It was a rainy Sunday morning along the canal on Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam as Jan-Willem Mantel arrived on his bicycle for our recent origin of life chat at Café de Jaren. Mantel is a tall, athletic-looking man (perhaps 6’4” or so---I didn’t ask) with hands that appear capable of firing a Hail Mary football. But he’s actually a philosopher and musician who enjoys gardening and bicycle touring and has now been entrusted to orchestrate 18 teams of scientists connected to the new Dutch Origins Center.
It was a focused meeting, although I got the impression that Mantel could address almost any subject in conversation---a useful skill since his new role involves not only coordinating scientific research teams but engaging the public. Including potential origin of life funders.
He says he’s comfortable “support[ing] groups and individuals who have highly ambitious objectives in governance, management or operations”---a role he’s played for many years as projects and company secretary for the Dutch Natural History Museum, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, and Muziekschool Amsterdam.
Our interview follows.
Suzan Mazur: Are you adviser for the Dutch Origins Center exclusively or do you serve as consultant for other organizations as well?
Jan-Willem Mantel: I work exclusively for the Dutch Origins Center. After I graduated from university---my degree is in philosophy---I left academia and served as company secretary to various institutions. I returned more or less to academia 15 years ago as company secretary to the National Natural History Museum. Since then I’ve worked within science, always in support roles. I don’t publish philosophy papers.
Suzan Mazur: As secretary to various institutions, what did your work involve?
Jan-Willem Mantel: I prepared policy documents, reports, budget estimates. Things like that.
Suzan Mazur: You’ve also worked in a fundraising capacity?
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes, that has always been a large part of my job. That is again an important part of my job at the Origins Center.
Suzan Mazur: As manager of the Dutch Origins Center, you are both conferring with its scientists and engaging the public?
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes, I try to organize that.
Suzan Mazur: Are you the press officer as well?
Jan-Willem Mantel: I work through the universities and other organizations. They have their own communications departments. They are better at it than I am.
Suzan Mazur: How much is Ben Feringa involved in the Dutch Origins Center?
Jan-Willem Mantel: In a way he’s very substantially involved in that he wants to devote the next few years of his research career squarely in the origins of life field. He’s working on molecular systems, trying to understand what asymmetry means in these systems. Of course, as a Nobel laureate, he’s participating in all kinds of activities and he likes that as well. But in his research and the research of his group, origins of life is a very important theme.
Suzan Mazur: He’s working somewhat with Bert Poolman at the University of Groningen?
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes, and with other chemists.
Suzan Mazur: On synthetic cell development.
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes.
Suzan Mazur: They have a good-sized budget, 20 million euros, I understand.
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes. There are various programs already running.
Suzan Mazur: What is your interest in origin of life? You said you’re not an expert. But then no one is an expert.
Jan-Willem Mantel: I’m generally interested in how did it happen. Where did we come from? Is there life elsewhere? Etc.
Suzan Mazur: What sparked your interest in the Dutch Origins Center?
Jan-Willem Mantel: Frank Helmich chaired a group bringing people together to submit an origins proposal in the context of the Dutch science agenda. At the time, I worked at the Dutch Natural History Museum. I became interested when the University of Groningen decided to organize a team of scientists from all over The Netherlands around origins of life and advertised for a manager. I am now fully occupied by the Dutch Origins Center.
Suzan Mazur: You’re a musician as well.
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes, an amateur.
Suzan Mazur: What instrument do you play?
Jan-Willem Mantel: The bassoon.
Suzan Mazur: I read you were in various orchestras.
Jan-Willem Mantel: At the moment it’s a little bit low, I perform with only one small quartet. But, yes, I’ve played in all kinds of ensembles.
Suzan Mazur: The Dutch Origins Center is a virtual center, but would you say the University of Groningen serves as sort of the hub?
Jan-Willem Mantel: In a way. We try to create a flat network. We have groups in 17 or 18 universities and/or independent research organizations and we try to avoid one university leading or dominating. But, of course, the practical work has to be done somewhere and that is being done by Groningen. In an intellectual sense, however, you can’t say Groningen or any one of the others dominates.
The participating groups are at: University of Groningen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leiden, Delft University of Technology, Radboud University Nijmegen, VU University Amsterdam, Technical University of Eindhoven, Technical University of Twente, Netherlands Institute for Space Research, Netherlands Institute for Ecology, National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Erasmus Medical Center, Dutch Institute for Cancer Research ---17 or 18 altogether. They’re all strong groups, but very diverse groups in these institutions.
The idea was to bring people together to talk across disciplinary boundaries. The methodological assumption is that you get progress earlier and faster when you do that instead of researchers working separately. But it’s quite a challenge because we have astrophysicists, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, nanotechnologists, all disciplines of natural science, actually.
Suzan Mazur: How will you report progress?
Jan-Willem Mantel: Our main outlet, of course, will be scientific papers. But we will also communicate to the public. That’s part of the Dutch science agenda. It’s kind of an experiment. It was started by the former Dutch science minister, who provided an opportunity for the public to submit questions about science. About 12,000 questions were received on practical issues, theoretical issues, and quite a lot about the origins of life, life elsewhere, basic properties of life like evolvability, and more
So our own starting point is that set of questions. It gave us the opportunity to get organized and funded. To make a start. Of course we will report back to the public who submitted those questions when there is an interesting development.
We have been funded with 2.5 million euros and have defined a portfolio of projects that should advance the subject of origins of life as well as strengthen bonds between the various institutions. We have also recruited fellows for the Dutch Origins Center who will start in the first quarter of 2018. We’ve recruited worldwide.
Suzan Mazur: Are you planning public origin of life events?
Jan-Willem Mantel: Yes. In Amsterdam we have NEMO, the Dutch science museum, which has an events program where scientists often speak. And there are others as well. Our plan is to use the existing infrastructure for science communications, which is already quite well developed.