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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 Rinze Benedictus and facilitated by de Graduates School of Life Sciences.

In this issue

Graduate School news
Going abroad meeting
Are you thinking about going abroad for your minor research project and can you use some inspiration and/or practical information? On Monday June 1st from 15:30-17:30u a meeting about Going Abroad will be organised.

During the first part of this meeting, two Master’s students (tba), one PhD student (Tamara Stegmann) and one Associate professor (Saskia van Wees) will talk about their experiences abroad, their do’s and don’ts and the added value of doing a research project abroad.

During the second part of the meeting a market is organized. At this market you can meet Master’s students who just finished their research project abroad (e.g. in the UK and USA) and would like to share all kinds of practical information (e.g. visa, housing, funds) with you. The International officers will also be present to answer all kinds of questions.

  • What? Going Abroad meeting – inspiration and practical information
  • When? Monday June 1st, 2015 from 15:30-17:30 (15:30 lectures, 16:30 start market and drinks)
  • Where? Blue College Hall (UMC Utrecht) for lectures and Foyer-0 (UMCU ground floor) for the market
  • Who? This event is organized for all first year Master’s student of the Graduate School of Life Sciences.
  • Why? Because you want to go abroad or you are thinking about it. Because you would like to hear about experiences of others and share practical information.
Questions? Please send an email to the Research Project Coordinator – Els van der Vlist

Education seminar 2015
What are 21st century skills? What are the skills that future Life Scientists need? How should we educate our Master’s students? During this event we invite you, teachers, to join us in the discussion about this topic. In addition, the 2015 winners of the best MSc and PhD course of the Graduate School of Life Sciences will be announced. More information can be found here.

Student representation
Problems, complaints, questions about your Master's programme? Talk to (one of) the Life Sciences Representatives.

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Listen to your gut feeling
by Mignon de Goeij

We are all a collection of bacteria, wrapped up in a bit of human. We carry more bacterial cells in our gut than human cells in our entire body, so it should be no surprise that these unicellular friends play a very important role in our life. This was recently confirmed by the discovery that an indigenous tribe in Peru might have the bacteria in their gut to thank for their lack of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
These bacteria in the gut, collectively called the gut microbiota, are not only there to help digestion, but also aid other bodily functions such as the immune system. The combination of different kinds of bacteria in the gut is different in everyone and dependent on several factors, such as diet and genetics. The composition of gut bacteria in the indigenous people living a traditional hunter-gatherer life, might just be the ideal one for preventing so-called ‘diseases of civilization’.

This has quickly lead to speculation in the media about putting this perfect bacterial combination in a bottle, and all becoming healthier for it. According to Saskia van Mil, researcher at the UMC, this is way too soon: “For now, only associations between the different microbiota and different diseases have been found, not a causal relation.” For this, more research is needed. “Good in vivo and in vitro models are required, that enable the study of the effects of individual bacterial strains on the host.” Only after such research, we may be able to say if these bacteria are the actual reason for the excellent Peruvian health.  

In Van Mil’s own research she focuses on the mechanisms by which bile acids, by regulating microbial diversity and growth, maintain gut health and protect against chronic inflammation. Overall, both research from Peru and from Utrecht show the vast influence, importance and promise of our ‘gut feeling’.

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Looking for an excuse not to go running tonight?
by Barbara Wiewel

Exercise is good for you! That is what we hear all the time. If we are physically active, we’re actively reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease, controlling our weight and improving our mental health. However, how healthy is it really to do your workout in the middle of the city? Instead of taking deep breaths of air polluted with chemicals, couldn’t it actually be safer to stay on the couch? That is what a group of Danish researchers wanted to find out.
The aim of the study was to determine if “benefits of physical activity on mortality are moderated by long-term exposure to high air pollution levels in an urban setting”. A total of 52,061 subjects in the age group of 50-65 reported data on their physical activity, and were then followed for a minimum of 17 years. The levels of air pollution they were exposed to were modelled based on NO2 levels at their residential address, and (cause of) mortality was tracked. The conclusion was that overall, long-term benefits of physical activity in terms of reduced mortality outweigh the risk associated with enhanced exposure to air pollution during physical activity. However, it was noted that these conclusions apply to Denmark and places with comparable air pollution levels only.

Prof. Dr. Brunekreef of the IRAS institute: “This Danish study confirms empirically what we and many others have estimated”. The reason: let’s say exercising increases your breath intake three times, and you spend 3,5 hours per week (2% of your time) this way. Your total exposure is then increased by 4%: too small a number to cause an effect, regardless of the level of air pollution.” So I’m sorry, but I cannot give you a reason to stay on the couch tonight.

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The Life Science Representatives: One for all and all for one!
By Anita Ye

The Life Science Representatives (LSR), you might have heard of it once during the introduction week. Sometimes you see someone standing in the lecture hall doing questionnaires just before the Life Science Seminars. But who are they? And more importantly, what do they do? Iris Kampers (23), Master student Environmental Biology, vice-chair of the Educational Committee and chair of the LSR can tell us more.
If we ask why Iris joined the LSR and why others might join too: ‘I feel that it’s very important that students have their own responsibility towards their education. By joining the LSR I can have a vote in what’s happening in the GSLS. Especially for my Master’s programme, which is very big, but somehow underrepresented, I can push our agenda a bit as well. But of course I like to get a lot of things done for the whole GSLS as well.’

The LSR is a student initiative that represents the interests and rights of all Master's students of the GSLS at Utrecht University. Iris explains the three most important functions: “First and foremost, the LSR signals problems in the GSLS with help of e.g. the questionnaires. The LSR can bring these problems to those who can solve them, e.g. the Educational Committee, the Faculty Council or the Board of Studies. This is all to ensure that students can have a voice and that this voice will be heard and not overruled. For example, the LSR has helped to keep the research projects intact in the revision of the master’s programme. Without us they might have been canceled. ”

Secondly, students can influence on how people look at the situation and how it is solved by bringing a new and creative view. Because most of our educational organs have students in them, their votes weigh very strongly. Iris: “Finally, the LSR is there to connect the students from the different Master programmes. For example, we are now trying to organise a symposium to improve career orientation.”

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Could 2015 be the year of breakthroughs in neuroscience?
by Eleftheria Thedoropoulou

2015 has been a good year for neuroscience so far. It looks as it might be a crucial year in understanding and treating serious brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since already 4 months in, we have two publications that give promising results.
Up to this point, researchers have not answered the question of the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In April,  Matthew Kan et al. published their research on a mechanism causing the disease. For their study, they used a mouse model with AD and human-like immune system. Through their investigation on the immune system’s role in AD, they discovered that cell death was following the loss of arginine (a vital amino acid) that was caused by its catabolism and immune suppression. They believe that this is the potential mechanism of neuron loss in humans with AD. Should this be true, it might help scientists develop a better treatment for the disease.

Another team of scientists is focusing on the treatment of brain diseases using deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS is already used in treatments of Parkinson’s disease, dystonia and essential tremor, while there are indications that it could be used in treating drug addiction as well. However, the effects of the current treatments are not permanent.  Creed et al. describe in their study how using DBS they were able to correct synaptic pathology and restore normal behavior in rodents with cocaine addiction. A refined DBS procedure can reverse the cocaine-adaptive behavior of the mice in vivo. The researchers suggest that this study can be helpful to more than addiction-related disorders and may lead to treating them permanently as well.

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How to solve the clotting problem
by Chantal van de Ven & Susan Nieuwenhuize

The image of a typical dusty scientist is completely gone when we meet researcher Dr. Coen Maas for an interview. Not the most typical researcher you will find, he is more like a businessman. Nevertheless, he is extremely interested in research, and especially in research that has a direct application. He explores new therapies for thrombosis and associated syndromes.
In his PhD he conducted research into blood clotting and the proteins in blood plasma involved in this. After that he continued to work in the field of cardiovascular pathology. Here, he combined several of his interest, such as innate immunity, clinical challenges and rare diseases. Furthermore, he is interested in using existing medication for new applications.

Dr. Maas and his colleagues found that the existing medicine used for stroke and heart infarcts, streptokinase, can also be useful for the rare autoimmune disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). Patients with this disease develop small blood clots which occlude small vessels in the heart, kidneys and brain. Hereby these organs get severely damaged, which can be life-threatening. The clots form by aggregation of blood platelets, which normally prevent bleedings. The drug activates the peptide plasmin which disconnects the platelets and is activated to a lesser extent in TTP patients. By activating plasmin the cloths will be broken down, preventing occlusions.

The smart part of this research is that an existing medicine of course no longer requires the expensive and time-consuming drug discovery phase and clinical trials. It should be able to reach the ‘new’ TTP-patients fast. Now that is research with a business-attitude!

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“Proteins are stupid”
by Céline Mahieu

Proteins are stupid, DNA too complicated, and studying cancer is just boring. No, the human body might be interesting, but not on the molecular level. The heart, liver, and lungs are fine. Yes, let's stick to that. That was my perspective 5 years ago.
And yet here I am. In the second year of my master program 'Cancer, Stem cells, and Developmental biology', just finished with an internship mainly focusing on protein-protein interactions.

When I started with my bachelor in Biomedical Sciences here in Utrecht, I was sure that in the future I would do "something with organs". As long as no proteins or DNA were involved. No idea what that would have been like and what I thought at the time, because what are the life sciences without proteins? Maybe I should have chosen for a career in medicine.

But after only a few weeks of my bachelor, I totally changed my mind: proteins are awesome! I got fascinated more and more and 'proteins' (with extended "eeeein", you should try it) became my new favourite word. Because admit it: what is cooler than solving the small puzzle pieces of the human living and trying to find out how the knowledge of these pieces is applicable in the medical practice? It is so fascinating that, in all its complexity, our body functions perfectly. Until that one small mutation that makes the mechanisms collapse. Yes, I am só glad I didn't become a doctor. And may I ever regret it, I can always go for the Doctor of Philosophy.

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What can be more exciting than life itself?
by Susan Nieuwenhuize

Susan chose the master program Cancer, Stem Cells and Developmental Biology although she never showed particular interest in biology when she was young. Now she is excited about developmental biology.
According to Susan’s mother she wasn’t particularly interested in living creatures when she was a little girl. Although she grew up surrounded by several pet animals, a garden full of vegetables and fields of flowers she wasn’t spending a lot of time caring about these things and least of all about her future. It was not until the end of high school that she began to show interest in the study of life; biology. And by now, in the second year of her master program she describes herself as a true biologist.

The choice for the master program Cancer, Stem Cells and Developmental Biology doesn’t immediately sound like the most logical step, since it doesn’t involve plants or bugs. But it turned out that of all the interesting side paths of biology, such as plant immunology, behavioural sciences, biodiversity and even ecology, she found herself to be the most fascinated by developmental biology.

The development of fertilized embryos to the most complex life forms and especially the similarity of embryo development between organisms -a chicken embryo looks quite the same as a human embryo- are things that Susan is most excited about. Better yet; her interest in stem cells and cancer development still grows every day, making Susan very pleased with all the possibilities and opportunities she is getting in this phase of her life.

However, her future career remains unclear, except for one thing: some time abroad is definitely in the scope of her plans. And currently, this plan is already getting solid. Right now she is exploring Zurich, where she works on early heart development with zebrafish as modelorganism.

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Towards a healthier European population
by Barbara Wiewel

Interview with Rob Stierum, researcher at TNO Zeist, department Risk Analysis of Products in Development (RAPID)

In 2013, TNO and 29 partners started the very interdisciplinary Health and Environment-wide Associations (HEALS) project. The aim: to establish links between environment and human health, via hypotheses on pathways of toxicity.
“The interdisciplinarity is what makes it so interesting”, Rob says, “you have social geographers mapping Europe in terms of e.g. age and percentage of people with asthma and correlating this with exposure. There are molecular toxicologists focusing on DNA damage, civil engineers dealing with indoor air quality, environmental chemists, epidemiologists, and so on, involved.” TNO is mainly involved in the development and application of mobile sensors (e.g. smartphone-based) to monitor environmental and lifestyle factors. A large part of the project consists of twin research: the aim is to follow 6,000-10,000 twins in time, from in utero on, for a better understanding of the relationship between genetics, environmental exposures and health outcome. 

The HEALS project consists of two major approaches. One is integrating data from epidemiological studies, to identify relevant associations between environmental exposures and health outcomes. The other is biochemical biomonitoring and -omics derived data, which will be combined to create the “internal exposome at the individual level”. This makes for a promising future: “Now, we can already advise people with e.g. COPD to stay inside when smog concentrations are high to prevent their symptoms from getting worse. As the knowledge on risk factors for certain disorders advances, this advice becomes possible for everyone.” One small step for a man, towards a healthier population.

Interested?  Related research is being performed closer to home as well, at the IRAS institute.

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Waste your time wisely
by Ella Bosch

I should be studying for a test, or writing an essay, or reading that chapter. Instead, I find myself on YouTube. Procrastination, in Dutch “studie-ontwijkend gedrag” or SOG for short, is a serious affliction that affects many of us. Isn't there a way to study and procrastinate at the same time? Turns out there is! With the help of all these three life sciencey YouTube channels, you'll waste your time wisely.
SciShow is a channel founded by internet entrepreneur Hank Green. He and his team answer your science questions in only a few minutes per video. Do plants get cancer? Are people really left-brained or right-brained? And what was the deal with #TheDress? (Or is that question too two-months-ago?)

Bad at chemistry? No worries, because there is CrashCourse! In series of videos of about 10 minutes each, the people of this channel give you a -you guessed it- crash course. Life science subjects available are not only chemistry but also biology, ecology, and anatomy & physiology. If you would like to extend your range of knowledge, they have world history, psychology, astronomy, and other subjects as well!

For those of you fascinated by animal anatomy there is The Brain Scoop, charmingly named after an instrument used to scoop out an animal's brains. Emily Graslie, the hostess of this show, works at The Field Museum in Chicago and teaches you all about the animals they have in their collection. She even films how she performs an autopsy on a wolf! Warning: not for those with a weak stomach.

And these are just a few examples out of the literally hundreds of channels out there. YouTube offers a lot of options for those who want to become smart doing nothing. So let’s procrastinate some more.

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Starve that tumor!
by Céline Mahieu

Play it harsh. That is how scientists of the K.U. Leuven want to destroy cancer (Nature, April 1st). Not by inhibiting expression of a single gene or by antagonizing one particular protein, but by shutting down the highway that delivers the tumour its fuel.

In order to grow, tumours are highly dependent on blood supplying them their oxygen and sugars. In fact, virtually everyone will develop microscopic tumours at some point in their life, that will only not become cancerous because of the lack of blood supply. So what if we can stop the growth of blood vessels in those tumours that dó grow?

Although blocking the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) is already on the scientific agenda for a longer period, current methods to do so are not sufficient yet. However, the scientist from the K.U. Leuven have now unravelled a whole new mechanism to inhibit angiogenesis: by blocking fatty acid oxidation (FAO).

Blocking FAO decreases vessel sprouting, but not for the obvious reason of an imbalanced energy household. The decrease is caused by a lowered amount of deoxyribonucleotides (dNTPs): the building blocks for DNA. Via the citric acid cycle, the end product of FAO can be converted into these dNTPs. As it turned out, specifically the endothelial cells that line blood vessels are dependent on FAO for dNTP synthesis. Thus, by inhibiting FAO the endothelial cells can’t duplicate their DNA, which inhibits the cell division and eventually leads to decreased sprouting of the blood vessels.

This discovery seems to open a whole new world of anti-angiogenesis therapies. In vivo experiments show that pharmacological inhibition of the FAO in mice indeed results in decreased vessel sprouting. Although the authors don’t show an experiment in which this mechanism decreases tumour growth in vivo, there is absolutely hope for the future: let’s starve those tumours!

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Ants in space
by Susan Nieuwenhuize

On January 9, 2014, a batch of ants was sent away from earth to continue their tiny lives in the International Space Station (ISS). Now the footage made during the trip has returned to earth and the results were recently published by Deborah Gordon in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.
The goal of the researchers was to conduct a unique scientific behavioural study comparing the behaviour of a group of ants in normal gravity and in microgravity. Questions they hoped to answer involve several ecological and social challenges. For example, the information from this study could have important implications for the generation of behavioural algorithms to control the movements of large entities such as robot swarms. Therefore, measuring the interaction rate of individuals of a colony while discovering a new habitat with different conditions is a perfect set-up to take to outer space.

The movement of the ants was captured by a HD video recorder and analyzed with the help of specialized tracking software. The ants tended to collectively explore the area they were restricted to and during this process, the individual ants met each other regularly. This interaction rate is measured among other things such as how often the ants lose grip on the surface in microgravity conditions. Although the ants still performed collective search, the effectiveness was not as high as that of the control colonies on the ground. Surprisingly, ants were quite capable of walking on a surface in microgravity, and even if they lost contact and floated around in space, they were able regain attached to the surface again. However, the researchers hypothesize that by losing surface attachment, the relation between ant density and encounter rate was disturbed. This may cause the decrease in effective area exploration.

Altogether, the data obtained from ISS has given insight into the evolutionary algorithms that shape the collective search of a colony without a controlling centre. So what’s next, sending one of the 20,000 other ants species into space? According to Deborah and colleagues, the next big thing would be to check how other organisms solve the collective search problem.

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Dr. Google: Experienced surgeons assisting younger doctors via Google Glass
by Eleftheria Theodoropoulou

Google releases state of the art products and gadgets, and as the time goes by, they get more advanced and sci-fi like. But are they useful in more than communicating and… showing off?
Several publications came out this year reviewing the use of Google Glass in medical applications. The main focus is, as can be expected, in assisting the doctors in surgical applications, such as open surgery. In a study by Hashimoto et al. (2015), the video capture quality of Google Glass, was investigated and compared to the one of Apple’s iPhone 5 for the purpose of “telemonitoring” of an open surgery.

Telemonitoring is defined by the authors as “the remote guidance of an inexperienced individual during an operation or procedure involving live, two-way audio-visual communication”. The goal was to introduce cameras from the surgeon’s point of view, which was made possible when they were wearing the Google Glass. The doctors who participated in the experiment reviewed the video quality and its adequacy for safe use in telemonitoring.

Although Google Glass has a variety of features and appears promising in such applications, its video quality was rated as “fair” in only half of the doctor’s reviews. The rest found that the quality was poor. The authors however appear to be positive and expect that wearable devices may provide better results in the future.

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Doctors don’t constantly meet in storage rooms
by Chantal van de Ven

How real are hospital TV shows? Of course we all know it is staged, however how well do they depict life as a nurse or doctor and is the information they give us accurate?
TV shows like ER, House and Grey’s Anatomy are a great success. The drama, the mystery and our interest in how the human body works, can cause us to watch numerous seasons of these shows. However, the image of real life in a hospital can be misrepresented. Whole sites are dedicated to the errors in the shows, for example for  House every episode is analysed.

One of the errors that is seen often in shows is the way patients are brought back to life using paddles. When the heart is not working, you will not see the complete straight line they show us on television, there will always be some irregularities on the ECG. Furthermore CPR is rarely successful and resuscitations are only successful around 5-10% of the time.

Besides this, doctors seem to be doing all the work in the shows. Nurses, pharmacists, radiologists and lab technicians often can’t be spotted. Additionally, people seem to meet quite often in storage rooms to have important conversations or to make out. In real life staff doesn’t have time for that and romantic relationships at work are probably not appreciated. Not to mention doctors asking surviving relatives for donor organs for their own patients, illegal autopsies or romances with patients.

Therefore, we should not take hospital TV shows too literal. The doctors are actors anyway. However, you can always keep dreaming about Doctor McDreamy.

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Teacher Lunch CSDB
20 May 2015
Education Seminar
19 June 2015
  LS Seminar NSCN
21 May 2015
Valedictory Lecture prof. Bär
19 June 2015
Going Abroad
1 June 2015
LS Seminar MCLS
18 June 2015

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