Andries Boers – Master programme in biology

The Netherlands

Read on for a longer version of the interview:

Already during my bachelor I thought that I would like to study in Sweden, because I was interested in Sweden as a country. Where I’m from Sweden has a name of being sustainable. Then I looked into the different universities here in Sweden, and Uppsala came up on many lists as being a great student town in Sweden, and a place where it’s fun to study and with great programmes.

After choosing Uppsala University I chose the Master programme in biology with the specialisation Cell and molecular biology, because I was already a molecular biologist and wanted to continue in the field. Within the specialisation there are a lot of specific molecular biology courses, such as microbiology and synthetic biology, and they really represent newest developments in the field. After that I have been continuing as a bioinformatician, something I was already interested in earlier.

In the beginning I also participated in something called IGEM, which is a project revolving around a group of students making our own molecular biology system. Later on I think I liked working with computers and with biological data better, so I felt compelled to go back to that. As a bioinformatician you analyse the huge amounts of data that are generated in molecular biology, and try to make sense of the data. So I’ve been working a lot with genomic data, and studying DNA sequences and trying to retrieve information about microbes based on their genomes.

I certainly think that the Cell and molecular biology specialisation gives you a great possibility to choose all the different courses IBG has to offer. Sometimes you have to go through some systems, but people at IBG have been helping me to get to the right courses and get in contact with the right people. So when you have a department to help you it makes it a lot better.

There are many different biology specialisations, and the structure varies a lot. In Cell and molecular biology you all start with the same course called Trends in molecular biology and biotechnology. This course is one that everybody takes, and after that there is a lot of room for specialisations so you can choose courses in what you think is interesting. Uppsala has a lot of great research in RNA for example, but there are also courses on molecular structure, microbiology, synthetic biology, infection biology. I even took a course on management, which was a different angle. During the second year you have a degree project where you do studies in a specific topic and actually learn what it is to do research. I think one of the nice things at IBG is that you can take a course consisting of 15 credits (half a semester) of preparation, during which you can work in a lab and try out different techniques. That way you have sort of a trial where you can see if you fit in the lab and subject.

When I moved here it was actually the first time I was going to be so far away from my family and from the Netherlands. So I took all my stuff with me, because I thought it would be good to take everything in a truck and move here. And then you come into Flogsta, which is a place where most students live during the first year. And yeah, it was fun! There’s many, many students there in a close vicinity, so it’s a bit of a hectic world, but a very exciting one.

During my studies I joined a student nation called V-dala. The student nations are a type of student clubs. At V-dala I joined the student choir, which is a really fun way to get to know the Swedes, because you sing a lot in Swedish. And it’s a very fun way to come into the Swedish traditions, and to practice your Swedish.

One of the more fun things that happened was actually the introduction week, the first week I was here at the IBG. I met friends with whom I’ve been hanging out with for the last two and a half years. There were people from Mexico, Australia, Iceland, The US, Canada, Switzerland. It’s such an amazing range of people that you get to know, and so many countries to learn about. It’s amazing what you learn about these people while you experience Sweden together. International studies is a great experience to have, a great adventure.

An average day of courses differs a lot depending on the course. But very often there is a good mix of lectures and practicals, both in the lab or computer lab. Often you would have a lecture in the morning and then practicals in a lab or computer lab during the afternoon, to see the theory in practice. Courses are often given in blocks of 15 credits, which means that you’re working on one course at a time. This gives you the opportunity to go into depth with this one course.

The education system here and the one I had during my bachelors differ. I think that in Sweden it really revolves around positive learning, they try to inspire people to ask questions and go more into the material themselves. It’s not so much about hard deadlines and tough teachers, but more about getting people to ask questions. And there’s very little hierarchy in Sweden. You call the professors by their first name, and they call you by your first name as well. In general they’re here to help you, supporting you in understanding the course material. I’ve had professors who started looking for literature after someone asked a question, and came back the next day with a research article on the specific topic.

When I came here to start studying I must say I really liked the town a lot. First of all it’s beautiful. There’s an amazing cathedral, and a lot of old buildings owned by the students. There’s in general a very active student life here in Uppsala. The weather in Sweden, is something to get used to. There’s a lot of autumn to be had, and not that much summer. But I think one of the nicest things with the Swedish weather is that there is actual real seasons. We had a really nice winter this year, I could go ice skating outside. And although the autumn is kinda cold and very wet it is also nice to sit inside with your friends and have some fika, which is the Swedish word for coffee and something to eat. And then when the sun gets out it’s a kind of ecstasy that the Swedes get, everyone is so happy that the sun is out.

There are many different campuses in Uppsala, and they are actually spread around town so they’re not all in one place. There’s many different libraries, and all the different campuses have their own facilities. As a biologist you are mostly at Evolutionary Biology Centre (EBC) or the Biomedical Centre (BMC). EBC is for the more green biologists who focus on ecology and such, and the BMC is a huge building where there’s a lot of lab coat biology going on. The BMC is shared with the medical and pharmaceutical faculties as well.

I’ve been studying in academia for six years now, and I think I want to see what else is out there. I could end up in the industry, or in a governmental position. But I think it should be fun to change perspectives. I’ve recently finished my degree project, and I continued to work there a bit as a bioinformatician. Now I’m rounding off my studies and looking for a job back in the Netherlands.

I’ve made a lot of friends here, and it’s been an amazing time to be in Uppsala. So it’s not really fun to leave at the end of the summer, but at the same time it feels good to leave something behind that you like very much. Studying here in Sweden has been an amazing experience, because I got to experience a culture which was different from the Dutch one, and it broadened  my vision a lot. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, a lot of friends to make, and a lot to learn from your studies. So an advice I would give to students who are thinking about coming to Uppsala, picking Uppsala and IBG for your studies is in your best interest.