Inside the home of talented Fair City actress and scientist Jean van Sinderen-Law
Jean van Sinderen-Law with her lustrous, thick hair, green eyes and fine bone structure looks every inch the romantic heroine, and, indeed, it emerges that there is something of the romantic about her. When it came to going to college, one of the reasons she opted to study sciences at University College Cork was because her grandmother and aunt had done so before her, and the fact that she would be the third-generation woman in her family to do so really appealed to her.
This romanticism isn't just confined to her career; it's evident in her home, too; she built a fairy-tale house, surrounding it with a waterfall and a babbling stream.
And it permeates her work life; even though she has a high-flying, pressure-filled job in UCC, she uses every spare minute to immerse herself in the theatre and film world - her new love.
But of course, as well as the romance, there's a steel edge and a fierce intelligence; she wouldn't have the position of associate vice president/director of European relations and public affairs if she didn't have the chops for it, nor would she have her PhD in microbiology and food chemistry, which is what this elegant Cork woman went on to specialise in, after first doing a science degree.
Science was, in fact, her second choice of degree. "I thought of medicine first, but I missed it by two points in the Leaving Cert. I repeated the Leaving Cert and did get four points more, but the points needed had gone up. I was happy to do science instead," Jean recalls, adding with supreme logic, "I actually felt medicine mustn't be for me, because I had done my best, and if I had the same points that I got the second year in the first year, I'd have got my place in medicine."
During her degree, she specialised in microbiology and so went on to do her PhD in a combination of microbiology and food chemistry; during that period, she studied the acceleration of Cheddar-cheese ripening.
When she finished the PhD, Jean became the coordinator of an EU-funded programme involving 33 laboratories in Europe, but she decided she wanted to do post-doctoral research, so she applied to the EU for funding, and was selected for a Marie Curie two-year fellowship. As it happened, she had two other offers - one from the Mayo Clinic in the States and another from Nestle in Switzerland, but Marie Curie particularly appealed to her for feminist reasons. "Marie Curie was an amazing woman and a terrific scientist," Jean enthuses.
The best university in the world, at the time, for research into her specialisation, lactic acid, was in Groningen in the Netherlands - home of the world-famous Gouda cheese - and this is where Jean, whose maiden name is Law, headed, only to have an extremely romantic encounter within four weeks of her arrival.
"I was carrying a tray of Petri dishes, bringing my bugs to the basement to incubate them in a 37-degree room," Jean recalls. "As I was walking down, I heard footsteps behind me, and when we got to the room, this hand went out to open the door. I went in, and so did he. I put my tray on the shelf, turned around and I saw Douwe. I thought, 'It's either how attractive he is or it's the 37 degrees'," she notes with a laugh, adding, "We fell for each other."
That was 26 years ago. Jean and Douwe - who hails from a province of Holland called Friesland, home to the tallest people in the world; Douwe is very tall - have been together ever since.
After she finished her research, they had numerous offers, including from the Kerry Group in Chicago, which wanted both of them, but when Jean's dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she opted to stay in Cork, and Douwe moved there to be with her. A brilliant scientist, Douwe is now chair of molecular microbiology at UCC, and Jean was offered the opportunity to do more post-doctoral research there.
Two years later, Jean moved into a completely different role. In 1995, UCC advertised a two-year post, which it called EU projects officer, to maximise the involvement of the college in European-funded research programmes. Jean went for the job and got it. "I would walk the corridors of Brussels, networking and finding out where the monies are. I was a dealmaker. Without the good scientists, without the good partnerships, and without a track record, we wouldn't have got the money. I was a matchmaker. That was my role," she explains.
When the two years were up, the job was made permanent, and Jean got it. She and her colleagues were very successful, and investments in the college resulted in the environmental research institute being built, as well as the biosciences institute, and an extension to the library. "It's between ourselves and Trinity in terms of the leading research university in Ireland," she notes proudly.
Jean's role expanded further in 2001 when she became director of development and alumnae relations - it became her remit to secure philanthropic donations for the college from high-net-worth individuals, foundations and corporations. "[These are] people who, through their love of mankind, want to support by giving and enabling. In 2015, I became director of principal gifts/associate vice president of development," she notes.
In her role as director of development, she was responsible for leading a fundraising team, and all the routine office managerial tasks that go with heading up a team; then, in 2015, her focus became solely on fundraising for the university.
"In philanthropy, people give to people, people give to success, and people only give if they're asked. People are great givers in Ireland, but we react to causes. In America, they plan their giving," Jean says, adding, "My work would be to present opportunities to people, and they respond very well."
According to her, it's all about relationship-building. She cites several examples of this, including one where a donor's first donation was €8,000; followed a year later by a donation of €12,000; and a year after that it rose to €62,000. Then it dramatically rose to €250,000, followed by €500,000.
"Relationships are not built overnight. We mind our donors to ensure they get what they want from the giving, which is usually a feeling that they've made a difference," says Jean, who is particularly proud of the fact that UCC is number one in Ireland for students with disabilities, and donations have often been channelled into that area. She's proud, too, of the fact that UCC owns the Great Book of Ireland, which Mary Robinson calls the Book of Kells of the second millennium.
"Very generous people came on board to acquire that book, which was originally produced to raise money for Poetry Ireland and the Clashganna Mills Trust. It comprises the work of 120 artists and 140 Irish writers, including the last written words of Samuel Beckett. We acquired it in 2004 to punctuate the opening of the library. We want to develop a treasures gallery in UCC," she explains.
Jean, who has just been appointed associate vice president/director of European relations and public affairs, is passionate about her job, and is particularly proud of the fact that she got the Businesswoman Of The Year Award from the Women Mean Business group in 2010.
In contrast to all the networking and fundraising, Jean recently reignited her interest in film. All her young life it had been a passion, not just acting, but the whole business of film - costume design, direction, etc - before science took over.
Then, in 2009, she saw an advert for auditions in Cobh for extras between the ages of 17 and 70, and decided to apply. "The ad said they welcomed irregular features, carbuncles, hunchbacks, whatever, and I thought, 'Now's my opportunity to be on a film set dressed up as a tree or whatever and see how everything is made'," she notes with a laugh.
As it happened, on the day of the auditions, Jean ended up having to dash straight from work meetings to Cobh, and so presented herself wearing a business uniform - a pencil skirt and stilettos, which turned out to be fortuitous. The next evening, she got a call; they had decided to give her an actual part in the film. "It's called The Eclipse and I got the part of the wife of the lead character, which was played by Aidan Quinn," she says, adding with a laugh, "I thought I'd be going to LA for six months, but it only took two days. It was cast by Oonagh Kearney and directed by Conor McPherson. Blink and you will miss me, but that was my first IMDb credit. I can't tell you how passionate I am about acting and the whole business of film and theatre. I now have 17 IMDb credits; I'm there under the name Jean Law."
Being Jean, a woman who doesn't do things by halves, she hasn't just turned up for auditions; over the last few years, she's also studied acting and done some acting exams, she's co-written some short films, and has performed on the stage in Cork, too. "Acting is a wonderful journey into literature," she volunteers. She's even been a character in Fair City. "I was Ursula McBride, the relationship counsellor from hell," she notes with a laugh.
Given her prominent position in the corporate world, it must have taken huge humility to present herself as a complete novice in the film world, and Jean agrees. "I am completely out of my comfort zone, but I love that," she says.
Filming has taken such a hold on her spare time that Jean and her film colleagues have even, from time to time, used her gorgeous home as a film location.
She and Douwe built the house in 2000 after they found the site - a fairytale, sylvan setting on the outskirts of Cork city.
"When we first saw it, it was a completely overgrown, sloping site, with some trees and so on. Someone had tried to put a house here before, but they felt it wasn't workable. We came down here one day. There was no avenue, no nothing, but we walked through the trees and felt there was a very good feeling. We thought, 'Yeah, if they can send a man to the moon, we can build a house here', and we bought the site. We designed the outline of the house ourselves and the draughtsman drew it properly," she says, adding, "We wanted a country house with an old-world feel."
They certainly have that. A long avenue leads to the elegant detached house, which has many features of the traditional country home, including an expansive kitchen complete with Aga. The house originally comprised four bedrooms with two en suites. In 2010, they did a major extension, and it now comprises five bedrooms, three of which are en suite. Jean and Douwe have two boys, Douwe (18) and Ian (13) and they also needed room for extended family from Holland who visit regularly. They also have a large living room, a family room, and two offices, one each for Douwe and Jean.
The colour scheme is mainly a restful cream, with some family heirlooms among the furnishings. There are lovely pieces of old china from Holland which Jean sources when she goes to see Douwe's family.
There's a delightful conservatory to the front of the house where Jean sits when she has a moment; she can enjoy the magnificent gardens as well as the sounds of the waterfall.
Romance is alive and well in this corner of Cork.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Living