News Release

NWO Spinoza Prizes 2014 announced

NWO crowns the best scientists in the Netherlands

Grant and Award Announcement

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

Experimental physicist Dirk Bouwmeester, archaeologist Corinne Hofman, environmental technologist Mark van Loosdrecht and migratory bird ecologist Theunis Piersma have received the NWO Spinoza Prize 2014 from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. This was announced today by Jos Engelen, chair of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The NWO Spinoza Prize is the highest award in Dutch science. This autumn each of the laureates will receive 2.5 million euros to spend on scientific research.

An NWO Spinoza Prize is an accolade and a boost for further research. NWO awards the NWO Spinoza Prizes each year to researchers working in the Netherlands and who according to international standards belong to the absolute top of science.

Scientists can be nominated for the NWO Spinoza Prize. An international committee selects the best researchers on the basis of internationally recognised quality, the ability to attract and inspire young researchers, and knowledge utilisation and transfer. The NWO Spinoza Prize was first awarded in 1995. This year NWO is awarding the NWO Spinoza Prize for the twentieth time. Including these new laureates, the Netherlands now has 73 Spinoza laureates.

The laureates

Professor D. (Dirk) Bouwmeester (1967) is Professor of Physics at Leiden University and is also a professor at the University of Santa Barbara in California. As an experimental physicist, Bouwmeester studies and tests the boundaries of the quantum mechanical world and the 'classical' world and investigates whether there is actually a boundary between the two. And if there is, what characterises that boundary. The laws of quantum mechanics only appear to apply to the very smallest particles such as photons, electrons, atoms and molecules. For all larger objects, the classical laws of physics apply. Bouwmeester tests whether he can nevertheless bring larger objects into a quantum mechanical state: where a particle can be in two opposite states at once, for example.

New experimental method

In 2003, in collaboration with professor Penrose, Bouwmeester introduced a radical new method to experiment with the quantum mechanical properties of relatively large objects. Then in 2006 he demonstrated that a crucial technique for these experiments, namely the supercooling of an object with light, was possible. These supercooled experiments on mechanical systems have now been adopted by research groups worldwide and have ignited a race to test the quantum mechanics of relatively large objects.

Contributions to breakthroughs in physics

Bouwmeester's research has lead to breakthroughs in physics on several occasions. For example in 1997, when he was a researcher in Innsbruck under professor Zeilinger, he contributed to experimental research deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize: the first experimental evidence for quantum teleportation in which a particle assumes the properties of a different particle without having any contact with it. Bouwmeester has also done research into new forms of light: light that does not have the form of a wave but of a circle. These circles are connected and interwoven with each other and can form knots: he recently demonstrated that such knots of fields are also possible for plasma and for gravitational waves. Bouwmeester's current research includes artificial atoms in semiconductors, with possible applications in quantum informatics, and silver nanoclusters with optical properties inserted in DNA, which have possible medical applications.

Bouwmeester did his degree and PhD in Leiden and after periods at the universities of Oxford and Innsbruck he became a professor at the University of Santa Barbara in California. Bouwmeester returned to Leiden with a European Marie Curie Excellence Grant of two million euros, intended for setting up a transnational research group in Europe. Bouwmeester is currently professor at both Leiden University and the University of Santa Barbara. He combines the expertise of both research groups: experiments at extremely low temperatures and nanotechnology. Bouwmeester works closely with colleagues and specialised companies to develop the instruments he needs for his research. Bouwmeester wants to disseminate his knowledge to a wider public: for example, he participates in school projects and he also took part in a two-day meeting between physics and Buddhism with the Dalai Lama.

Nominated by professor Carel Stolker, Rector of Leiden University.

Professor C.L. (Corinne) Hofman (1959) is Professor of Caribbean Archaeology at Leiden University. Since the 1980s she has been carrying out archaeological research in the Caribbean region. Hofman studies the colonisation of the Caribbean from the viewpoint of the Caribbean-Indian population. With this approach she is rewriting the region's history and is providing new perspectives on a previously forgotten but important chapter in the world's history. Hofman has ensured that the vague historical picture that existed about Caribbean societies (and therefore the original inhabitants of the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean as well) has become an accurate, evidence-based reconstruction of settlements, burials, mobility, trade, material culture and lifestyle. The archaeologist focuses mainly on the communication systems and networks of interaction of the original Indian population before 1492 and the cultural and social changes that occurred in this after the European colonisation.

Transdisciplinary collaboration in NEXUS1492

Hofman heads up a large European transdisciplinary collaborative project NEXUS1492 in which more than 50 researchers are involved. For this project she received a European ERC Synergy Grant of 15 million euros in 2012. The team from Leiden, University, VU University Amsterdam and the University of Konstanz is doing research into the first cultural encounters between the residents of the New World and the Western colonialists. Hofman is known for her multidisciplinary approach in which she combines archaeology with, for example, isotope research, archeometrics, bio-archaeology, molecular biology, network analysis, ethnohistory and ethnography. With the combination of archaeology and network science Hofman is bringing about considerable innovation in the discipline.

Scientifically innovative and important for society

For years the archaeologist has called for the protection of the cultural heritage and the threatened soil archive of the Caribbean islands. Her contribution is not only scientifically innovative but also of fundamental societal importance. With her research, Hofman wants to contribute to capacity building, the historic awareness and the self-consciousness of the current population of the Caribbean region. A large part of her team comes from the Caribbean and in her research she works together with local stakeholders. She regularly invites school classes to excavation sites and she organises exhibitions and public lectures.

Hofman graduated as an archaeologist from Leiden University in 1987 and gained her PhD from the same university in 1993. Corinne Hofman has been Professor of Caribbean Archaeology since 2007. In addition she is an affiliate professor of the University of Florida. During her career she has received an Aspasia, a Vidi and a Vici grant from NWO and she was recently awarded a European HERA grant as well. Last year she received the KNAW-MERIAN prize for excellent female scientists who inspire young talent to pursue a career in science. Since September 2013, Hofman has been Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University. Furthermore, at the request of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Hofman is a member of the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO.

Corinne Hofman was nominated by professor Gillis Dorleijn, chair NWO Humanities.

Professor M.C.M. (Mark) van Loosdrecht (1959) is Professor of Environmental Technology at Delft University of Technology. Van Loosdrecht studies and influences the characteristics of microorganisms and microbial communities in technical systems. His research into the behaviour of bacteria under dynamic conditions is leading to new methods for purifying water or for producing valuable materials from waste. The research of Van Loosdrecht's group is now strongly focussing on the production of raw materials from waste flows.

Concrete applications of fundamental research

Van Loosdrecht and his research group combine fundamental research into microbial ecology with concepts from physics, chemistry and bioengineering. This is leading to paradigm shifts in science as well as to concrete applications in practice. Van Loosdrecht collaborates a lot with industry to implement his research in practice. He also seeks connections with scientists from other disciplines.

Inventor of new technologies

Van Loosdrecht's research into biofilms – a layer of microorganisms surrounded by their own slime that is attached to a surface – and storage compounds of microorganisms was the start of a new research area. Van Loosdrecht is also the inventor of the aerobic granular sludge technology (commercially known as the Nereda technology), which is based on controlling the growth and formation of microbial communities in granular sludge. Furthermore, he developed the Anammox technology with which harmful ammonium together with nitrite is converted into the harmless substances nitrogen gas and water. Using these techniques, polluted water can be purified using less energy, fewer chemicals and with less CO2 emissions. The Nereda technology has been designated as an important new Dutch innovation and is starting to make a broad international breakthrough. Various pilot installations are currently running for household wastewater in the Netherlands, Portugal and South Africa. Recently Royal HaskoningDHV concluded major contracts for exporting the technology to Brazil and the United Kingdom. The biopolymer alginate can be extracted from the Nereda sludge. Successful pilot plant experiments are currently being carried out on the production of bioplastic from wastewater.

Mark van Loosdrecht studied environmental hygiene at Wageningen University where he gained his PhD in 1988. After that he left for Delft University of Technology where he has been a professor since 1999. Since 2004 he has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and since 2007 a member of the Netherlands Academy of Technology and Innovation (AcTI). He has received numerous prizes in the Netherlands and abroad, from the scientific world and from industry. As a distinguished lecturer, he gave a college tour to universities in the United States in 2013. Furthermore, he is principal researcher at KWR Watercycle Research Institute, holds an honorary doctorate at ETH Zurich and is an honorary professor at Queensland University in Australia.

Nominated by professor Karel Luyben, Rector Delft University of Technology, professor Jacob Fokkema, Chair NWO Earth and Life Sciences and Bertrand van Ee, Chair Netherlands Academy of Technology and Innovation.

Professor T. (Theunis) Piersma (1958) is Professor of Global Flyway Ecology at the University of Groningen and is Wadden Sea biologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ). With an international research team he investigates how climate, food, predators, pathogens and historical-genetic background influence mudflat and meadow birds. For example he is investigating godwits and red knots. The research is taking place in the Netherlands, Africa, Australia, North and South America and Asia. Along the migratory bird routes, Theunis Piersma has built a worldwide research network. In addition, Piersma is leading research into the influence of nature conservation plans on migratory birds.

Environment, evolution and aerodynamics Piersma's research changed the standard ideas about flight aerodynamics (the maximum non-stop flight distance for a bird was found not to be 5000 km, but a staggering 13,000 km), has demonstrated the major role of pathogens in the life and evolution of mammals and birds, and thrown new light on how the flexibility of the phenotype - what an animal looks like or how it manifests itself - influences evolution in animal species. Piersma made the knowledge about the phenotype applicable outside his own discipline as well.

Research leads to new nature management Piersma combines different research methods: from sampling shellfish and worms in the Wadden Sea, interpreting satellite images to map conditions on a large-scale, molecular genetic research, and the use of micro-transmitters to follow individual birds to the use of advanced statistical methods to unravel all of these processes. The fundamental research of Piersma has led to major adjustments in nature management on many occasions. His research into soil animals and the sediment composition of mudflats in the Wadden Sea has led to a ban on the mechanical fishing of cockles and to changes in the management of the Wadden Sea. His research has also given a boost to an innovative approach to the most characteristic aspect of Dutch biodiversity, meadow birds.

Passion for biology Piersma's passion for biology is not only expressed in research: together with the multi-instrumentalist Sytze Pruiksma he developed the show 'Music of Migration'; a story about the godwit. In his free time he has also written the book 'De Zwaluwen van Gaast', in which he describes his fascination for the fellow residents under his roof: the house martin.

Theunis Piersma studied biology at the University of Groningen where he gained his PhD in 1994. Since his PhD he has worked as a researcher at NIOZ, the national expertise centre in sea research. In 2003 Piersma was appointed by the University of Groningen as Professor of Animal Ecology. In 2012 he exchanged this professorship for the new Professorship of Global Flyway Ecology, inaugurated and co-funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Vogelbescherming Nederland. In 2004 he was awarded the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation Prize for Nature Conservation. Since 2009 he has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received many international prizes. His two laboratories, one in Groningen and one at NIOZ, are recognised worldwide as the best two places for research into migratory birds.

Nominated by professor Elmer Sterken, Rector University of Groningen.

Award ceremony

On 9 September 2014 the NWO Spinoza Prizes will be presented during a special ceremony at the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. The laureates will then receive their prize money and present their research as well as their plans for the coming years.


About NWO

With a budget of 625 million euros per year, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is one of the biggest funding bodies for scientific research in the Netherlands. NWO promotes quality and innovation in science by selecting and funding the best research. It manages research institutes of national and international importance, contributes to strategic programming of scientific research in the Netherlands and brings science and society closer together. Research proposals are reviewed and selected by researchers of international repute. More than 5000 scientists can carry out research thanks to funding from NWO.

Further information

Photos of the laureates in high-resolution: The photos may be used free of royalties for reports about the NWO Spinoza Prize as long as the correct source is stated.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.