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NWO/Spinoza Prize for literature, microbiology, physics and medicine

On 2 June 2008, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) announced which four researchers will receive the NWO/Spinoza Prize for 2008. The prize is the highest Dutch award in science. Each researcher receives one-and-a-half million euros, to be spent on research of their choice. The researchers receive the prestigious prize for their outstanding, pioneering and inspiring scientific work.

The winners of the NWO/Spinoza Prize 2008 are:

Prof. M.S. (Marjo) van der Knaap, paediatric neurologist at the VU University Amsterdam. Van der Knaap diagnosed various new brain disorders using MRI and unravelled these down to the level of the responsible genes.

Prof. J.Th. (Joep) Leerssen, professor of Modern European Literature at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Leerssen has made innovative contributions to imagology, Irish studies and the study of cultural nationalism.

Prof. Th.H.M. (Theo) Rasing, physicist at the Radboud University Nijmegen. Rasing's work includes the use of ultrafast laser pulses to manipulate tiny magnets.

Prof. W.M. (Willem) de Vos, microbiologist at Wageningen University. De Vos has performed groundbreaking research into the contribution of microorganisms to human food and health.

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The NWO/Spinoza prize, also viewed as the 'Dutch Nobel Prize', is awarded to Dutch researchers who rank among the world's top scientists. The laureates are internationally renowned, and know how to inspire young researchers.

This is the fourteenth occasion on which the Spinoza Prizes have been awarded. The first occasion was in 1995. The awards are made on the basis of nominations. Those allowed to make nominations are the principals of universities, and the chairs of the departments of Literature and Physics of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Netherlands Society of Technological Sciences and Engineering, the Dutch National Network of Female Pment ceremony for the NWO/Spinoza Prizes 2008 on 2 June 2008.

rofessors, the Social Sciences Council and the NWO Divisional Boards.

Dutch Education Minister Ronald Plasterk will perform the official presentation of the monetary prize and the Spinoza statuette on Wednesday 19 November 2008 in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.


Jury report for Prof. M.S. (Marjo) van der Knaap
Professor of Paediatric Neurology, VU University Amsterdam

Professor Van der Knaap receives the NWO/Spinoza Prize 2008 for her research into serious brain disorders in children. She diagnosed various new brain disorders using MRI and unravelled these down to the level of the responsible genes.

Marjo van der Knaap (9 May 1958, Delft) obtained a cum laude degree in medicine from the Erasmus University Rotterdam in 1984. In 1991, she obtained a cum laude PhD at the Department of Paediatric Neurology at Utrecht University in close collaboration with the Department of Neuroradiology at VU University in Amsterdam, where she has been professor of paediatric neurology since 1999. She has received a multitude of scientific prizes and grants. For example, she has twice received a TOP grant from Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMW), and recently received the Sidney Carter Award of the American Academy of Neurology. She has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2006.

Van der Knaap investigates abnormalities of the white matter of the brain. In the middle of the brain there are billions of nerve fibres, which connect the grey cerebral cortex to the rest of the body. These fibres are surrounded by myelin sheaths for insulation. The nerve fibres and the myelin together form the white matter. White matter disorders affect one in every thousand children in the Western world. There are many different white matter disorders and children who suffer from these mostly die at a young age following a period with severe mental and motor disabilities.

During her PhD studies, Van der Knaap discovered that patients with the same white matter disorder have similar abnormalities on MRI scans. She subsequently developed a computer-guided pattern recognition system that made the diagnosis of known diseases both quicker and cheaper.

Subsequently, she committed herself to as yet unknown disorders, as her research had revealed that in more than half of the children with a white matter disorder no specific diagnosis could be established. She identified five new diseases, one of which was even named Van der Knaap disease by her peers, and then focussed on discovering their causes. With her staff she managed to identify many of the genes responsible for these diseases, which made prenatal diagnostics possible.

Her ultimate goal is to find effective treatment for children with white matter disorders. With this in mind she breaks through the boundaries of her discipline to follow a disease from its cause to its treatment. She has a talent for building highly successful strategic networks and is a truly multidisciplinary researcher, integrating the disciplines of radiology, neurology and genetics in her own research. Moreover, she combines her research interests with teaching commitments and clinical practice. By doing this she covers the entire spectrum from personal contact with the family of the young patients to identifying new variants of the disease.

Marjo van der Knaap is an internationally renowned authority. As one of the referees wrote: 'From the Middle East to China, everyone knows where to find her.' Each year, she receives more than 600 MRI scans from foreign medics for assessment. The textbook that she with one other author has written about white matter disorders is an internationally used standard work.

Parents of patients praise the empathic but clear manner in which Van der Knaap describes the future perspectives for their children. Her didactic qualities are considerable. She is a source of inspiration for students in both the Netherlands and further afield. The Spinoza Committee expects that she will make further major discoveries, partly because the techniques she uses are being developed further.

This jury report served as the basis for the speech given by Prof. Didi Braat at the announcement ceremony for the NWO/Spinoza Prizes 2008 on 2 June 2008.


Jury report for Prof. J.Th. (Joep) Leerssen
Professor of Modern European Languages at the Universiteit van Amsterdam

Professor Leerssen receives the NWO/Spinoza Prize 2008 for his innovative contributions to imagology, Irish studies and research into cultural nationalism.

Joep Leerssen (12 June 1955, Leiden) studied Comparative Literature and English at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. In 1980 he obtained an honours MA in Anglo-Irish Studies from University College Dublin. From 1982 to 1984 he was a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto and from 1984 to 1986 assistant lecturer in Aachen, before gaining his doctorate with honours from Utrecht University in 1986. Since 1991 he has been professor of Modern European Literature at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. From 1996 to 2006 he was director of the Huizinga Institute (Dutch National Research Institute and Graduate School of Cultural History). In 2003 he was a visiting professor at Harvard University. He has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2008.

Leerssen has an impressive list of publications to his name about national stereotypes and the relationship between literature, historical awareness and nationalism. With the recent books National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History (2006) and Imagology (2007) he has permanently established his reputation. His writings often trigger innovations in the disciplines in which they intervene. He is at the forefront of scientific developments: although initially his monographs often meet with objections, they subsequently become authoritative in their field.

Leerssen has played an important role in three disciplines. In the area of Irish studies, which studies Irish cultural history on the basis of Ireland's various cultural traditions and languages, his books are considered to be seminal. Furthermore, Leerssen has unified two paradigms in the study of 19th-century cultural nationalism: one that considers the nation to be a latently present metaphysical entity and the other that views it as a product of political manipulation. In doing this he has highlighted cultural expressions as a central and guiding aspect of political nationalism, rather than as merely a by-product. Finally he has consolidated the field of imagology, the study of the formation of images, national awareness and stereotypes, by drawing together the many initiatives in this area from across the world.

His research into the formation of images and national stereotypes has, moreover, led to a new perspective on the history of cultural nationalism. He is currently working on a large project that draws on this model to describe the 19th-century reception history of medieval literature in its impact on the nation-forming processes in Europe.

Leerssen is one of the founders and leading lights of the interdisciplinary field of European Studies, which has become a successful degree course and productive research programme at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Using his own unique profile, he has developed an impressive interdisciplinary methodology for this discipline, which combines the history of political ideas and cultural history and which studies literature as a source for the history of imagination patterns and ideologies.

Leerssen is a leading and erudite academic with a very extensive knowledge of languages and history. His considerable rhetorical talent not only makes him a highly popular speaker but also an inspiring and compelling lecturer. His current projects and plans give the Spinoza Committee every reason to have high expectations for the stimulation that the Spinoza Prize will bring to his work.

This jury report served as the basis for the speech given by Prof. Fred Mulder at the announcement ceremony for the NWO/Spinoza Prizes 2008 on 2 June 2008.


Jury report for Prof. Th.H.M. (Theo) Rasing
Professor of Experimental Physics at Radboud University Nijmegen

Professor Rasing receives the NWO/Spinoza Prize 2008 for his breakthroughs in the field of magneto-optics, in particular for his work on manipulating tiny magnets using light.

Theo Rasing (26 May 1953, Didam) obtained a cum laude degree in physics from the Radboud University Nijmegen in 1976, where he also gained his doctorate in 1982. After stays in Slovenia and the United States, he was appointed professor in Nijmegen in 1997. He is the founder and director of the Nijmegen Centre for Advanced Spectroscopy (NCAS), member of the board of NanoNed and founder of NanoLab Nijmegen that makes its expertise and infrastructure available to the commercial sector. In 2007 he received the Physica Prize from the Netherlands Physical Society. To date, his research has yielded more than 300 publications in renowned international journals, including Nature, Science and Physical Review Letters.

Theo Rasing is a leading pioneer in the development of new techniques for studying and manipulating materials at the nanometre scale with the use of light. He carries out groundbreaking fundamental research with an open eye for possible applications. For example, he has obtained two patents and has written many publications in cooperation with the commercial sector. Due to his outstanding reputation and organisational talent, he is a highly respected physicist and a member of various scientific advisory bodies. He is also the initiator and coordinator of various large international partnership programmes.

His most recent and most successful research is that into the manipulation of magnetism using light. In a computer hard disk, information is stored by setting the magnetic direction of individual magnetic domains either 'up' or 'down' by applying a magnetic field either parallel or antiparallel to the magnetisation direction. Rasing developed a method to change the magnetic areas using very short laser pulses that switch their polarisation rapidly. This might eventually allow information to be recorded up to 100,000 times faster than is currently possible.

Previously, the physicist played a prominent role in the development of a new method which used lasers to visualise the movement of molecules over a surface, a technique now widely used. Furthermore, his study of extremely thin magnetic layers led to the discovery of new large magneto-optical effects, which can be used to study magnetism at interfaces and on nanostructures.

Theo Rasing frequently gives public lectures and is not afraid to enter into public debate about the pros and cons of technology. He has a large research group and knows how to attract considerable funding for this. For his researchers he is an inspiring leader who gives a lot of care and attention to each individual. His active supervision of students during the preparation of articles or lectures has led to them winning prizes on many occasions. His enthusiasm, broad scientific knowledge, international fame, inspiring personality and leadership give the Spinoza Committee every confidence that Rasing will invest the Spinoza Prize very wisely.

This jury report served as the basis for the speech given by Prof. Hans Mooij at the announcement ceremony for the NWO/Spinoza prizes 2008 on 2 June 2008.


Jury report for Prof. W.M. (Willem) de Vos
Professor of Microbiology at Wageningen University

Professor De Vos receives the NWO/Spinoza Prize 2008 for his groundbreaking research into the contribution of microorganisms such as bacteria to human food and health.

Willem M. de Vos (30 October 1954, Apeldoorn) obtained a master's degree in biology/biochemistry with distinction from the University of Groningen in 1978, where he subsequently gained his doctorate with distinction in 1983 for research that was partly carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin. After a postdoctoral position in England, he started a research group at the Netherlands Institute for Dairy Research (now NIZO Food Research), where he became research manager in 1987. In that same year, Wageningen University appointed him as part-time professor of Bacterial Genetics and in 1994 he became full-time professor and chair of Microbiology. He has combined this chair with various directorships at the University and at scientific institutes, such as the Top Institute Food & Nutrition. Since 2007 he also holds a part-time position as Finland Distinguished Professor at the University of Helsinki.

De Vos is a leading expert in the molecular genetics of microorganisms, such as bacteria, archaea and fungi. For example, he has discovered that lactic acid bacteria communicate with each other by means of special peptides and that by producing these peptides they can even interfere with the growth of other microorganisms. He has also developed methods to specifically influence the metabolism of lactic acid bacteria so that the production of flavours, vitamins and sweeteners can be improved. His fundamental discoveries are applied on a large scale. His research has led to the development of lactic acid bacteria that can improve the taste and shelf life of cheese.

He was the first to use a multidisciplinary approach to explore the large variation in bacteria found in the human gastrointestinal tract. Using DNA analyses he irrefutably established that each individual person has a unique combination of intestinal bacterial species, which in part is determined genetically. This laid the basis for a new research field that aims to understand the relationship between the intestinal bacteria and the host's health. He expects that the diagnostics of intestinal bacteria will contribute to clear descriptions of specific diseases so that these can be treated better.

His most recent breakthrough is the revolutionary discovery of the 'improved petri dish'. He developed microchips that consist of millions of small chambers in which tiny quantities of bacteria, archaea, fungi or human cells can be cultured and characterised at the same time. With this he demonstrated that it is possible to isolate new species, as well as species not previously cultured.

Willem de Vos is a highly productive scientist. He is the author or co-author of more than 350 publications, about 50 chapters in books, the holder of 25 patents or patent applications and to date has supervised almost 75 Ph.D. students. And when developments within his discipline are not moving as fast as he would like then he pushes the field forward, for example, by organising international symposia, setting up new partnerships or stimulating start-up companies.

Willem de Vos is an energetic, highly driven and inspiring researcher, who, on top of that is also an outstanding science manager. Besides his many additional responsibilities on boards and advisory bodies, he always remains closely involved in the actual research activities. His zest for work, productivity and commitment are extremely impressive and the Spinoza Committee expects that he will be responsible for many new breakthroughs in the coming years.

This jury report served as the basis for the speech given by Prof. Gerard Meijer at the announce

Contact: NWO, Department of Information and Communication
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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