RIMLS highlights 2017
Anouk Becker MSc Thesis awardDuring her Master's program Anouk Becker carried out an internship and subsequently wrote her thesis. Because of her outstanding work, she was elected for the RIMLS MSc thesis prize.
Jeroen de Baaij The rewards of multiple grants
Jeroen de Baaij from the department of Physiology (theme: Renal disorders) was awarded not one, but three personal grants in 2017, adding up to € 750,000. It not only allows him to continue the research into magnesium deficiencies he started as a PhD candidate but also to set up his own research team. Jeroen is excited that he can shift focus from a rare disease to issues that effect a larger population. It’s no wonder that both the Dutch kidney and diabetes foundations are supporting his research. Summing up, he was awarded the following personal grants in 2017: Veni Grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), a Junior Kolff Fellowship from the Dutch Kidney Foundation and a Junior Fellowship from the Dutch Diabetes Research Foundation. Jeroen is also part of a consortium that was awarded a grant.
Q1 What are you going to research with these funds?
“My research will build on what I studied as a PhD candidate. I looked at the genetic origin of disease in patients with magnesium disturbances. Renal magnesium wasting is often the cause of hypomagnesemia in patients. Magnesium deficiency can cause such things as fatigue, generalized weakness, muscle cramps and abnormal heart rhythms. As a PhD candidate I looked at rare diseases and was so able to concentrate on one defect. Now I turn my attention to a larger population.
Magnesium deficiency, for example, is also connected to diabetes. One in three diabetic patients has a magnesium deficiency. What is the correlation: does diabetes cause the magnesium deficiency or does magnesium deficiency contribute to the development of diabetes?
My current research project 'The magnesium journey through the renal cell: how to get out?' will examine the cells that transport magnesium in the kidney. For fifteen years, it’s been known how magnesium enters these kidney cells, but the mechanism of subsequent extrusion to the blood compartment remains elusive.”
Q2 The received funding allows you to set up your own team. Such a large team is happening sooner than it might otherwise have. Does leading a team make you nervous?
“No, not at all. I get great energy from a team. As a starting postdoc, I also had the funds to get assistance. I got the chance to train people and I really enjoy supervising other researchers. Watching them grow is rewarding. It doesn’t put pressure on me but I’m aware that to continue with a team I’ll need to keep the funds coming in. There’s a time pressure. You cannot slack on finding funding or on getting research results. For example, you can only apply for a Veni, Vidi or Vici grant within a certain amount of years after your PhD. With the current grants I can move forward for a few years, but soon I’ll have to start applying for new grants again.”
Q3 I’m guessing, having to apply for these grants takes a lot of time. Do you think it’s a lot of precious time that’s taken away from research?
“I’ve been very fortunate to have received a number of grants. I can imagine if you’ve spent a lot of time applying but not receiving anything, that it can be frustrating. I do feel, though, that there’s value to applying for grants. It helps shape your ideas. You can easily get distracted by all the small issues and possible paths that a project can take. Grant writing forces you to make clear decisions.
There is, however, a long waiting process which can be tiresome. I might write a proposal in January and not hear until December if I got the grant. In between there are lots of steps that also demand your time and attention.”
Q4 You received two funds from a foundation. Did your research have to have a clear outcome for patients to be applicable for these grants?
“A foundation does want the benefits for their target group to be clear. And that’s fair enough. People have spent lots of time gathering funds for these specific patients. The role of the patient is more important for foundations. The Veni grant, for example, focuses much more on pure scientific issues and academic talent. I will continue in research as long as the questions are interesting and I can get to the next step
But it’s wrong to think that foundations are specifically looking for a new treatment. When applying for these grants I concentrated more on the patients. For one application I even consulted with some patients and took their comments on board. When I had the chance to talk to patients, I realized that for them, finding a treatment is not all they want from research. For them understanding what is happening and why it’s happening is also important. Simply knowing can make a huge difference to them.”
Q5 Was it always clear to you that you wanted to help patients by doing research?
“To be honest, when I began studying Biology, I thought the last thing I’d be doing was research. I guess I had a naïve image of researcher: a pipette in hand, tucked away in a lab. But during my Master’s in France I realized it’s so much more. It’s about solving puzzles. It’s also about working together. Research can be a slow process but it’s also so rewarding.
I will continue in research as long as the questions are interesting and I can get to the next step. I’m really not sure where the questions will take me. We’ll see.”
Tom Schirris Several personal grantsJunior Research Fellowship of Wolfson College Cambridge
Tom Schirris, was elected to a prestigious Junior Research Fellowship of Wolfson College, which is a leading academic research institution as one of the 31 colleges in the University of Cambridge. Tom is currently studying mitochondrial transporters at the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit in Cambridge and as a Junior Research Fellow of the College it is his duty to undertake postdoctoral work and promote scholarship in this subject. Tom’s formal admission as a Fellow took place at the meeting of the Governing Body on 17 October 2017.
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Prof. Dr. van Zwieten award
At the 40th anniversary jubilee meeting of the Dutch Pharmacological Society on 1 June 2017 in Utrecht, Tom Schirris received the Prof. Dr. Van Zwieten award for his doctoral thesis. Tom defended his thesis cum laude in December 2016 and he is currently studying the pharmacological aspects of mitochondrial transporters at the MRC Biology Unit of Cambridge University, funded by an EMBO Long-Term Fellowship. More information about the Prof. Dr. Van Zwieten award click here.
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Joep van den Bercken prize
The cum laude PhD thesis of Tom was also recognized by the Netherlands Society of Toxicology as best contribution to the field in 2016. At the annual meeting of the society on June 20 2017 in Doorn, Tom received the Joep van den Bercken prize along with a certificate and € 1000. Tom gave an excellent presentation on his work, in which he showed how cross-fertilizing connections between systems medicine, toxicology and mitochondrial biology has resulted in new insights into the understanding of side effects of drugs and treatment of metabolic disorders.
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Viola Klück What am I doing in the lab?
When Viola Klück was rounding off a degree in Medicine, she started looking around for a PhD position. She had done a few internships at a lab during her Bachelor’s and Master’s and research intrigued her. She ended up being awarded a personal grant by winning RIMLS’s MSc-PhD prize for her thesis Unravelling inflammatory mechanisms of hyperuricemia to prevent gout and associated diseases. Viola began working at the research institute as a PhD candidate in May of 2017.
Q1 How does a medical student end up doing molecular research?
“It’s really not that far removed from clinical practice as some might think. I just get to zoom into a medical problem and try and figure out how it works. My aim now is to impact a group rather than an individual patient. At first I did think: what am I doing in the lab?
But I must admit, at first I did think: I’m a clinician, what am I doing in the lab? I had a lot to learn about the basic elements of research and lab techniques. Yet, our team consists of equal numbers of biomedical scientists and clinical researchers. I think it gives a good balance. Clinical researchers are more inclined to keep their eye on the potential future benefits for patients."
Q2 What medical problem intrigued you enough to research and what do you hope to achieve for tomorrow’s medicine?
“I’m researching the mechanisms by which urate and MSU crystals – the crystallized form of urate – lead to inflammation. This is very important for gout and associated diseases such as cardiovascular diseases.
I hope to prove the causal relationship between urate and the associated comorbidities. For instance, that urate directly leads to endothelial dysfunction and therefore increased cardiovascular risk. If that’s true, already available (and cheap) urate lowering therapy such as allopurinol, could be useful for a big group of patients. Similar to antihypertensive drugs and statins, they could be prescribed to prevent cardiovascular diseases.
If it does, I will have to start writing lots of guidelines. But that’s okay. Informing medical professions that available drugs can have different purposes is just as important as developing new drugs.”
Q3 How do you feel about the support and training you receive at RIMLS?
“In the training and supervision plans we need to write there is equal attention for the scientific research as for education. I can take courses at Radboud University, some of which are taught by RIMLS scientists. I have to admit, though, that often I’m so involved in the science that I forget about the courses. I’ll try planning something in but either there’s a conference I want to go to or I give priority to testing.
There is little hierarchy between researchers. Someone is always ready to help me when I ask for it. I can also just walk into my supervising professors offices and enthusiastically share my results. And in return they are enthusiastic for me. Sometimes, even more so than me. Whereas I can be disappointed about negative results they will show me the importance of what I’ve done and what I’ve learned from it. It keeps me motivated.”
Q4 What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your first year?
“For sure, I’m a better scientist than I was last year. Of course, I’ve learned the practical skills to be a researcher. But it’s so much more than that. I’ve gotten a scientific mindset. I’ve learned how to tackle a problem, ask the right questions. I can organize and structure my work, although I do feel I’m a bit more chaotic than many fellow researchers. But that’s okay; that’s how I work. It helps me make connections I might not otherwise have made.
Also very important, I had to get used to the pace. Not everything works the way you want it to immediately. Negative data, although less publishable, is equally important.”
Q5 A year into your three-year track, are you already looking at where you want your research career to go?
“Erm … well, right now I’m looking to get my first paper completed and published. I’ve almost collected all the data needed and the outline’s set so I can start writing soon. I’m not as worried about the writing process as I thought I would be.
I do have an idea of what I want after I complete my PhD. I want to go back to specialize in internal medicine or rheumatology. Eventually, I would enjoy working directly with patients while satisfy my curiosity with research. Ideally, 50-50.”