Wageningen’s Leading Lights: Tinka Murk

As a child she brought dead birds home to study their skeletons. As a student, one degree programme was not enough for her. Professor Tinka Murk (58) is full of curiosity. ‘All the time, and about everything. It drives my friends and family nuts at times,’ she admits. But it has brought her a long…

© Guy Ackermans and Udo van Dongen

The interview for this story takes place in Belmonte Arboretum on the warmest October day ‘ever recorded’. Too warm for Tinka Murk, actually. She describes herself as a winter type. ‘Anything between minus 15 and plus 25 is fine by me, but above that the fun goes out of it.’

The #metoo discussion has just broken out. Although the subject doesn’t come up, she emails me about it two days later. She feels the need to express herself on the matter. As a student in Leiden in a male-dominated chair group she ‘had to put up with quite some sexist behaviour’. ‘Your bum and breasts look good in that dress. That kind of thing. Annoying and always childishly predictable. But denigrating too. Once, when it really did go too far, I told my supervisor it would cost him his career if he didn’t stop. That helped.’

That was Leiden. But it happens in Wageningen too. ‘Years ago I confronted two male PhD candidates about the sexist jokes they cracked,’ says Murk. ‘They hung pinups up on each other’s walls, too. That is absolutely not acceptable, especially in a context with people from different cultures. I explained why I was confronting them about it. No more sexist nonsense after that.’ She asks me to formulate this carefully: she doesn’t want to come across as a whinger. ‘But these kinds of experience have made me aware that diversity among managers is important, and that you shouldn’t shirk your responsibilities towards others, correcting them if necessary.’

Science girl

Tinka Murk, professor of the Ecology of Marine Animals, is not one for the barricades. But she does have her own ideas about things, and makes them known. Take the 13th proposition accompanying her thesis: ‘Although WUR claims to give priority to getting more women into top jobs, the negligible amount of attention paid to the obstacle of insufficient childcare arouses the suspicion that the priority is primarily for women without a womb.’ ‘Yes, that was quite critical,’ she laughs. ‘They didn’t like that here. But the policy on childcare changed soon afterwards. And it was bizarre, how badly arranged it was.’ Murk didn’t have children herself yet at that point. She waited until after she got her PhD. Her son has recently started at university in Enschede.

When Tinka Murk left home, she chose to study biology. What she really wanted was to be a vet. ‘But I wasn’t good at remembered facts, so that wasn’t a smart choice. I looked at physics too, because I am a real science girl. But physics departments were full of nerdy men and that didn’t appeal to me. So biology it was. In Leiden, because then I only had to cycle 11 kilometres, and I could carry on living at home for my first year.’

Shark’s skull

Biology was a pretty obvious choice, actually. In her bedroom, she volunteers, she had a glass tank full of biological curiosities. ‘A preserved cow’s foetus, a dried fungus, a shark’s skull. And then my mum found a dead bird under my bed, which I had hidden there in order to get the skeleton out later. Or a goldfish in the freezer. Do you think that’s nerdy? Yes, I suppose you could call it that.’

Tinka Murks sorts fishing tackle that she and other divers salvaged from a shipwreck in the North Sea.

Nerdy or not, it certainly gives an idea about the curiosity that has always been typical of Tinka Murk. ‘Boundless curiosity. Always and about anything. It drives my friends and family nuts at times. I always want to get to the bottom of things.’ One effect of this was that she did two first degrees: first Environmental Biology and then Biochemistry. ‘Environmental Biology, Ecology really, was too much of a black box for me. Just identifying a correlation between an environmental factor and its impact on an organism is not enough for me. Correlations do not explain why something is the way it is. For that you’ve got to take a look inside the animal. That is precisely what my chair group is doing now: looking at how animals react to various kinds of change at the molecular, physiological and ecological levels. And then trying to explain, predict and in some cases manage developments on the basis of that.’

Plastic in the sea

Murk made the switch to toxicology after graduating. After working briefly for the Institute of Environmental Sciences in Leiden and for the National Institute for Integral Freshwater Management and Wastewater Treatment RIZA in Lelystad, she was appointed to the Health Council of the Netherlands in 1986 to set up the new branch of ecotoxicology there. ‘That was challenging. The Health Council translates science into advice for policymakers. Toxic substances were a massive problem at that time. The then chairperson, ex-minister Ginjaar, was very clear about the link between health and the environment. I was given an empty room with an empty desk and almost the first laptop in the world, a seven-kilo thing that was back-breaking to lug around with you. And the job description was: just do ecotoxicology. In that situation you’ve got to be very enterprising. Which I am, actually.’

My strength lies in connecting disciplines and people.

‘I like trying out new things, and getting something off the ground,’ Murk goes on to explain. ‘My strength lies in connecting disciplines and people. I like that because you learn from each other’s fields of expertise, and social problems really always require an interdisciplinary approach. Now, for example, I am working on giving the tackling of plastic pollution an interdisciplinary boost. Clearing plastic from the sea isn’t getting us anywhere. The issue is how does the plastic get into the sea: that’s what we’ve got to do something about. On islands where there is no drinking water system, people only drink water from plastic bottles. Where are they supposed to dispose of them? There is no infrastructure for waste disposal. So it ends up on dumps along the coast and ‘washes away’. You don’t need any marine ecology to do something about that; you need local recycling, for instance. And to find solutions like that you need to cooperate, with Environmental Governance, with Resource Economics, and with Environmental Technology. You have to offer people an alternative. I believe in that.’

Sea urchins

It was former professor of Toxicology Jan Koeman who invited Murk to Wageningen. She joined the university in 1989 as a lecturer in Ecotoxicology. Eight years later she got her PhD for a study on the physiological effects of PCBs and dioxins, for which she conducted lab and field tests on common terms and common eiders. She also developed a fast and efficient new method of identifying the presence and the toxicity of dioxin-like substances using a cell test.

Much of Murk’s work focussed on the disruptive effect of toxins on the way the thyroid hormone works. Hitherto, African clawed frogs were usually used to demonstrate this disruption, but Murk introduced the sea urchin as a model animal. That meant far fewer lab animals – sea urchins are invertebrates and therefore legally not lab animals – and it was far more efficient. Murk is crazy about sea urchins. ‘They are fascinating animals, which are very similar to us hormonally. Like frogs, the larvae of sea urchins undergo a metamorphosis driven by the thyroid hormone. Just like us humans, actually. We too go from an aquatic to a terrestrial habitat after birth, so we suddenly have to inhale air.’

Becoming a professor

Murk became personal professor of Ecotoxicology in 2008. It took a long time before she plucked up the courage to express her ambition to become a professor. That’s a woman thing, she says herself. ‘As a woman you are inclined to think that they will discover you if you are good enough. But that is not the case at all. Women often feel embarrassed to voice their ambitions. I had that problem too. Until I started sitting on appointment committees for professors and saw candidates who made me think: you? Well, in that case, I should have been a professor long ago. It was a triumph the first time I said out loud that I wanted to be a professor. Men often do that kind of thing more easily and then they just see how it works out. Women could learn a thing or two from that. I say that to my women students and PhD candidates too: say what you want and avoid false modesty.’

It was a triumph to say out loud that I wanted to be a professor.

Two years ago, Murk’s career reached its peak with her appointment to the new chair in Marine Animal Ecology. ‘Life is much easier as a chair-holding professor than as a personal professor,’ she says. ‘You can do things your own way and you don’t have to adapt to how someone else thinks it should be done. That is much less draining for me. It is hard work, but everybody works hard here. And if you really want to have a say and be taken seriously, it does help if you are a professor.’

Reefs and sea grass

Murk’s group has three members of staff, two postdocs and 15 PhD candidates. Their research includes how marine animals such as sponges and corals adapt to changes in the environment such as rising temperatures and acidification. They also study how isolated marine lakes have developed, and the lessons we can learn from them for the oceans if environmental conditions change. And they study what happens when you use dispersants against oil spills and the oil, influenced by algae, sinks and smothers the seabed.

But the researchers pay attention to issues that are closer to home as well. In her inaugural lecture, which she gives on 2 November, Murk will talk at length about the environment of the North Sea. Entitled Back to the future instead of forward to the past, her address is an appeal for a North Sea which once again has room for natural reefs and seagrasses. Her vision is of a return ‘to a habitat with places for fish which need little holes and reefs,’ explains Murk. ‘Mussel fishers grumble that crabs and starfish are eating their mussels. But that is because there are no longer any cod, rays or eels to eat up the young crabs and starfish in time. Now mussel farmers are using large mops to keep the starfish off their patches. But it is a lost cause. The whole system is out of balance.’

The same boat

To restore that balance we need a new future, with possibilities for a rich and diverse system with the habitats and the functions to go with it. Murk: ‘People want to hold on it what there is. But if the environment changes drastically, you mustn’t try to keep it as it is: that is just gardening. You have to enable marine nature to adapt to future conditions. And to do that, society has to change just as much as the ecosystem. Make sure you get reefs again, with shellfish that filter the water clean, seagrass fields and rich deltas connecting saltwater with freshwater. And if you do it sensibly, eventually you’ll even be able to harvest from them.’

I don’t think it’s very nice – or fair – to dismiss fishers, for example, as a bad lot.

But these changes must take place in consultation with, and with respect for, all the stakeholders. That is the route Murk chooses to take. ‘That is the role that appeals to me. Stating your limits, and thumping the table if necessary, but keeping on talking. I don’t think it’s very nice – or fair – to dismiss fishers, for example, as a bad lot. Those fishers have a lot of knowledge and experience, and are respected in their trade. They are not saints, though, and rules and supervision are necessary. But you must listen to them seriously, too, and see whether there are more innovative methods of harvesting food from the sea while respecting the ecosystem. After all, we are all in the same boat, heading for the future for our children.’

CV Tinka Murk

Tinka Murk

1959, b. Harderwijk

1977-79 First degree in Environment Biology, Leiden

1979-82 First degree in Biochemistry, Leiden

1982-85 Master’s in Biology, Leiden

1985 Institute of Environmental Sciences in Leiden, part-time secondment to RIZA in Lelystad

1986-89 Health Council, The Hague

1989 Lecturer in Ecotoxicology, Toxicology chair group, Wageningen

1997 PhD with Professor Koeman

2008 Personal professor of Ecotoxicology

2015 Professor at the new chair group of the Ecology of Marine Animals

Tinka Murk is chair of the scientific advisory board of the North Sea Foundation and the REEF Foundation, and teaches diving in her spare time. She has a partner and a son.

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