My Jakarta: Wibowo Arindrarto, molecular biology student
Denny F. Halim
Wibowo Arindrarto, or Bowo, has spent much of the last few years in the laboratory. First as an undergraduate biotechnology student at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta, and now as a master’s student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, where he is in the cancer genomics and developmental biology program.
The 25-year-old talks to My Jakarta about his studies, tells us what it’s like living in the Netherlands and offers some tips for aspiring researchers.
Not many people understand your field of study, so could you explain what exactly it is that you do?
Most of my studies involve trying to understand how genes work. My first project in Utrecht dealt with a marine worm called Macrostomum lignano, which has a remarkable regeneration ability. If you cut it into two the head will grow an entirely new body. We found a gene that might have a significant role in this process, as the worm’s ability to grow is gone when this gene is not active. This knowledge may help us better understand ourselves and the diseases that afflict us.
Why are you interested in this field?
I think my biggest motivation is my curiosity about life. Questions like, why do we have two hands with 10 fingers? Why is the human body shaped like it is? Why do we grow the way we do?
Questions like these can often be de-constructed from observing how genes work. I guess that is the biggest motivation, being part of the process that is searching for these answers. It is really satisfying, rather than giving answers like “life is mysterious” or “such questions are impossible to be answered.” I prefer to try find out why rather than accept superficial explanations.
You mentioned that your current project is about programming. How does that relate to genes?
Current biology research often involves thousands or millions of genes. To make sense of this data, we need to employ the help of computer programs. Understanding the growing amount of data is an important part of the discovery process, and I am also interested in writing programs that help us analyze the data.
What do you think about the level of research in Indonesia?
In every country there are problems related to things like funding or logistics. In Indonesia, these issues are much more apparent and that makes it hard for anyone to focus on doing the actual science. Until our government shows enough commitment to deal with these issues, research in Indonesia will never reach its potential.
So you prefer to work in foreign countries. Some people might accuse you of betraying your country.
If someone chooses to work in another country, you should not point your finger at them. You should find out what the problem is.
One of our great engineers, B.J. Habibie, spent quite some time in Germany and he still contributed to our nation. I don’t think he would have been as great had he spent all his time in Indonesia. I’m not saying that all researchers should work in another country. Some great people, like Yonanes Surya, can work in Indonesia but for a real nation-wide change, we can’t always rely on people like him because these kinds of people are rare. It’s the government’s job to make a real change that affects the masses.
Any unique experiences living in the Netherlands?
The society is very progressive. You can be who you are, no matter your belief or sexual preference. The atheist community is also growing larger every year. With these things going on, I don’t see any of the moral decay that people often claim will happen. The people are decent and nice.
I feel safer and more comfortable here, because I know I have the freedom to be me. I can do whatever I want, as long as it does not harm others.
What is your career goal?
I want to contribute to society, anything that helps people in their daily lives. You don’t go into research for the money. You can make big money in research, but that is the exception to the rule.
Any advice for aspiring researchers?
Many people think a scientist must be some kind of weird-looking genius. A good scientist is someone who can do the research and communicate the results. A big part of your time as a scientist will be spent writing reports or funding proposals. So you have to be able to communicate effectively. That is something they don’t really teach you in school, although it is very important. And, of course, you have to be curious and critical. Always question things. Always find out why.
Wibowo Arindrarto was talking to Denny F. Halim.