In Memoriam Huib Ovaa

On the 19th of May 2020, our dear colleague and friend Professor Dr. Huib Ovaa passed away at the age of 46. In the past year, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Huib underwent a variety of treatments. Always with his usual optimism. He continued to work as much as possible and tried to keep the burden of his fight against cancer away from the people around him.

Huib was an excellent scientist who was able to look beyond the boundaries of his own field, chemistry, which allowed him to broaden his view. Add to this his fascination for biology and it is clear why he played such a prominent role in the development of a new and promising scientific field ‘Chemical Biology’. His input was also invaluable for current status of the chemical immunology field. With his boundless enthusiasm, his inspiring creativity, his powerful sense of humor and his ability to raise funds, he was the silent driving force behind the position that ICI has achieved.

Sjaak Neefjes, scientific director ICI: “Huib was a highly gifted, motivated, productive and above all, a very creative researcher who continuously and effortlessly crossed boundaries between chemistry and biology. He loved to collaborate and he flourished, as a synthetic organic chemist, in an environment, both at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and more recently at the LUMC, dominated by biochemists, molecular biologists, cell biologists and immunologists.”

A top scientist, a friend, a prankster, an inspirer... and also a great mentor. Celia Berkers, his first PhD student, says: “For Huib, no idea was ever too crazy, no goal was ever out of reach. This led to exciting, pioneering, fun and elegant science. Being a PhD student in his lab, I learned so much from Huib. He completely changed my perception of what chemistry can do, taught me that you can use it to solve biological questions that you cannot even begin to answer without chemistry, and how this can open up completely novel fields. His fearlessness and way of thinking were truly inspirational and continue to inspire me almost every single day. But what was really special is that for all these years, he always made me feel like he was my biggest fan.”

Huib lived for science and for his people, and was very proud of his group. Jolien Luimstra, formerly ICI PhD student, remembers the lab meetings. “The work discussions were sacred and he liked to speak about ‘rocket science’. He also introduced the ‘kick ass science’ award comprising a super cool finding which would be rewarded with a bottle of champagne. Huib always did what he thought was best for the group. He liked to have fun and was averse to rules, bureaucracy and ‘puppet show’ ceremonies as he would call them. For example, at promotion ceremonies he was wearing a canary-yellow lined gown and he kept on postponing his own inaugural lecture for as long as possible, which was finally planned for November...”

We will miss his inspiration, his drive, his humor and his enthusiasm, but his ideas will live on within ICI and in the minds of everyone who worked with him.