In April, Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf opened the renewed Electron Microscopy Center (EMC) in Utrecht, a place where researchers from different disciplines can work with the expensive equipment. The field wasn't always this organized. The Microscopy Valley research program (Perspective funding instrument), in which various parties worked together intensively, initiated a change.
The Netherlands is traditionally strong in microscopy and its application. Within a limited number of square kilometers are developers, research groups that work extensively with (electron) microscopy and specialized companies, including Thermo Fisher, market leader in electron microscopy. And the physical distance is just as small as the threshold for collaboration. 'However, this field used to be very fragmented,' says Judith Klumperman, professor of Cell Biology at UMC Utrecht.
Klumperman is chairman of NEMI (Netherlands Electron Microscopy Infrastructure), the Dutch research facility in the field of electron microscopy, set up by thirteen knowledge institutions that have bundled technology and expertise. The EMC is one of the important nodes in this network. In 2018, NEMI was allocated 17,2 miljoen euros within the National Roadmap for Large-Scale Scientific Infrastructure. Since then, there has been a clear division of the various equipment per expertise among research centers in Delft, Leiden, Maastricht, Groningen and Utrecht.
Coordination and cooperation
‘Previously, universities only had their own lab for electron microscopy. That was enough. There was less need to get together. Technical developments were not as fast as they are now,' says Klumperman.
‘People knew each other, but there was less coordination and cooperation. Everyone did everything,' says Jacob Hoogenboom, associate professor at TU Delft. But the emergence of digital microscopy and developments in the materials and life sciences, disciplines that often work with electron microscopy, made collaboration necessary. ‘Specialized electron microscopy requires specific expertise, and the costs are high. It is impossible for every knowledge institution to do everything itself.'
Hoogenboom has been working in Delft since 2008 on integrated microscopy, the combination of electron and light microscopy, which the group of Professor of Nanoscopy and Microscopy Hans Gerritsen (Utrecht University) was also working on.
Under Gerritsen's leadership, they founded the Microscopy Valley research program, which received funding in 2012 through the Perspective programme. This is one of NWO's funding instruments in which researchers from various disciplines collaborate in consortia with industry and social partners.
Microscopy Valley, which ran through 2018, focused on the combination of light and electron microscopy techniques to visualize molecules such as proteins in cells. Researchers from Utrecht University, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, LUMC, UMCG, UMC Utrecht, University of Twente and TU Delft collaborated with thirteen companies, including microscopy manufacturers FEI (acquired by Thermo Fisher in 2016), Carl Zeiss and food producer FrieslandCampina. In addition to Hoogenboom, Klumperman was also active in the consortium. The research program has given a huge boost to collaboration in the field, both say.