The Moment: The click

Professor Marten Scheffer on the moment he started working together with Egbert van Nes.
Marten Scheffer (left) with Egbert van Nes.

‘Just like a lot of people, there was a fortunate moment in my life when I met the partner with whom I went on to have children. The funny thing is that I experienced something similar in my scientific career. On 1 June it will be 30 years ago. Ever since then I’ve been working with the same person: Egbert van Nes.

We were both working at the RIZA Institutefor Inland Water ManagementandWastewater Treatment. I had been recruited to make models of lakes. Then I hit upon the idea of making agent-based models: modelling each individual organism separately and getting them to interact to see what happens. I had been to America and learned some things there. Everyone was enthusiastic and in the end, I was even allowed to recruit a new team member. And that was Egbert.

‘We celebrated our silver work-partnership anniversary five years ago’

Egbert was working elsewhere in RIZA, but we had already shared a canoe on a staff outing. He didn’t know anything about modelling yet, but he thought he could do it. Then he built a model in a weekend in which big fish ate little fish that they came across. Everyone was impressed. And the rest is history.

We collaborated from that moment on, and we have never stopped. We complement each other both in personality and in expertise, and it works very nicely. At some point I was offered a professorship at Wageningen. I said, okay, but only if Egbert comes too. We’ve been working together so long that it feels a bit like a marriage. We celebrated our silver work-partnership anniversary five years ago. Eventually you know exactly what you can expect from each other, without having to say anything. I am always full of ideas, half of which turn out on second thoughts not to be that great. Egbert calmly helps me separate the wheat from the chaff, and he is very strong on the technical side, being good at both maths and modelling. He is the engine in our machine, he helps me keep my feet on the ground and he makes sure we get something substantial done. We complement each other perfectly.’

Turning points: sometimes you spot them immediately, sometimes only in hindsight. In this series, members of the WUR community describe a decisive moment they will never forget. This time Professor Marten Scheffer on the moment he first started working with Egbert van Nes — the professional partner of his life.

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