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The first class of the Master of Biobased Materials graduated in mid-July. At the festive ceremony at Brightlands Chemelot Campus, course director Menno Knetsch stressed that the course is more than just science. ‘Besides knowledge and understanding, you need passion and drive to play a part in the transition to a biobased/circular economy.’
Lucien Joppen

The Master course developed by Maastricht University, a multidisciplinary two-year programme, started at the end of 2015. At the time Knetsch said: ‘We go through the entire chain of polymer production, which means that biotechnology, chemistry and materials science are all reviewed.’ The ultimate aim is to develop applications, which is why the business sector – including DSM and Sabic – is involved in the structure of the teaching programme. Knetsch during the ceremony: ‘Theory is not the be-all and end-all. In the end, it is the market that has to make the difference. That is why feedback from the business sector is essential to keep students up to the mark.’

Flooded floor

As Knetsch noted earlier, the theory only forms a part of the Master degree. Ultimately it is about the translation into practice. To that aim, the Master course follows the method used customarily at Maastricht University: problem-based and research-based learning. Skills such as communicating, connecting and convincing are also involved. ‘Good judgement is likewise required,’ says Knetsch. ‘Students evaluate each other’s work and must therefore also be able to communicate their findings in a way that avoids tension. In short, the students also receive training in and gain understanding of management skills.’ Looking back at the first class, the staff and the group did experience some adventures, such as a defective heating system, air conditioning run wild, a flooded floor, baking a cake together and ordering chemicals online. ‘The great thing is that a close group was formed in a short time, even though each student had their own thesis.’

Work ethic

When asked his conclusions about the students of the first class, Knetsch answers: ‘We are very proud of the first graduates. We are convinced that they achieved a high academic level and that they are well prepared for the next step in their career in science or the business sector. This group exceeded the expectations of its supervisors. The academic level, the motivation, the work ethic and the desire to (continue to) learn struck us especially. One of the students, Inge Hermsen, even graduated summa cum laude with an average score of 8.7 (across all subjects). That is quite remarkable. Furthermore, one student will be setting up her own business, which also shows that the students have developed a creative and enterprising attitude. All in all, a successful first run of the Master of Biobased Materials programme!’

Summa cum laude

Inge Hermsen, who graduated summa cum laude, was the only student from a University of Applied Sciences (HBO) (Avans, Biobased Polymers) in the first class. The Master programme mainly attracts students from universities, but an exception was made for Inge, who also graduated summa cum laude from the HBO. In addition, she received a scholarship via the VNCI, the Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry.

‘The Master is broad enough to provide good preparation for a position in the business sector. Different disciplines are dealt with, such as (polymer) chemistry and materials science. What attracted me was the combination of theory – carrying out the literature study myself – and laboratory research. You have one foot in the books and one in a fume cupboard.’ Inge is now employed by Corbion where she will work on a new platform technology for the production of PLA. Unfortunately she cannot provide any details about this.

Second and third wave

Chang Liu studied polymer science at the University of Shanghai. ‘After my Bachelor degree I wanted to use my gap year to go into biopolymers more deeply. An extensive search revealed this Master programme as the only course which concentrates on this exclusively. Now that I have finished the Master degree, not only my knowledge has changed, but also my attitude. Biopolymers have a future, but some patience is required.’
Liu’s research focused on the enzymatic degradation of polyamide crystals. A subject she won’t pursue further. In October she will be launching her own business together with a partner to develop biobased semi-manufactured products for the cosmetics industry.

The next class (seven students) is already ready to graduate next year. The ‘third wave’ will roll in 2018. Knetsch: ‘We have selected around fifteen students. It depends partly on financial support whether they can all sign up for the Master. We certainly cannot complain about lack of interest. We do want to beat the drum harder this year, partly by organising a talent day at Brightlands Chemelot Campus (editor’s note: 10 November 2017). On that day we will show what the Master programme involves and the subsequent steps students can take at the many businesses present at Brightlands Chemelot Campus.’