Universiteit Utrecht   Universiteit Utrecht
Graduate School of Life Sciences  
Graduate School of Life Sciences
Master for Life Magazine
This magazine is intended for students and teachers and all other persons interested in the Life Sciences Community Utrecht.
The articles are written by Master’s students following the course Communicating Life Sciences taught by Connie Engelberts and facilitated by de Graduates School of Life Sciences.

Previous issues of the magazine can be found here.

•   Graduate School news •   From physician to pharmacological scientist.
•   A research Master in the Netherlands: avant-garde and gezelligheid •   University versus University: the battle for a talented student.
•   Pill-panic: from freedom to fear. •   From the introduction week right into the hospital.
Wanting to know why animals do what they do. Agenda
•  Janneke’s challenge: How to know whether a dog is happy and healthy?

Graduate School news

Deadline Honours programmes:/Select and QBio: December 1st
U/Select (Utrecht Selective Life Sciences ExtraCurricular Track) is the life sciences honours programme for selected students of the GSLS. It is a 2-year extracurricular programme, for excellent students who seek to broaden their horizon and want to get more out of their Master's programme. Interested? Deadline for application: December 1st. More information can be found here.

The honours programme Quantitative Biology offers students extra challenge in the field of Quantitative Biology and Computational Life Sciences. The programme is set up for students with a genuine interest in interdisciplinary work as it sets out to combine different scientific disciplines such as Biology, Biomedical Biology, Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Physics, Mathematics and Computer Sciences. Want to apply? Deadline for application: December 1st. More information can be found here.

Research Project Market
Are you arranging your research project and do you want to meet UU and UMCU research groups where you can perform your project? On January 17th the research project market will be organised. More detailed information will follow in the next Master for Life Magazine. Want an impression of the market? You can find it here.

Prepare for the next step in your career: Career Services
Do you need some advice about how to start your career? Check out www.uu.nl/careerservices for more information. 

Student representation 
Problems, complaints, questions about your Master's programme? Contact the Life Sciences Representatives.

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A research Master in the Netherlands: avant-garde and gezelligheid
Italian ‘Cancer, Stem Cells & Developmental Biology’ Master’s student Anna Russo was triggered by the quality of the educative system and ‘formality-free’ atmosphere of Utrecht University. She chose to embark in the study because of the sstrong career-oriented nature of the Dutch Master’s programme.
By Anna Russo

In social terms, how do the two systems differ the most?
In academia, professors are God-like entities in my country; dusty, hoary creatures that would rarely appear in the lab. Here in Holland, they constitute a ubiquitous and hyper-mediatic presence. They immediately ask you to call them by their first name and all of a sudden you find yourself grabbing a beer with them while discussing your project and making ‘oh-so-inappropriate’ jokes! Another thing that I noticed is that insistence and perseverance are appreciated in the Dutch system, you can always fire thousands of e-mails or knock your professor’s door.  He will not get annoyed and will welcome you in his office to make you step out of it wiser one hour later.
What does it take to study at a Dutch university for an international student?
Studying here, one really experiences the feeling of being at the international forefront of research. Opportunities open wide in front of you, but you have to forge yourself in a shape which is in compliance with the hyper-social nature of the Dutch system. Studying is not the solitary, disheartening leafing through books you are used to if you come from an Italian university.
What got you excited about your own research?
What inspires me incredibly is the fact that the relevance of my research lies in the potential of implementing old and extremely inexpensive drugs for the cure of the grimmest cancers known to humans.  What is more, the relative copiousness of economic resources allocated to cancer research in the Netherlands and the lack of pseudoscientific ‘cults’ making the general public refuse the scientific truth soothes me, in a certain sense.

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Pill-panic: from freedom to fear.
While everything around us is going vegan, the traditional potato is replaced by quinoa, and awareness about the products we consume is paramount in our modern society, the discussion about oral contraception flares up again. After all, 37% of the women is taking this small, daily package of hormones without actual conscious thinking. The question now is whether this recent pill-panic is justified?
By Eline Kraaijenvanger

At its introduction in the sixties, oral contraceptives were considered the ultimate form of female emancipation and sexual liberation. Sex was now not just to serve human reproduction, but was seen as a relaxing activity instead. It was appreciated so much, that this number-one used medication in the world is currently just referred to as ‘the Pill’ – with capital. Through the years, this prestige of the Pill has been declining dramatically, with one after the other negative side-effect of this formerly wonder-medicine being brought to light.

“Decreased sexual experiences, an increased risk to depression and thrombosis, and a significant influence on partner preference and relationship satisfaction. These recent negative results are heavily overshadowing the once widely acclaimed function of the Pill: preventing unwanted pregnancies.” Says assistant professor Estrella Montoya, specialised in the hormonal effects of oral contraceptives. “Something we need to keep in mind when interpreting these results, is that correlations are no proof of existence – they are indications.”

“While the biological mechanisms of the influence of the Pill on our reproductive systems are known into the smallest detail, the mechanisms behind the reported potential side-effects of hormonal contraceptives are not yet known.” Montoya continues. This indistinctness might give the media carte blanche to exploit and sensationalise these adverse effects. And whereas we once placed the Pill on a pedestal, the rumours of serious side-effects combined with the introduction of promising alternatives changed our perspective radically and are currently dominating – triggering our very human nature to doom-and-gloom. So rather than questioning whether it is justified, we instead might question ourselves: is it really the Pill causing this recent panic? Or is it our own change in attitude?

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Wanting to know why animals do what they do.
Fundamental questions about animal behaviour fascinate me. That is why I started the Environmental Biology Master’s programme with the behavioural ecology track. This specialisation is for those who are interested in topics like animal welfare, cognition, and conservation. Behavioural ecologists have a different way of looking at nature than other life scientists.
By Judith Smit

Questions about behaviour, such as ‘why does a bird sing?’, can be answered in many ways. For instance, one could say a bird sings because it learned that from its parents, or because the air moving through its vocal tract produces sounds. I would say that a singing bird increases its fitness by seducing a mate with his songs. In contrast to other life sciences that mostly study mechanisms, behavioural ecologists take an evolutionary perspective and focus mostly on fitness consequences of behaviour.

What we see now is the result of billions of years of evolution. I always try to keep this in mind when I am doing research. So far I have studied what makes individuals different from each other by carrying out experiments with great tits (‘koolmezen’ in Dutch) at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). In my next project I hope to combine my interests in biology and communication by investigating mate calls in a frog species in the tropical rainforests of Panama.

And then the big question: What will life after studying bring? I do not have a set plan yet, but I hope that I will still be able to pursue my interests and to understand better why animals do what they do – making some money with that would be nice too.

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Janneke’s challenge: How to know whether a dog is happy and healthy?
Originally a neuroscientist, PhD student Janneke van der Laan has always been passionate about animal behaviour and welfare. She started her project on canine welfare in July 2016. Bursting with enthusiasm she tells me about the challenges of her work with dogs.
By Judith Smit

Measuring everything with sensors, called ‘smart technology’, is currently a big trend. Technicians are already bringing collars on the market that can measure things like activity and heart rate of a pet. ‘Can these measures really tell you something about the welfare of your dog?’, asks Janneke van der Laan. During her project at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, she wants to improve welfare monitoring of dogs. Specifically, Janneke aims to evaluate whether dogs are able to adapt to new situations, such as when switching owners.

Although the 31-year-old Janneke van der Laan was ‘born and raised as a cat person’, this certainly has changed in the past years. Now she really enjoys observing and taking measurements of shelter dogs for her study. However, it is a challenge to not get attached to those dogs. Human contact can be stress reducing for dogs and this could affect the data. ‘We try to stick to the protocols and not to cuddle the dogs too much during data collection’.

Another challenge she encounters is time management. ‘Everything always takes longer than you expected’, Janneke explains. Besides, this fanatic researcher could easily spend more than four years on this topic. To clear her head and become more structured Janneke tries to write a little about her project each day. This is also a way to maintain focus on her goal to develop practical solutions for dog owners and caretakers that help them assessing whether their pets are ‘happy and healthy’.

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From physician to pharmacological scientist.
A few years ago, I started studying Medicine at the University of Amsterdam to become a physician. During my Bachelor's study however I came to know that I wanted to be a scientist, and in particular a pharmacological researcher. But what made me decide on this shift?
By Masha Bink

During my Bachelor's programme in Medicine, I enjoyed the courses neurology, psychiatry, internal medicine, and pharmacology the most. Because of these preferences and because I found out that I did not want to work with people anymore after internships, I decided to choose for the Master’s programme 'Drug Innovation' in Utrecht. 

Fascinated by the brain, I conducted my first major internship at the Department of Psychopharmacology. My research involved studying the role of microglial cells in the pathophysiology of the major depressive disorder. I worked with antidepressants of different subclasses to investigate whether microglial cells would react in an anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory fashion.                                                                                                             
At present, I am working on a thesis in which I describe newly discovered genes which are linked to the pathophysiology of ALS. Recent insights shed light on the role of cell cycle division, mitosis, and meiosis in the pathophysiology of ALS. I am excited to work in the ALS field because of the urgent need for more knowledge on etiology and thus eventually more drug targets to defeat this devastating neurodegenerative disorder. 

To end, I am joyful with the switch of Master’s programme and probably will not regret it either.

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University versus University: the battle for a talented student.
Elrik Maat is a highly talented student of the Master’s programme ‘Drug Innovation’. However, he obtained his Bachelor's degree in ‘Pharmaceutical Sciences’ at the VU in Amsterdam. What made him decide to perform a similar Master’s programme at another university? Why would someone switch universities?
By Masha Bink

During high school, Elrik already stood out for his academic talent. Having the choice from a broad spectrum of nature subjects, he had chosen the courses physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology. His future dream had always been to become a dentist. However, because this study has a system to select not all students that apply, Elrik decided not to take the risk and to orientate on other bachelor studies. Because chemistry was his favourite course in high school, and he was also pretty talented in it, Elrik decided to look for studies related to chemistry. He decided to choose the bachelor ‘Pharmaceutical Sciences’ at the VU because of the combination between hard-core chemistry and societal importance for new therapeutics.  He obtained his bachelor at the VU and could thus start directly with a Master’s programme at the VU similar to ‘Drug Innovation’. What made him decide to leave Amsterdam behind and start a similar programme in Utrecht? 

Elrik explained he somewhat missed the biological component, and in particular immunology, during his bachelors ‘Pharmaceutical Sciences’. This component was well represented in Utrecht. Also, Elrik had his doubts on the educational quality of the VU. Currently, he is performing a research project which combines immunology with psychopharmacology by studying microglia, which are innate immune cells in the central nervous system. When asked Elrik if he had ever regretted his choice to switch universities, he replied with a clear certainty: ’No, never’.

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From the introduction week right into the hospital.
A hospitalisation during the introduction week made me feel the importance of my research project in my own body. I had to spend around four hours at the emergency department because of a sandwich that was provided for lunch…
By Rike Sonnet  

I started my Toxicology master last year and I remember how I wrote about my interest in food allergies in my motivation letter. As I am allergic to walnuts myself, I really wanted to know the underlying mechanism of action when your immune system starts to react against (harmless) food proteins.

I moved from Germany to Utrecht and my new stage of life started at the introduction week. Together with my fellow students I grabbed one of the provided sandwiches. I chose a croissant-like bread with brie and some salad. As I bit in it, I felt something crunchy in my mouth. Crunchy and Dutch bread do not really go together, so I checked what was actually in my sandwich. I saw a nut. Not a walnut but a pecan nut. I had never seen or heard of pecan nuts before and because I do not react to peanuts, macadamia, or hazel nuts, I thought that maybe nothing will happen…

Approximately half an hour later I had to go to hospital. It was no anaphylaxis but a severe shock and I had to stay a few hours in the emergency department. It started with itchy eyes and nausea and ended with a rush, a swollen face and tongue, and complete exhaustion.

Two months later I started my major internship in the Immunotoxicology group working on peanut allergy. A therapy or cure will not be obtainable tomorrow, but the research and work that everybody is doing here is an important step in that direction. Until then, I will always carry my EpiPen around because accidental ingestions can happen more easily than you think…

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•   November 17: LS Seminar Infeciton and Immunity -  Innate Immunity and Fertility: Towards Improved Prognostics 
•  December 1: Application deadlines honoursprogrammes - U/Select and QBio 
•   December 15: LS Seminar Bio Inspired Innovation
•   January 17: Research Project Market
January 19: LS Seminar Toxicolgy and Environmental Health
February 16: LS Seminar Biofabrication
March 16: LS Seminar Neuroscience and Cognition
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