TU Delft is fortunate to be such a great university that it attracts students from all over the world. Its student body diversity can enrich the overall TU experience, both inside and outside the classroom, and for international and Dutch students alike.
Unfortunately, the use of language within the university still prohibits international students from being their best, while also alienating them from Dutch students, which in turn hurts everybody.
Despite English being the official language of all university MSc programs, Dutch is still used in many areas. In some courses, lecture slides are presented in Dutch, and course materials or case studies are handed out in Dutch. And sometimes Dutch is an official language for no apparent reason. The most egregious example of this is International Research Projects (IRP), a foundation affiliated with TU Delft and the Delft Centre for Entrepreneurship. IRP sends TU Delft MSc students to developing countries to conduct market research or feasibility studies for projects like eco-cities in China or offshore wind in Argentina.
So, IRP is a university-affiliated program that takes students from TU courses where English is the official language and sends them to countries where English and the local language are spoken.
But until it was recently pressured by the Delft International Student Society (Diss), IRP always made fluency in Dutch a requirement to participate. This is a bad, inexplicable policy for many reasons: firstly, Dutch students working outside the Netherlands are going to work in a language other than Dutch. Second, international students – particularly those from IRP project host countries who know the local language and culture – would be assets to IRP teams, even superior to Dutch students who don’t know the local language and customs. Third, IRP’s offensive ‘understand and reads Dutch’ criterion explicitly excludes virtually all TU Delft international students.
Diss recently addressed this issue, with IRP agreeing to put up an English-language website and drop the Dutch language requirement, but ‘understand and reads Dutch’ remains a selection criterion on IRP’s site today. Yet, inexplicably, competence in a host country’s local language is not listed as an IRP selection criterion, even though knowledge of Mandarin or Portuguese for example would be an asset when working in China or Brazil. In the interest of intellectual and academic integrity, all TU-affiliated groups should list all languages that could be beneficial, not just one (Dutch), to the exclusion of all others. To do otherwise is discriminatory and must cease, particularly among student organisations affiliated with TU Delft, as IRP is.
Groups like IRP must work to reach out to international students. In watching the discussions between Diss and IRP unfold, it became apparent that IRP didn’t see this as an issue, which is an attitude at the university that must change. Exclusionary policies directly and indirectly impede the ability of international students to perform: directly because they must spend extra time sifting through Dutch materials in order to complete assignments, and indirectly because it creates an atmosphere of exclusion. This exclusionary situation is bad for international students, and it’s bad for Dutch students, who are missing out on one of the best aspects of TU Delft: its vibrant and diverse international student body.
Science published the article, ‘A Bacteria that can grow by using Arsenic instead of Phosphorus’, by Dr Felisa Wolf-Simon.Dr Wolf-Simon claimed that bacteria from arsenic-containing Mono Lake in California not only tolerated the normally toxic arsenic, but also that the bacteria use it instead of phosphor in proteins and DNA. This could make sense, because arsenic and phosphorus, being in the same column in the periodic table, are chemically similar. In other organisms, it’s the similarity that causes arsenic’s toxicity. An organism readily takes up arsenic as arsenate, but the resulting bio-molecules are unstable, causing all kinds of disruptions in the cells. Not so with the bacterium called GFAJ-1, the Nasa-sponsored researchers claim.
“The claim touches at the base of life,” says Dr Bertus Beaumont, evolutionary biologist at Applied Sciences. “All life we know uses phosphate-based DNA to encode the genetic information. If a form of life exists that uses another form of molecule to do this, then that would be a fundamentally other kind of life. That would be very interesting.” If the research paper’s conclusions hold true, the finding would however still have no direct bearing on the question of extraterrestrial life, other than making the point that phosphor may not really be essential for life to exist. But is it not?
Prof. Kuenen, who has worked with similar arsenic-resistant bacteria in his lab, thinks the news has been overhyped. He, like many others, is not convinced that the GFAJ-1 bacteria have built arsenate into their DNA. “They haven’t grown the bacteria in total absence of phosphate,” he says. “There is always some phosphate in the culturing medium. With the very little phosphate available, it looks like the bacteria have partially used arsenate instead. But the main question is: has arsenate been built into the DNA? And that, they haven’t proven.”
Bacteria that were grown on arsenate became 50 percent larger than normal, leading researchers to speculate the bacteria somehow have extra facilities to deal with the arsenic.Prof. Kuenen explains that functioning DNA with arsenate instead of phosphate is hard to imagine. Arsenic is more chemically active, which would lead to more methyl groups on the DNA. Methyl groups are nature’s way of punctuation; they signal where DNA sequence reading starts and stops: ‘Get it. Wrong and you. Mess up the. Message.’
Dr Beaumont thinks the researchers have been too quick to publish. Prof. Kuenen can imagine that pressure has made the researchers and editors involved less critical than otherwise. He believes last week’s hype will motivate many others to follow in the same line of research. “Within a year, we will know exactly what is going on,” Prof. Kuenen expects. His own lab will probably not enter the race however due to lack of money and manpower.