Exploring the universe: Roel Wijnaendts

EMBL alumnus Roel Wijnaendts looks back at a long career in academic research and entrepreneurship that has left an indelible mark in the fields of instrumentation and optics

A man and a woman looking at the camera, parts of a restaurant are visible in the background.
Roel and Marijke Wijnaendts.

By Mehrnoosh Rayner, Head of Alumni Relations

EMBL’s alumni community is a who’s who of true pioneers. A shining example is Dutch alumnus Roel Wijnaendts, who has made significant strides in the realms of optics, instrumentation, and high-tech entrepreneurship. With a passion for physics and a relentless drive to explore the universe, his career is an absorbing trip through the cosmos of optics and discovery.

A stellar beginning

Roel’s interest in instrumentation and optics was sparked at the age of eight, when he developed a fascination with the stars above. His journey into the world of astronomy began when he crafted a makeshift telescope from his father’s razor mirror. This curiosity laid the foundation for a lifelong pursuit of understanding the intricacies of the universe and the tools we use to see it. 

After his secondary education, Roel attended a four-year engineering college in Utrecht, during the last phase of which, he landed a job maintaining electrical systems in a Dutch coal mine. It was a hands-on education that would serve him well in the years to come. He built upon this with more engineering experience, training to become a specialist in electrical installations of the Hawker Hunter (a jet-powered fighter aircraft) during military service, and then working for three years as a research technician at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam (now integrated into The Dutch Research Council (NWO) and known as AMOLF).

Roel first met his true love, Marijke Pluijm (now Marijke Wijnaendts), during a school dance when they were both 15. Their paths crossed again during scouting activities, and after two years, they became inseparable, marrying on 23 November 1964.

The Transatlantic leap

Roel’s journey took him and Marijke beyond the familiarity of their Dutch homeland when he stumbled upon an advertisement from Syracuse University in the United States. The Chemistry Department was seeking a Dutch engineer, and Roel’s skills fit the bill. Marijke recalls Roel telling her, as she was leaving for the hospital to give birth to their second child: “Take your English book with you, because we’re going to the USA!” It was a leap of faith for both of them, considering their toddler and the second child on its way, but one that would shape their future profoundly.

At Syracuse University, Roel was greatly valued as he repeatedly solved engineering challenges for researchers and academics. During this time, he decided to pursue a master’s degree, further deepening his knowledge of quantum electronics. He also built a computer-controlled autocorrelator to study the movement of polyester particles in solution by means of scattered laser Doppler spectroscopy. It was at this time that their third child was born. Armed with this new academic know-how and experience, he and his family returned to the Netherlands, where a new chapter awaited them.

Enter EMBL

In 1974, Roel returned to the FOM Institute, where he earned his PhD in Atomic Physics (cum laude) in 1977 and continued in the same lab as a postdoc. It was during this period that he first heard about EMBL, which had itself been established only a few years before (in 1974), and he joined it in 1979. At EMBL, Roel found himself surrounded by a world he knew little about – biology. He was hired by Sir John Kendrew, Director General of EMBL at the time, and Leo de Mayer, then Head of Instrumentation. His task was to start a group on the applications of lasers in biology.

He spent the first year writing a research proposal for his group and working closely with Arthur Jones, Head of Physical Instrumentation, and Jacques Dubochet, Group Leader, due to their knowledge of electron microscopes. Roel’s task was to investigate the relationship between electron scattering and matter, a world that felt familiar and which tapped into his skillset.

First 3D image of a cell in a block of plastic

Roel’s research spanned various facets of instrumentation, from quantum physics to fluorescence depolarisation measurements. He also worked on a chemistry model to observe how molecules rotated in liquids, unravelling the intricate dance of proteins.

The ‘plastic block’ showing a 3D cell image. Credit: Mehrnoosh Rayner/EMBL.

Roel and his team used UV light and a confocal arrangement to detect labelled structures in a cell. A series of live cell images was taken using a scanning confocal microscope and put into 10 layers of plastic, which were then glued together to create a 3D image of cell walls. This formed the foundation for the paper ‘Optical fluorescence microscopy in three dimensions: microtomoscopy’, which became a game-changer in its field.

Roel recalls taking this ‘block of plastic’ to all kinds of meetings and conferences. “To be able to go to EMBL was a fantastic opportunity, as I knew nothing about biology,” he said. “I was brought in as an instrumentation builder, and I had a lot of collaborations with so many people; EMBL was very international. We were given so much freedom in choosing what to do, and the construction of the microscope was an outcome of that.”

EMBL instrumentation and Roel’s impact

Roel’s time at EMBL was marked by groundbreaking research and valuable contributions to the field of instrumentation. He collaborated with trailblazers like Stefan Hell, who would go on to develop super-resolution microscopy, and Ernst Stelzer, who developed advanced microscopy techniques, particularly light-sheet microscopy. The connections he forged during this period would prove pivotal in his later endeavours.

Heidelberg Instruments

Roel’s journey at EMBL led him to participate in the creation of Heidelberg Instruments, a high-tech company that would redefine the landscape of precision laser lithography and nanofabrication. His vision, alongside four fellow physicists from Heidelberg University, attracted financial support from five investors.

Today, Heidelberg Instruments stands as a world leader in its field. Roel’s 25-year tenure as Managing Director was marked by unyielding dedication and numerous lessons learned. He advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “be aware of the serious personal financial risks, be realistic about the extremely different expectations of the investors, avoid too many different markets, and be warned that forecasts can be nonsense.”

World explorers

During the Wijnaendts’s period in Heidelberg, Marijke, who is a trained child carer, spent her time raising their three children and working alongside Rosi Benkel in the EMBL school group at the International Comprehensive School in Rohrbach (IGH). They picked up the 14 EMBL school children from IGH after lunch and helped them with their homework and after-school activities. Marijke’s memory of EMBL is of a place with a fantastic people culture: “It was very informal, with lots of social activities.”

Roel and Marijke Wijnaendts during a visit to EMBL. Credit: Mehrnoosh Rayner/EMBL.

Today, Roel and Marijke are busier than ever, travelling between Europe and the USA, visiting children and grandchildren, supporting causes in which they believe, and – above all – walking!

Roel has written several books, covering topics like sacred missions and Earth’s destiny under the pen name Willem Resandt – a homage to his father and grandfather, whose first names were both ‘Willem’ and whose surname, Wijnaendts van Resandt, dates back to 1270.

He continues to explore in his clean room with a femtosecond laser arrangement, hoping to uncover novel effects in the interaction between powerful pulses and various samples.

Asked about his feelings towards EMBL, Roel states: “EMBL is researching life – there is nothing more important. The output from EMBL from member state investments is very impressive. I have a sense of pride for having been there.”

In 2022, Roel and Marijke donated to the alumni fundraising campaign in support of the Environmental Research Initiative catalyst project ‘Exploring Plankton as a Tool to Combat Marine Pollution’. Their motivation was the desire to save the planet for their grandchildren. “Plankton is the start of life, and it could also save life,” Roel said. It was clear to them that the project would need more help, and in 2023, they followed up on this with a generous gift of €150,000 towards the purchase of a plankton scanner for Flora Vincent’s team at EMBL Heidelberg. Read more here.

A note from Marijke and Roel Wijnaendts about James Lovelock (1918-2022)

Since the 1960s, a large number of astronauts have been able to view our blue planet from outer space. It is an impressive sight; however, it also drives home how fragile and vulnerable our planet is. One of the scientists who has contributed significantly to our understanding of the precarious state of our planet is English researcher James Lovelock, who passed away last year. As an environmental chemist, Lovelock developed a sensitive detector for aggressive, man-made environmental gases. He also built a multiparameter computer model of the Earth life support system and was able to predict almost 50 years ago the global warming that we experience today. In particular, he emphasised how the worldwide use of fossil fuels, together with extreme overpopulation, have upset the planetary balance. He was convinced that it might be too late to return to a healthy planet and wrote many books about the subject, for example The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can (2019) and Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (2019).  Like Lovelock, we both believe we must do everything we can to save the planet. We would greatly appreciate your help in this mission.  

Tags: alumni, biophysics, environment, friends of embl, history, instrumentation


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