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Astrid Groot gives lectures and practical training in Evolutionary Biology to second-year students of Biology, Psychobiology and Future Planet Studies. She also set up the Master’s course Current Trends in Evolution. Her own research is on speciation processes in moths.

‘This is not going to work,’ Astrid Groot thought when she found herself in the tropics of Colombia to do research as practical training for her Master’s degree. ‘That ecosystem is so large and complex, I wouldn’t understand it for the life of me. And you can never carry out an experiment, all you can do is observe and write.’ Still, it didn’t scare her away from a career in research. On the contrary: it made it clear to her what made her tick. ‘I want to know why things are the way they are, not just that they are a certain way. The kind of questions that occupy us in evolutionary biology.’ 

Endless questions

When you ask her what she thinks is important to convey to students, it doesn’t take her long to come up with an answer: ‘A passion for research!’ She doesn’t even mind whether it’s a passion for her own field. ‘It really can be anything as far as I’m concerned, but trying to understand a piece of the puzzle of the world around you, I think that’s wonderful. You can have many big questions, but phrasing and rephrasing those questions so you can actually investigate them, that’s a process I love passing on to others.’ 

Photo: Maartje Meesterberends

That is what she does in the second-year research training, but also in her lab, that she opens up to Master’s students from around the world. ‘Everyone is welcome. At the moment I have students and postdocs from the Netherlands, Turkey, Iran, China, the United States and France; in the past they have come from Italy, France, China, Ecuador, Colombia and Hungary, and a new PhD student from Switzerland will start soon. I always have a lot of questions myself and I’m way short on staff. Add to this that people from other cultures bring new insights with them, it always contributes something.’

Drifting Easter eggs

As a lecturer she is always learning herself. For instance how not to overcomplicate things and how to structure a lecture in a fun, interactive way for large groups. This year in the second-year course Evolutionary Biology she tried something new for the first time during a lecture about ‘drift’, an evolutionary term she knew students had a hard time grasping.

‘I had Easter eggs in four different colours, and everyone had to pick up an egg. I then made smaller groups and we started to tally: which colours did each group still have? Drift is about the emergence of genetic bottlenecks on small islands: the full genetic variety is no longer present. Some groups, for instance, only had blue, or two or three colours instead of four. The group understood at once that no genetic variation had been lost: after all, all colours were still in the room, but per group, per little island, there was almost no variation left. For all the students to suddenly understand it so clearly, I really got a kick out of that.’