Prof. Tony J Vyn's (Purdue University) reflections on his sabbatical leave at Wageningen University

Published on
August 14, 2017
January 3 to May 30, 2017

Although tenured university professors from North America typically are entitled to sabbatical leaves every 7 years, few take regular advantage of those opportunities. Even fewer leave their own country. In my case, my recent sabbatical at Wageningen University is the
second sabbatical leave during my 30-year career in academic positions at the University of Guelph and (since 1998) at Purdue University. At Purdue, sabbatical leaves at full salary are only possible for a maximum of 5 months for academic-year faculty appointments. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity to learn from Wageningen colleagues and potentially develop new collaborations while writing manuscripts from past research and being immersed in Dutch culture.

Over the years, my research interests have centered on both cropping systems and field crop physiology of maize-based production system (with an emphasis on understanding G x E x M interactions in plant nutrient efficiencies and environmental consequences). Since I couldn’t
choose between the Chair Groups of Dr. Ken Giller (Plant Production Systems) and Dr. Paul Struik (Cropping Systems Analysis), I corresponded with both. Both responded favorably and I was, therefore, thrilled to join two highly-acclaimed research and teaching groups. These Chair groups shared many common research themes, tools and facilities on the same floor of the Radix Building at the main campus. I was honored to spend some time with these Chairs despite their already extensive travel, teaching, writing, leadership and fund-raising

Highlights from that nearly 5-month period include the following:

  1. Engaging and collegial science discussions with faculty and graduate students in both Chair Groups.
  2. Participation in the regular Wednesday (Cropping System Analysis) and Thursday (Plant Production System) noon-hour seminars, other colloquia and special meetings, Tuesday morning roundtable updates, and graduate thesis proposal presentations.
  3. Formal (and yet public) Ph.D. defense “ceremonies” that followed the preparation of a thesis with a minimum of 4 publishable peer-reviewed manuscripts.
  4. Consistently friendly and highly capable staff member support.
  5. Fantastic pastries at the morning coffee break whenever there was a birthday or other occasion to celebrate.
  6. Submitting 5 papers that I co-authored with my graduate and post-doc students.
  7. Frequent national holidays (particularly in April and May) and long-distance bike riding opportunities on the world’s best bike paths.
  8. Understanding and talking more Dutch as the 5 months progressed (I had learned rudimentary Dutch as a child of immigrants to Canada).

Both Chair groups are highly productive despite office and research space constraints. In March, the QS World University Rankings once again placed Wageningen University #1 in the world for agriculture and forestry (Purdue University is tied for #8). The most compelling foundations that I experienced for such continued success in the Plant Sciences at Wageningen was an inspiring combination of rigorous academic preparation, successful integration of production and environmental sustainability goals, passion for the wellbeing of farmer and agricultural industry end users (in both developed and developing countries all around the world), willingness to study new crop species and basic processes, and novel crop science approaches employing modern statistics and crop modeling in “real” crops that feed the world.

Hopefully my brief sabbatical will encourage more Wageningen-Purdue collaborations at the student and professor levels as we tackle food security challenges in a changing climate.

Tony J. Vyn

(NOTE: hyperlinks added by PPS staff)