Blog: Working without a watch: time and space for reflection

Maria Barbosa has been awarded a Dutch L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship. She reports on her three month stay at the NIAS Campus in Wassenaar.

Last year I was awarded the Dutch L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship. This fellowship comprised a three month stay at NIAS (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study and part of the Royal Academy of Science), the funds to organise a workshop at NIAS and an international study trip.

What did it mean for me?

Winning this fellowship represented recognition by my peers, in my own Institution (Wageningen UR) and externally. In addition, the public communication associated to the prize brought my scientific research closer to society. NIAS is a recognized Institute in the field of Humanities but not well known in the field of life sciences. Most fellows at NIAS are alpha scientists, however, the idea behind NIAS is applicable to all scholars; a place and time to think and interact with other scholars from all over the world.

In a society where standardization, management and administration are becoming a large burden to scientists, isn’t NIAS a great opportunity? To think, write and discuss ideas without looking at the watch. The NIAS campus in the Netherlands is situated in quiet and inspiring surroundings. The mission of the institute, which was founded in 1970, is to foster advanced research and to stimulate interdisciplinary scholarly co-operation in an international setting.

Multidisciplinarity is essential to be able to reach impactful results and changes in our society. Being a life scientist with the ambition to foster implementation of a new sustainable biobased technology in our society, the opportunity to exchange ideas, opinions and knowledge with so many different scholars from so many different topics raised in me a huge curiosity and expectations which I could not beforehand translate into concrete images and impact at personal and professional level.

Microalgae as new biomass source

My research focus is on microalgae as a sustainable new biomass source to produce the future chemicals, energy, food and feed ingredients in our society, preventing dependence on fossil fuels and decreasing the pressure on agricultural crops for non-food applications. In addition to the subject itself, my energy comes from people around me. I was, for a few months, part of a group of over fifteen scholars from all over the globe who created a dynamic, interactive and international scientific community and stimulate each other’s ideas. Every scholar presented his/her research in an informal way in the beginning of the academic year. It was inspiring to hear all the different topics and to see that even in subjects very far away from my own research topic, my curiosity and interest could be raised and sharpened by the way each scholar presented his/her own research: with knowledge, enthusiasm and believe.

Without a clock

During three months I had an office and my own little studio at the quiet and inspiring surroundings of the NIAS campus. The staff is wonderful and I didn’t have to worry about anything but my research. The quietness and time dedicated to my own research were only broken for the lively lunches and tea breaks. But even for these breaks the scholars did not need a watch, we were called at the intercom in our own office, in the most friendly way: “Dear fellow, it is time for…” and then it was time to be together, to lunch, to discuss progress and ideas.

Most of the time was dedicated to my own research, without a clock and administrative tasks. During this time I worked on a research proposal to submit for a personal grant on the field of microalgae biotechnology and in addition, during the stay at NIAS I organised a workshop, to set-up a new large research program with academic and industrial partners. We were with a group of 20 researchers who also stayed one night at NIAS. It was a fantastic experience for everyone. I was often told with a smile on the face….” I understand now why you have been hiding here…”


The next step will be a study trip abroad to Brazil, a country with a strong track record on biofuels, to visit research institutions working on this topic and establish new contacts and collaborations. I look back at NIAS as an inspiring concept, location and period in my career.