That one physiologist with the microphone

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(This article is a translation. Find the original interview on the website or in the PanEssay paper)

Rob Bakels. Any student at the medical faculty will know his name. He’s often been chosen lecturer of the year by the student body and is the centre of meme culture. Each time a theme concerns the heart or lungs, expect him to be there, and expect to have to answer a question with sweaty palms and a red face. At least afterwards, you’ll have learned something... For this edition we took our chance to ask this well-known lecturer a couple questions. 


Why did you go into teaching?

At the time that I was busy with my doctorate research in Amsterdam, I was already leading practicals for medicine students. Those practicals were things like balance and strength tests, and back then I didn’t teach a lot. When I went to work in Groningen, a professor asked me to give a lecture. I really enjoyed teaching students, so after that I picked it up more, starting with mainly neurophysiology and then other topics of physiology as well. 

Apart from that, I also did research, but it wasn’t right for me really. Although the experiments were always pretty cool. Slowly I ended up going from research more towards education, and right now I’m actually only doing things related to education. 


Which topic do you enjoy teaching about the most?

Lungs. I can tell the students find it difficult, it is a fascinating topic after all. I also enjoy talking about the kidneys. It’s a complicated subject, so you’ll learn something new each time. This is also true when you’re reading Guyton. You can just read it, but you can also treat it as a sort of bible study. The best thing is to put different physiology books next to each other to see which one has the most useful information to pass on to the students. 


The vascular function curve is a returning feature of the curriculum. Don’t you get tired of explaining it to the students?

I don’t mind much. Those charts are incredibly useful and you can predict with them what will happen in certain situations. 

And also, you are all different every time. Each time you have more knowledge and insights than before. So no, I don't mind explaining it to you over and over again.


Are you ever nervous when giving a lecture?

Yes, sometimes I still am a little. It’s a feeling that I don't think will ever go away. But I’m not afraid to make a mistake. Sometimes a topic is just difficult for students. Of course as a professor you want to get the point across clearly, without simplifying too much. And you never know what kind of questions will be asked by the group. Sometimes you genuinely don't know how to answer, but at that point you simply have to admit honestly that you don’t know and have to look it up. You can’t know everything of course. 


You are a popular lecturer among students. Why do you think that is?

I think it works like this: the more lectures you give the more you’ll be voted on. For that reason I was very surprised to have won the election for best lecturer a while ago. I think I have the international communities to thank for my popularity, probably because my English is quite good and I am chairman of the University Center for Language and Culture. I also work to secure high grade education for international students, because they probably don’t get the same quality as the Dutch students. Exam questions are often not translated well, for example, or information on Nestor is only available in Dutch. That I try to improve, so all information will be translated for internationals. 


Do you see a difference between Dutch and International communities?

Generally, yes. I believe international students are more driven than the Dutch ones. After all, they’ve had to pick up their suitcases and move all the way over here, where they usually don’t know anyone at first and don’t speak the language either. They put in more work. In the Dutch communities the first two rows are very active, and in international communities it goes on to the fifth row. I feel there is a larger group in the international communities that very actively participates and really wants to learn.


What do you think of your way of teaching?

I really like doing it this way. There are two main points to the interactive approach to teaching:  as a lecturer you have to approach a student without feeling anxious and ask them a question. And if the student doesn’t know the answer, keep nagging them for a little bit. 

But of course it should not slow the lecture down, otherwise you lose all the other students' attention. As a teacher you should not be afraid to be embarrassed and you should be able to laugh at yourself. The large disadvantage is that the interactive lectures take more time. The most important points will be discussed, but most of it you will have to study by yourself. 

Besides all that you do learn more about the material. As a student you go to a lecture knowing that a crazy person might approach you with one of those cubes, and I really believe you learn more when you are forced to think about that way. When I sometimes sit in the back of a lecture, I can see students texting or ordering things online. This happens far less with this method of teaching where the students are more included, I think.


Have you ever thought that you might have preferred having been a medicine student yourself?

No I don’t, thank God. The programme is alright, but working as a doctor seems like it would get very boring at a certain point. Endocrinology for example: a lot of people have diabetes, another large group has thyroid issues, and only a small group has some other problem. Or maybe you become a dermatologist, and almost every patient has a type of cancer. Only internal medicine seems like it would be fun, maybe. I understand why someone would want to be a doctor, but I’ve never considered studying medicine. 


What do you do apart from teaching?

Today is fountain pen day! I collect and restore fountain pens. These fountain pens have incredibly cool filling mechanisms in them. 

I also like recumbent bikes, and bicycles in general. You probably will have noticed my blue recumbent bike standing in the racks beneath the faculty. Besides that I often ice skate, and I’m going to see Bill Bailey tonight, I love to go out.


What are your Christmas plans?

I have my family and my in-laws. We’re spending one day with one family and one with the other. I might still go to Belgium to hike, so I'll be well amused.