Ewine F. van Dishoeck | PAS Academician


It is a true honor to be elected as an Academician to this fantastic Academy. I was born and raised in Leiden, The Netherlands, a small well-known university town and it is also where I spent most of my professional career. My parents had given me at birth a saying that proved to be very characteristic of the rest of my career, vires acquirit eundo, from Virgil’s Aenead. Loosely translated it means, “she gathers her strengths en route”: basically, as you go along, step by step, you gather your knowledge and your strength.

For high school I attended a grammar school with lots of Latin and Greek and I did not get my first days of science until, as a teenager, we spent six months in San Diego where I was enrolled at a public high school. Thanks to a wonderful African American teacher, I was introduced to science. Because I also had a good chemistry high school teacher in The Netherlands, I went to study chemistry at the University, but I discovered there that I liked physics just as much and so I became a quantum chemist, as we call it. I was determined to continue my career in that area, were it not for the fact that the professor had passed away and there was not going to be a successor for a long time.

These are the unusual things that happen in a person’s life. It was my then boyfriend and now husband, Tim de Zeeuw, who actually just had a lecture on molecules in space – they were being discovered then – and he said, “Isn’t that something for you?” One thing led to another and I was introduced to the world’s expert at Harvard, Professor Alexander Dalgarno, and that is how my launch into becoming an astrochemist was initiated. The interstellar medium is really a wonderful chemical laboratory in order to study basic molecular processes; my own focus has been on how molecules fall apart by UV radiation.

After my PhD I went to Harvard as a junior fellow, then to Princeton, both the Institute and the University, and then I was attracted as a faculty member to the California Institute of Technology, the Planetary Sciences Division, where I spent two fruitful and formative years.

After six years in the U.S. we went back to The Netherlands and there, over the last 30 years – and blessed by a fantastic group of PhD students and postdocs – we have been working towards the scientific goal of elucidating the origins of stars and planets, how are they formed, and especially following the trail of molecules from clouds to disks and more recently from disks to planets. My research has a special focus on water but we also study other small and more complex molecules, both in the gas and ice. Our astrochemical work in Leiden, with my colleagues, combines the “golden triangle” of observations, laboratory experiments and models.

Astronomy is driven by large facilities and I have been fortunate that, during my career, some of the major parts of the electromagnetic spectrum have been opened up, both from the ground and by space missions; and exactly those parts of the spectrum that we need for studying molecules, namely the infrared and the millimeter parts where they have their vibrational and rotational transitions. But all of these big telescopes have very long lead times, 20 to 30 years, and so therefore I have also spent significant time and effort to make them happen, together with many of my colleagues across the world. The Herschel Space Observatory, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and, most recently, the James Webb Space Telescope with which I became involved in the late 1990s.

In addition, I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of all scientists to contribute to science and society in a broader fashion and so, in addition to serving and working on the many big telescopes, I also put in significant efforts to bring people together both in terms of different disciplines and in making them work together. I have been the Director of The Netherlands Research School for Astronomy, NOVA, for the past fourteen years, i.e., and the alliance of all Dutch universities with an astronomy department which together carry out a joint research and instrumentation program. I have also been President of the International Astronomical Union for the last three years, working there with 12000+ members from >100 countries not just on science and organization of conferences, but especially in using astronomy as a tool for education at school level, for public engagement and for capacity building in the developing countries, using as our motto that “we are all world citizens under the same beautiful sky”.

I have a personal passion for outreach to the general public and a special interest in art and astronomy. In 2019, I co-curated an exhibition on Cosmos: Art & Knowledge in the Leiden Boerhaave science museum, and in 2022 Toward the beginning: science and art with the James Webb Space Telescope, in the Gallery of the Leiden University Hospital.

I look forward to using these experiences that have spanned across the world to work with all of you here at the Academy. Thank you very much.