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Title: Obituary for Jan van der Pers

item Dickens, Joseph

Submitted to: Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 8/20/2006
Publication Date: 12/1/2006
Citation: Minks, A., Visser, H., Dickens, J.C. 2006. Obituary for Jan van der Pers. Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata, 121:189-190.

Interpretive Summary:

Technical Abstract: After a short but valiant struggle against cancer, Jan van der Pers died on 29 April, 2006 in the hospital in Hilversum, The Netherlands, close to his home. Our conversations with Jan during the last months of his life showed the remarkable strength and positive attitude typical of him. Discussions about science, the classics, and the nature of life, as well as shared memories, made these conversations as pleasant and stimulating as always. Jan started his career in insect chemoreception with his PhD research at the University of Groningen in the group of Cees den Otter, receiving his PhD in 1980. As part of a national research programme on the speciation of Yponomeuta moth species initiated by the late Wim Herrebout, Jan investigated the olfactory receptors of a range of closely related Yponomeuta moth species by their morphology and electrophysiological responses to sex pheromones and plant odour components. Jan combined an inventive mind with extensive technical skills. He made glass knives for cutting off the tip of tiny single olfactory sensilla in order to record responses of neurons housed within them. In order to photograph the whole circumference of an antennal segment using a scanning electron microscope, he constructed a special specimen holder. Devices such as these were products from his mechanical workshop at home, a private business registered in 1970 and playfully called Murphy Developments in recognition of Murphy’s Law. In these early years, equipment for the electrophysiological recording of neuron responses in insects was very expensive and of poor quality. Jan surmounted these difficulties by developing his own amplifiers and recording devices. For example, he constructed a real-time electronic spike discriminator that preceded the software tools currently available. In 1981, Jan moved to Sweden for a postdoctoral position in the pheromone group at Lund University. Here, he built an electrophysiological set-up for recording of moth responses to sex pheromones. Most essential components of this unit were made by Jan himself: micromanipulators, amplifier, and odour delivery equipment. He cooperated in Lund with pheromone chemists such as Christer Löfstedt and Bill Hansson. The latter was his first and only student. We all know that Jan was very straightforward and that he preferred the practical aspects of science to the paperwork and bureaucracy that are an inevitable part of large institutions such as universities. He returned to the Netherlands in 1983 to devote himself entirely (thanks to the help of his wife, Bonnie King) to the work he enjoyed in his own independent company. The name of the company was changed from Murphy Developments to SYNTECH several years later. SYNTECH has since specialized in the development and production of biophysical instrumentation, particularly for the study of insect chemoreception. Jan ran his company with two major goals: to produce instruments that were easy to use (for everybody, ‘ . . . even entomologists!’) and to develop high-tech Instruments (for the specialists). He was less interested in the most obvious business goal of making money. Jan liked to say, ‘I don’t sell, people buy’. If a scientist could not afford to buy his instruments, Jan came up with a solution that allowed the research to progress nonetheless. In this way, Jan has probably been the largest private sponsor for the science of insect chemoreception. The number and variety of instruments he developed are incredible, considering he did everything by himself until a few years ago. The list of instruments contains among others: micromanipulators, electrode holders, amplifiers for electroantennogram (EAG/EAD) and single sensillum recordings (SSR), odour delivery devices, radar actometer systems, special taste probes, coupled GC-EAD and GC-SSR solutions (gas chromatograph connected to insect ‘detect