Universiteit Leiden | Bij ons leer je de wereld kennen. Leiden University | Discover the world at Leiden University.

Get to know Ewine van Dishoeck and discover our origins in outer space

Is the earth the only planet in the universe where life has developed or could there be others too? If we are to answer this eternal question, we first need to know which molecules are present in space and how they react to each other.

Read more about the research of Ewine van Dishoeck into the building blocks of life that are present in outer space, about research and teaching on this topic at Leiden University and about their impact on society.

Discover the world at Leiden University.

Research: interstellar molecules

Is the earth the only planet in the universe where life has developed or could there be others too? How do stars and planets form? If we are to answer these eternal questions, we first need to know which molecules are present in space and how they react to each other. Ewine van Dishoeck, who began her academic career as a chemistry student and is now Professor of Molecular Astrophysics, researches these molecules in this exotic interstellar lab. She has gained world fame with her pioneering work. Her current passion is the hunt for water and the water cycle in space. This will provide answers to questions such as: where does the water in our rivers come from? And: could there be life on other planets?

How stars form (Dutch) Watch video

Ewine van Dishoeck helped develop the most powerful telescopes in the world. She conducts research into thin, ice-cold clouds of gas that are found between the stars close to our own solar system, including in the Orion Nebula, of which the Hubble telescope has made such breath-taking images. These gas clouds contain all sorts of molecules that are already interesting in themselves: due to the unusual conditions in space, molecules are present that are not present on earth, or only very rarely. But another fascinating thing also occurs in many of these gas clouds: new stars and planets are born. Van Dishoeck looks at the formation process of these celestial bodies, and studies which molecules in these clouds will end up on one of these new planets.

Van Dishoeck has been awarded many prizes and honours, including the Spinoza Prize, the highest academic award in the Netherlands. She has also secured numerous research grants. Van Dishoeck is also known for her work on the development of different telescopes. These are nearly always international collaboration projects in which Van Dishoeck assumes the role of bringing together people, resources and organisations.
Van Dishoeck conducts her research from the Leiden Observatory. With this observatory, Leiden University has one of the most illustrious institutes of astronomy in the world. Like Van Dishoeck, her colleagues astronomers Marijn Franx and Xander Tielens, have also been awarded the Spinoza Prize, which is a unique occurrence in the Netherlands: three such prizes in a single institute.

Van Dishoeck has also been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant, the highest European research grant for an individual. She was appointed Academy Professor by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in 2012, which has given her the opportunity to conduct research of her own choice for a period of five years. Furthermore, she is the most cited academic in the world in her field.
More than anything, however, Van Dishoeck is a driven researcher, who never ceases to be amazed by the mysteries of the cosmos. ‘If you look through the telescope and see signs of molecules coming from light years away and you know you are looking at the formation of a planet, it is very exciting. I often also think about this when I look at the stars with the naked eye. Then I see the process behind the sky.’

Four research themes: from thin gas cloud to planet

The birth of stars and planets

Which molecules are found in the space where new stars and planets form? And how exactly do these celestial bodies form? Ewine van Dishoeck uses the most powerful telescopes in the world, in locations such as the mountains of Chili and Hawaii, to study this. These telescopes can detect the radiation of molecules in gas clouds. Van Dishoeck and her colleagues use these ‘fingerprints’ to determine which molecules are present in the gas clouds and how likely it is that a star or planet will form there.

More about The birth of stars and planets

The hunt for water

14 May 2009 is a date that Ewine van Dishoeck will never forget. It is the day when the Herschel Satellite was launched with the mission: seek water! She was involved in the preparations for decades, before everything suddenly speeded up. Herschel did find an excess of water in space in 2010.

More about The hunt for water

The space laboratory

For Ewine van Dishoeck, space is an exotic laboratory, because thin gas clouds in the cosmos contain molecules that are not present on earth and that could never become part of our daily lives. As regards the molecules that are commonplace for us, such as water, the question is how they could have developed in that thin space: how can hydrogen and oxygen atoms ever find each other in all that empty space?

More about The space laboratory

Super telescopes

Without state-of-the-art telescopes, it would be impossible for astronomers to conduct further research. This also applies for Ewine van Dishoeck and her colleagues, if they wish to study the formation of new galaxies in thin clouds. ‘Ten years ago, telescopes could look into the middle of a cloud, but you can now zoom in with a factor of ten to a hundred. I often compare viewing such a cloud to an aerial photo of a city. First we saw the city as a big patch with a few roofs and now we can see the market stalls.’

More about Super telescopes
‘Does our earth have a little brother or sister somewhere?’

Teaching: ‘Training students in critical systems thinking’

Ewine Van Dishoeck also gives lectures, of course, and invests a great deal of time in supervising Master’s students and PhD fellows. ‘I consider it to be an integral part of my work as a researcher,’ she says. ‘I try to stimulate their interest by being enthusiastic about our research and mainly by helping them develop into critical independent thinkers. I always find the best result is if I give a student assignment A and that he or she returns after the assignment with research question B, and that we then come up with research question C together. What it boils down to is that the PhD fellows drive me rather than vice versa.’
Van Dishoeck believes that astronomers should not worry about only having trained for a very specific discipline. She believes they are excellently suited to all sorts of work. ‘Astronomers always deal with complex situations. They cannot set up their experiments exactly how they would like but always have to deal with what space offers them. This makes them excellent systems thinkers, people who can deal with different complex factors. They can consider very complex issues such as energy. Added to that is the fact that you follow the programme at the Leiden Observatory, a place that has brought together the best people for over a century. Leiden is world famous. Scientists from all over the world come and visit us.’

Specialise (Dutch) Watch video

Programmes in the field of the study of the universe
For centuries, scientists have been trying to unravel the secrets of space to find answers about the origins of humanity and where we belong in the universe. Leiden University has an important role in this research and is renowned for its researchers and programmes in the field of astronomy. You can study the universe in different disciplines such as astronomy, physics and chemistry.

Molecular Science & Technology : In this programme, you learn the fundamental, industrial and social aspects of chemistry, enabling you to conduct fundamental research as a chemist.

Astronomy : This programme provides greater insight into a universe that is expanding at an increasing rate with planets circling other suns, the life and death of stars, massive black holes and colliding solar systems.

Physics : A voyage of discovery to knowledge about the matter from which everything is made. Modern physics covers a broad package of study topics, ranging from life processes to quantum phenomena, and from the minutest to the most massive objects.

More researchers of the universe

  • Marijn Franx
  • Harm Habing
  • Marc van Hemert
  • Michiel Hogerheijde
  • Vincent Icke
  • Frank Israel
  • Walter Jaffe
  • Christoph Keller
  • Geert-Jan Kroes
  • Koenraad Kuijken
  • Harold Linnartz
  • George Miley
  • Pablo Mendes de Leon
  • Simon Portegies
  • Huub Röttgering
  • Joop Schaye
  • Xander Tielens
  • Tim de Zeeuw

Marijn Franx Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy

Studies the earliest galaxies and refers to himself as the archaeologist of the cosmos (Spinoza Prize 2010).

Harm Habing Professor of Infrared Astronomy

Performs research that relates to the cool cosmos.

Marc van Hemert Professor of Theoretical Chemistry

Specialised in water molecules and, for example, how light particles cause them to disintegrate.

Michiel Hogerheijde Associate Professor

Studies the formation of stars and planetary systems around stars.

Vincent Icke Professor of Theoretical Astronomy

Studies the physics behind the cosmos. Makes science accessible.

Frank Israel Professor of Nearby Star Systems

Studies the complicated and dramatic history of close galaxies.

Walter Jaffe Professor of Instrumental Astronomy

Develops instruments to measure matter in space. Helped write the Hubble software.

Christoph Keller Professor of Experimental Astrophysics

Studies planets beyond our galaxy.

Geert-Jan Kroes Professor of Theoretical Chemistry

Calculates chemical reactions at a quantum level, particularly if hydrogen is involved.

Koenraad Kuijken Professor of GalacticAstronomy

Was the first to chart the distribution of dark matter.

Harold Linnartz Professor of Infrared Astronomy

Reproduces the stark conditions of the space in which stars and planets develop.

George Miley Professor of Astronomy

Brings young children through the world in contact with astronomy with his ‘Universe Awareness’ project.

Pablo Mendes de Leon Professor of Air and Space Law

Studies the legal aspects of space travel.

Simon Portegies Professor of Numerical Star Dynamics

Computer simulation of the behaviour of solar systems, sometimes getting the solar systems to collide.

Huub Röttgering Professor of Observational Cosmology

Studies solar systems with the radio telescope. Scientific Director of the Leiden Observatory.

Joop Schaye Professor of the Formation of Galaxies

Studies the growth of the universe using physics and computer simulations.

Xander Tielens Professor of Physics and Chemistry of the Interstellar Medium

Studies large organic molecules in space (Spinoza Prize 2012).

Tim de Zeeuw Professor of Theoretical Astronomy

Director General of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Impact: influence on the world

The research of Ewine van Dishoeck is an influential figure in the academic world and society. Knowledge about the birth of stars and planets and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe fascinates researchers, businesses and anyone who would like to know where we humans come from. Van Dishoeck is also the driving force when it comes to bringing together researchers and the business community on new, ground-breaking projects.

Read more Impact (Dutch) Watch video

The world of...

Discover the world in Leiden. Leiden’s researchers collaborate with colleagues throughout the world, often from other adjacent disciplines. Ewine van Dishoeck also works with renowned colleagues from different countries. The world map below shows a number of Ewine van Dishoeck’s global contacts.

International (Dutch) Watch video