Petra Visser studies cyanobacteria in fresh and salt water. As coordinator of the Master’s programme in Freshwater and Marine Biology (Biological Sciences), she is closely involved in the teaching and supervision of students. One of the subjects she teaches is Coral Reef Ecology on the island of Curaçao.
One of the greatest things about being a track coordinator? ‘Contact with the students,’ says Petra Visser. ‘They are facing very important choices in respect of their research internships and what they want to specialise in. I’ve noticed that students often find it hard to choose as there is so much to choose from. To help them, I try to find out how they see themselves once they have completed their degree. Would they like to conduct fundamental research, or would they prefer something in an applied field?’
She also encourages students to gain as much experience as possible and to investigate the various techniques. ‘For example, if you wish to specialise in coral biology, which is quite a competitive field, you must really consider what you wish to do and which techniques you want to familiarise yourself with. This can be crucial to the rest of your career.’
The Master’s programme includes a lot of hands-on work. ‘In the very first course in the Master’s programme we board boats on various lakes in the Netherlands to learn about the techniques used in water quality research. We make sure that it is more than just a demonstration and that all students acquire hands-on experience. They also learn about the various methods applied in lakes to free the water of cyanobacteria.’
The same applies to the course on Curaçao, where students conduct research on the coral reef, which entails more than just ‘looking at fish’. ‘We build it up gradually, as some have only just learned how to dive, but in the end they all have to conduct their own research. Measuring the rate of photosynthesis in coral, for instance, which forces them to remain motionless under water for five minutes, which is not as easy as it sounds. But they find the combination of diving and conducting research a lot of fun.’
In her own research, Visser focuses on the effectiveness of hydrogen peroxide to combat cyanobacteria in lakes and researches the composition and functioning of cyanobacterial mats on the coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea. Although you may find her on a boat on a lake somewhere in the Netherlands in summer, a large part of the research takes place in the lab. There too she supervises the students on research projects and theses. ‘I really enjoy seeing them coming to master certain subjects. As they are growing as researchers, they are finding the role that suits them best.’
She estimates that, ultimately, just over half the students take up a position in research. ‘It so happens that I recently had a look at what previous students went on to do. We hold seminars on a regular basis in which students must present their research and had come up with the idea to give one of their future employers the floor during those seminars. So we approached a number of alumni and it was great to see what everybody had ended up doing. Indeed, many found work in research, but also in education – quite a few in fact – but also at district water boards, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat), the World Wildlife Fund, engineering agencies, Shell ... All very diverse and throughout the world.’
There is even a ‘Dutch enclave’ of Freshwater and Marine Biology students and alumni in Australia. ‘One of our alumni once went there to do his PhD research on the molecular biology of corals. He ultimately started a research group and contacts me on a regular basis to check if I have Master’s students who would like to do a research project over there. Subsequently, some of those students have also done their PhDs there, which resulted in the formation of a group consisting mainly of people who once studied with us.’