Hi, and welcome to this little nook of the internet. My name’s Robin, and this being the ‘About me’ page of my website, I have tried to write a bit of a short version of my story here.
I was born in 1986 in the not so idyllic city of Veenendaal in the heart of The Netherlands. I think I was a pretty normal kid, and did what kids of that generation did best. In our free time, we were outside all day, every day. Playing in the woods, or close to the local river. From a young age I liked animals and plants a lot… and this has never changed.
Although it never occurred to me at the time, I was already training myself as an entomologist around the age of 6. I collected dozens of insect species in glass jars with holes in the lids and – as I wasn’t very good at it yet – my ‘lab’ often ended up a smelly business. A collection of glass jars filled with mush in various stages of decay. I’m not sure what was worse, the mayonnaise bucket filled with ladybugs, or the nest of decaying ermine moths in a glass jar. Although I acted from a place of love and curiosity, I think I gave insects a good reason not to like me.
Although I have faint memories of wanting to become a snow man when I was really young, I was determined that I wanted to be ‘a biologist’, at the age of six. I probably only had half a clue what that was and perhaps most of it was based on Discovery Channel… but hey twenty-some years later I made it real.
I must have been around eight when I fell in love once more. One day, after school was out, I encountered my first reptile, a sand lizard, in the school yard. This lit up an even bigger flame in my heart. I caught it and showed it to my teacher, who told me “Ok cool, release it”. Haha. He must not have known me very well… Obviously, I ignored his advice, and instead I kept it and cared for it. It lived for 3 or 4 years more and by my professional opinion at the time, it died happy and of old age. I’m pretty confident it was happy, as by the time it died, I was getting pretty experienced in keeping lizards, from golden geckos (Gekko ulikovski) and web-toed geckos (Ptyodactylus hasselquisti) to green anoles (Anolis carolinensis).
By the time I was ten years old, my family moved to the East of the country. The Netherlands is fairly small, so getting from ‘the center’ to ‘the East’ at the same latitude is only about 70 kilometres. For a ten year-old this is, of course, a ridiculous distance. Needless to say I did not like it at first, although the town was nice enough. Even at small distances, there are sometimes huge cultural differences. Kids being the dead-honest terrorists that they are, the kids in the new place made it pretty clear that I was not one of them. I didn’t really fit in at school in those first few years. The group hierarchy had already established and my fairly late introduction placed me solidly at the bottom of the food chain. As a result, I often focused more on my other interests. I spent most of my free time either along the water, fishing or taking care of my animals.
Then, for more than a decade everything I did was focused on reptiles. First of course that sand lizard but many more followed. My ‘reptile empire’ grew steadily and by the time I was 18 years old, I bred between 50-100 snakes and lizards each year. Next to that, I kept birds, fish, turtles, praying mantids, and also bred rats and mice as food animals. Quite the zoo… Due to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances, I got rid of most animals some years after I started studying.
In 2006, I started studying Animal Biology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Due to some struggles with anxiety and depression, I finished my BSc with some delays 4,5 years later with a bachelor’s thesis on cannibalism in malaria mosquito larvae with a fantastic supervisor who was very supportive in difficult times. Due to my struggles, I decided that I would take a break after my Bachelor Degree (and to be honest, I strongly considered to quit studying as a whole). This break was needed for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to pursue some business ideas that were taking shape quite nicely. Perhaps more importantly, I needed to fight some of my inner demons. The business idea was a great learning experience, but unfortunately not viable due to various highly competitive parties that did not like our form of competition in their area. The details are a story for another day.
After failing a business and ending up working night shifts in a wet wipes factory for several months in 2012, it was time for something else. In pursuit of a life-long dream I traveled to Southeast Asia with my girlfriend Heike. It was clear from day one: A next passion was born. I traveled for several months through beautiful new cultures and I loved every second of it. But all good things come to an end. At least this one did.
Back in The Netherlands I did not have any plan. Heike would start her master’s degree study. But me? What the fuck should I do? I took some shitty side jobs, because I had to pay the bills. At one of the jobs, in a microbiology lab, one of my colleagues told me all the time that I wouldn’t be able to finish a master’s degree because of my continuous struggles with repetitive strain injury. Although there was some truth in this – my hands, and joints in general are worthless and I often struggle with them – I hated her for sharing this vision of hers and pointing out my weaknesses in such a derogatory manner. One day she did this and made it exceptionally clear that my future was grim, and I was worthless. That day, I enrolled for a Master’s degree in bio-interactions at Wageningen University. Sometimes you just need to hear someone say ‘you can’t’. Fuck ‘you can’t’. I definitely can and I will prove it to you!
Because I already took all obligatory Master’s courses as extracurricular courses in my Bachelor, I mostly had to finish research projects and write theses. I have been guided by some excellent supervisors during my Master’s theses. In my major project, I studied transmission of potato viruses by various species of aphids, and the role of weedy plant species as reservoirs for the virus. In the second, a minor thesis, I studied ovipositor morphology in parasitic wasps, in order to find structural relationships between morphology and oviposition substrate types. Entomology had started to emerge as a strong pattern by this time.
To finalize my master’s degree, I also needed to finish a four month internship. My internship brought me to Kuala Lumpur, where I arranged what seemed like a fantastic project. I would trap various bat species in the jungles of Malaysia, in order to analyze their gut content for insect diversity in different forest locations. Due to unforeseen reasons, the project was cancelled when I arrived there. This was told to me during my first meeting at the institute. The alternative they could offer was not what I had hoped for. I could basically sit out my time and chew on some already collected data in a smelly, damp and overheated broom closet in KL. I certainly had some tough choices to make in a very short time and and very few people to discuss these issues with. That week in KL was perhaps one of the darkest episodes in my life. My demons had a great feast on my brain and overall well-being. It fucked me up pretty good. I stayed in a pre-paid room without any windows, so I was pretty much constantly confused about the time of day. I could not eat much and lost 7 kilos of body weight in a few days. My stay there was pretty much one giant anxiety blur. On a Saturday morning, I booked the first available flight. Back to The Netherlands, where I had no home anymore, no alternative internship, no nothing… (but I still had Heike, luckily).
It took me about six to eight weeks to properly recover from this mess. Me and Heike luckily found a new place to live rather quickly. Having a home for yourself is so important for my mental well-being. I notice this over and over again. Meanwhile, I made some attempts at contacting biocontrol companies to find an internship position closer to home. Without much success.
My last hope was with an insect ecology guy at The Netherlands Institute of Ecology. The last place I wanted to be. This had absolutely NOTHING to do with the institute, but more with my pride. The institute was located literally across the street from my university. Applying here would be the easy way out and in a way felt like a fail… (sorry NIOO, I love you, you know that. It’s not you, it’s me).
It took a few persistent e-mail bombs to get a response from the guy, Jeff. But I got one! Sure, I could start an internship with him!! Soon I had an intake meeting with him and ended up in a torrential stream of information about plant-herbivore interactions, host-parasitoid interactions and more along those lines. Of all the projects he offered me, I ended up doing all of them. He he… Let’s say I found my place. We had a very fruitful five month project together and I learned a lot from him (and still do).
Jeff also sort of pushed me into applying for a PhD position within the institute. Something with soil feedbacks. I had no clue about anything involving soil back then. Jeff ensured me that the project would involve insects, too. To be honest, I was scared shitless (of course my inner demons did not like the idea at all, but for me this was one of the reasons for applying). I must have given the most ridiculous presentation ever for my job interview. To this day, I can only guess why I was chosen to work at The Netherlands Institute of Ecology. I think Jeff may have exaggerated my skills a bit at the time… Thanks for this!
I think I made up a bit for the lack of conceptual knowledge about soil ecology by now. I submitted my PhD thesis in June 2019, three months ahead of schedule and two weeks before the birth of my beautiful son Rafa. I defended my doctoral thesis in December 2019. All my Chapters had by then been published in reputable peer-reviewed journals. The thesis was awarded best thesis of 2019 by the Institute of Biology in Leiden, which meant it was one of the eight candidates for best thesis of Leiden University. By the time I defended my thesis, I had been offered several post-doc positions. I ended up accepting my current position at the Technical University of Munich, in the Terrestrial Ecology group. This meant I had to leave my beloved Wageningen behind and move to Freising, Germany.
So yeah, that’s the short and punchy version of how I got to where I am now. I have by now fully settled in Southern Bavaria, and I have grown to like it here.
For those that made it till the end. Thanks. There is no award or prize, but I appreciate you for reading! Say hi, follow me on Instagram, Twitter or offer me a project (hey, a man can dream 😉 ).