaghetti in the pot. “Not at all,” says Anneke Uiterwaal. “We all come from different faculties at the university and we are a mix of nationalities, half of us are foreign.” The students put on three shows each year, the next ones are at the beginning of June. Blaak tells about her own time as a student in Wageningen, where she studied Human Nutrition. “It is very small and closed-off there, you meet everyone when you go out on an evening.” She came to Maastricht for her PhD research, where – with the exception of a short stint abroad – she has remained. “I now work in Physiology – how the human body works. My research focuses on obesity. What causes obesity and why does it lead to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases? What happens in your body?” “Do you follow the advice given in your own nutritional habits?” Van Rijnbach asks. “That would drive me crazy. I mean, I am about to serve pasta Bolognese.” Blaak laughs. “You learn to put things into perspective, one specific product doesn't have that much influence, it is about your overall nutritional pattern and your health. I think it is a pity that there are so many hypes and alternative facts going around when it comes to nutrition, certainly when those facts – presented with greater or lesser categorical certainty – are linked to health.”

Thanks to the wine – Blaak brought along two bottles, as did two of the students, but first the already open box has to be finished – a Spanish wine (running gag this evening: if the wine in question is not great, you say that ‘you brought it back from Spain yourself, so it must be good’), conversation is about Bartels’ sideline. He is a member of Tuna, a group of Maastricht students who play traditional Spanish music. “Do you have Spanish roots?” Blaak asks. “Well …”, Bartels starts. “No, you don't,” the girls interrupt him in unison. Bartels continues seemingly indignant. “There is a man in our family tree during the Spanish War (the Eighty Years’ War, ed.) whom we can't quite place. We think that he was a Spanish soldier, because my sister was born with a birthmark, a Moor’s spot. This type of mole that disappears again and is seen a lot in descendants from Moors in Spain.” “And that has a lot of influence on your choices?” Blaak inquires dryly. Bartels, deadly serious: “Yes, and it will continue to do so in the future.”

Speaking of Spain, that is also where the play is from that the students are putting on in June. “It has been translated into English, but the names are still very Spanish. That is confusing,” says Hanna de Munck. “And some sentences have been translated poorly, so we don't understand what they say.” The students have to audition for the roles. “But we also have courses, so that everyone gets a chance to act,” says Maud Eskes. “The fun thing about a play is that you get to know the character you are playing as you go along. Did you ever have anything to do with drama?” Blaak: “Our department once went to the Academy of Performing Arts on a team outing. We did role playing, which was good fun.” Bartels: “If you'd like to do it again: this is your chance. There is sure to be a script lying around here somewhere.” Blaak allows the moment to pass.

During the moelleux – individual chocolate cakes of which the centre is still soft – Bartels is surprised that there are so few female professors. “I would have thought 50-50.” “That is the case with students,” says Blaak. “Of the professors at Human Biology and Movement Sciences I am the only female, at the UM the percentage of female professors is approximately 15.” As a result, they are asked relatively often for committees and similar positions. “They want to have a more balanced male-to-female professor ratio. That is a good thing, but it gets to be a bit much sometimes.” For some research committees, reviewers have to do a test before they assess a research proposal, says Blaak. “In the test, you have to link certain characteristics to names of men or women. You then get the results, which should make you aware of your prejudices.” “I think that would help,” says Eskes. “Awareness is the first step.”

“Did you know from a young age that you wanted to become a professor?” Eskes asks Blaak. “When I was a child, not at all. But as a student, I knew I wanted to do research. During my study, I did a research traineeship in Cambridge. That was when the option of PhD research in Maastricht became available.”

There is some talk about the committee work that the students do. Some of them were members of the anniversary committee for Alles is Drama, which was led by Bartels and was soon renamed ‘the prestis’, derived from prestigious. “Was that because you wanted to make a difference?” Blaak asks. “We did make a difference,” says Bartels. Van Rijnbach: “The meetings lasted two and a half hours. Fifteen minutes was spent on the anniversary party and the rest of the time it was about the guidelines for the meetings.” Bartels: “If, for example, an equal number of people were in favour of blue balloons as there were for yellow balloons, then each group chose a champion. That person had to drink a glass of an alcoholic beverage as quickly as possible. The person who did so quickest, got his or her way.” De Munck: “I did my application in rhyme. It was compulsory.” The party, by the way, had a dramatic end. “We were on a boat and there was a sudden storm. Everything blew over, everyone was in a panic, there was cake on the deck,” says Uiterwaal. The committee members still meet up with each other. Van Rijnbach. “The good thing is that there is no anniversary, so we can just talk about the guidelines.”

Ellen Blaak * 52 * professor of the Physiology of Fat Metabolism * two children * lives in Maastricht

Anneke Uiterwaal * 19 * second-year student of European and Dutch law * official for planning and activities at Alles is Drama

Hanna de Munck * 20 * third-year student of Medicine * member of Alles is Drama

Maud Eskes * 23 * UCM alumna * member of Alles is Drama

Sophie van Rijnbach * 26 * Psychology alumna * member of Alles is Drama

Zjuul Bartels * 23 * fourth-year student of Medicine * member of Alles is Drama

Scores by prof. Blaak (max. 5 stars)

Food: 5 stars “Delicious spaghetti, gorgeous chocolate dessert”

Cleanliness: 5 stars “I didn't do an in-depth inspection, but it looked neat.”

Hospitality: 4,5 stars “Lovely atmosphere, charming gentleman waiting for me at the door with a glass of wine. A minor point of attention: the sequence of the wine, always start with the best.”

Spanish wine, Italian pasta, and cake on the deck