3 February 2019

My name is Irma Joosten and I was born in Arnhem, a town very close by, then spend a lot of years in Utrecht studying and working, and subsequently came to Nijmegen. I am a medical immunologist, with a focus on transplant immunology. I am full professor and head of the Lab. of Medical Immunology. Here, we perform diagnostics for patients with immune disorders and do research with the aim to better understand the immune pathology of diseases and develop novel diagnostics. I am also theme leader of the research theme Inflammatory diseases.

When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? Can you tell us something about your child years. 

I was a happy child, with an enormous hunger for all sorts of knowledge, very inquisitive and reading a lot. I wanted to be an explorer discovering far away, and new worlds, but eventually I discovered that exploration can be done at multiple levels. In the end it was a choice between becoming an historian (strategic workings) or veterinarian (physiological workings); mostly out of practical reasons I decided for the latter. 

What was your previous academic training, where did you study and why that study? 

I choose veterinary medicine (Utrecht University), mostly because I was totally fascinated by how the body worked and I liked working with animals. There wasn’t much research training in the curriculum, so it was only in my 6th year when I was doing a field study in Thailand on swamp buffalo behaviour, that I discovered that I would rather be a scientist then a practising veterinarian. After finishing my study I therefore applied for a PhD position. I started out doing epidemiological studies on reproductive problems in Dutch MRY cattle, but that soon turned into more mechanistic, immunological studies on this topic. Soon, I was totally hooked on immunology.

The RIMLS motto is: ‘Today’s molecules for tomorrow’s medicine’. What does this mean for you? 

 It is bit like “from bench to bedside” for me; in my work I am always focused on how my research can (in the end) benefit the patient, so it is translational in nature. I have decided some years ago that because so little was actually known about the human immune system (we do know a lot about mouse immunity), that was where my focus should lie. I never regretted this choice and it has allowed us to move closer to (diagnostic) implementation of our findings.

Who is your great example as scientists? And please give a motivation why.

I would like to name two; as a young girl I read a book on Marie Curie and was fascinated by the sheer dedication and endurance that she showed in her scientific pursuits, not only as a scientist, but with the added difficulty of being a woman in a men’s world. It really inspired me to keep going no matter what. The second has to be Jon van Rood, he was a pioneer in the world of transplant immunology, one of the discoverers of tissue antigens (HLA) and founder of Eurotransplant.  As a medical doctor and scientist he definitely made the step from bench to bedside and had an enormous impact on modern day transplantation.  His creativity, enthusiasm and full dedication again, was inspiring.

Which research discovery that you have made has made you most proud? 

I very much value the work my group did on human immune regulation, and more particularly the plasticity of regulatory T cells. This really changed the field of Treg therapy (the initial paper is now cited over 500 times). More recently, researchers in the lab have established wonderful ways to generate individual immune profiles that in the near future will allow us to stratify patients and provide them with the most fitting immunotherapy. For me the collaboration between laboratory and clinic has proven to be most rewarding.

Given unlimited finance what experiment would you perform?

For me two things stand out: 1. I would focus on research that tackles pathophysiology of disease in a multidisciplinary fashion. I believe that there is a lot of commonality in the underlying (immunological ) cause of a number of inflammatory diseases. At the same time we do see heterogeneity in response to immunosuppressants within a single clinical presentation. If we can get a grip on this, we might be able to re-classify diseases in a way that will guide therapy choice, thereby improving response-rates and quality of life for patients that now have to go from one therapy to another; 2. We can only successfully implement such diagnostic strategies if we find ways to (inter)nationally standardize our procedures. This is an often fully underestimated exploit, but essential to the  eventual clinical implementation.

What does your working area (desk, office) look like and what does it say about you (or your research)? 

Well, I always was a big fan of paper, so I used to have piles and piles on my desk. These in itself were quite well organized, by the way. However, I realised I had to change and go with the paperless flow, so I started clearing out. Now empty spaces are slowly emerging (it is an ongoing process...).

Nominate a colleague to be in the spotlight and what would you like to ask him or her?

Alessandra Cambi;  how can nanomedicine help to improve the lives of patients suffering from inflammatory disease.

What type of person are you, quick insights:

a) Mac or PC?                                : Mac
b) Theater or cinema?                 : Cinema
c) Dine out or dine in?                 : Dine out
d) Ferrari or Fiat?                         : Ferrari (actually MG)
e) Shopaholic or chocoholic?     : Neither, cheesaholic
f) Culture or Nature                     : Nature (closely followed by culture)
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