Universiteit Utrecht   Universiteit Utrecht

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
Workshop Entrepreneurial Skills
On the 7th of December, UtrechtInc, the startup incubator at Utrecht Science Park, organizes a workshop ‘Entrepreneurial Skills’ and an Internship market. More information is available via this link.

Consultation hour accreditation committee on Friday 24 November 
On Thursday 23 and Friday 24 November, 2017, the external accreditation of the Master’s degree programmes in Biomedical Sciences, Neuroscience and Cognition, and Health Sciences will take place. A committee of experts (the accreditation committee) will visit the Master’s degree programmes and will talk with students, alumni, teachers and members of the Educational Committee and Board of Examiners. The discussion partners for these meetings have already been invited. 
Do you have an important topic that you think will not be discussed during the planned conversations with the accreditation committee? You can sign up for the walk-in appointment on Friday 24 November 8.45 – 9:30 in HB2.61 by emailing the secretary of the accreditation committee
, mw. J. de Groof. Please clearly indicate which topic you want to discuss. You can sign up until 16 November 2017.

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 or go to www.facebook.com/GSLSstudents.

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.

Floors Hijmans van den Bergh building are safe
The floor construction of the Hijmans van den Bergh building has been investigated by the contractor and found to be safe. The UMC Utrecht has orderd a second investigation to verify these results and make sure all UMCU buildings are absolutely safe to work in. The results of this second investigation are expected in a few weeks.

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Saving the environment by designing fashion with fungi

Post-doc Pauline Krijgsheld works in the Microbiology group at UU, on the project ‘Research through Design’. She studies the molecular properties of biodegradable material produced by fungi. Ultimately, her lab aims to incorporate these biomaterials into fashion items and other applications to sustain a ‘Circular Economy’.

Recently, microbiologists at UU and the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) joined forces in order to create degradable biomaterials fit for designer applications. The initiative stemmed from the growing need for sustainable innovation in the product design sector. Fungal material is very sustainable through its biodegradable character leaving ‘What material properties are designers looking for?’ the question to answer.

The focus of this collaborative project is on the physical characteristics of mycelium from mushroom-forming fungi called Basidiomycetes. The mycelium is the vegetative part of fungi which contains a complicated branching network of filamentous structures and can be described as ‘mushroom roots’. Mushroom-derived biomaterials have properties ranging from elastic to rigid, hydrophobic to hydrophilic, and porous to compact, which is in line with designers’ preferences.

By incorporating organic substrates such as sawdust or straw into the mushroom biomaterial; composite materials with an almost unlimited range of material properties can be produced. Previous experiments have successfully led to mushroom-derived materials that resemble paper, rubber, textile, and soft plastic. The composite strategy helps cut down on raw waste emission.

In January 2017, the European Commission (EC) published a new roadmap for creation of a ‘Plastic Circular Economy’ to help reduce Europe’s chemical waste problem. A circular economy uses waste to drive restoration and regeneration instead of the harmful ‘take, make and dispose’ model. The mushroom-derived materials are biodegradable and can be reincorporated into new design when they have served their previous purpose.

The DAE-UU collaborative initiative aims to ‘Give waste products a new life’ by harvesting the bioconversion power of fungi eventually scaling the operation. Mogu (formerly known as Mycoplast) is an Italian based company with representatives at UU and is interested in increasing the production of fungal biomaterials. They could be an important driving force behind future expansion of Circular Economy. Read more at www.mycoplast.com.

By Kiran Kanhai & Matthijs van der Moolen

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Human heart regeneration: Learning from zebrafish

80 people suffer a heart attack every day in the Netherlands and once damage occurs to the heart, it is permanent. Zebrafish are able to completely regenerate their heart after an injury. Human hearts also have the capability for regeneration, however they do not utilize it. Dr. Phong Nguyen hopes to discover why this ability in humans is not active by investigating the mechanism in zebrafish.

Currently, we only have the option to prevent heart injury, as there is no method for repairing human heart damage. Previously, scientists developed a treatment involving the injection of stem cells into the heart. The concept for this method was stem cell differentiation into heart cells leading to restoration of the heart. However, this technique did not appear effective.

Heart research is now focusing in new fields, such as heart regeneration. There are numerous labs working on cardiac repairment, but Utrecht has one of the three labs in Europe working on cardiac regeneration in zebrafish. Dr. Phong Nguyen, a post doc at the Hubrecht Institute recently received a Veni grant from the NWO for his research on heart regeneration in zebrafish.

Nguyen explains the benefits of working with zebrafish. “They can actually regenerate their hearts. When mammals such as mice have a cardiac injury, they do not recover. Additionally, the genetics of zebrafish are much easier.”

A couple studies demonstrated that human hearts have the same regenerative abilities as zebrafish hearts. But in contrast to zebrafish, humans are not able to harness this capability. Nguyen further elaborates on the similarity between humans and zebrafish. “The overall morphology of the zebrafish heart is different from the human heart, but when you look deeper at the cellular or molecular structure they are very similar to each other.”

Research on heart regeneration in zebrafish may provide hope to one day treat cardiac injury in humans, but according to Nguyen that will require years or even decades of additional research. “In terms of going to the clinic, we are nowhere near treating heart injury.” Regardless, he is hopeful that one day this research may lead to the development of a drug or treatment that activates self-regeneration in human hearts.

By Wendy Lichtenauer & Julia Peterson

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Teaching as a student: Enjoyable and useful

Obtaining a PhD is a full-time job, but can still be combined with extracurricular activities. Astrid Rox is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University and the Biomedical Primate Research Centre. At the same time, she also works as teaching assistant and supervises students during their theses and research projects. Teaching and other extracurricular activities can not only be fun, but also benefit your own development.

Obtaining a PhD degree is both a challenging and a rewarding endeavour. On the one hand, obtaining this degree requires 4 years of hard work, so candidates need to be highly motivated and determined. But on the other hand, candidates are
also given considerable freedom and room for creativity and originality. And not least of all: a doctorate degree is a great addition for anyone’s curriculum vitae.

Although it may require additional time investment, it is possible to combine such a busy programme with educational work. For her PhD, Astrid Rox researches social behaviour in rhesus macaques at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre. Simultaneously, she spends roughly one day per week assisting at courses and supervising students during their theses and research projects.

Taking part in extracurricular activities, such as teaching, is a great way for students to develop themselves. Extracurricular activities can provide a new range of skills, experiences and social networks that are not necessarily study related. For example, teaching can help develop communication and management skills.

Aside from being useful, teaching and supervising students can also be satisfying. Students choose their Master’s programme, courses and internships based on their interests. “You work with enthusiastic people that are interested in your subject,” Rox explains, “It’s enjoyable to encourage them and help them improve.”

Rox would recommend all students to do some extracurricular activities if they have the opportunity. “It’s fun, you learn new skills and it looks good on your curriculum vitae. You can only benefit from it in the future.”

By Wendy Lichtenauer

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“Congresses are good, but eight-year-olds and strawberry DNA are better”

Dr. Sara Pulit, a statistician turned geneticist at the UMCU, has received the prestigious Veni grant from the NWO for an innovative large-scale genome study. But is there more to research than the money and the science?

There is ample data on the human genome’s properties, such as 3D structure, methylation, and gene expression. However, a method of aggregating it for eventual use in revealing drug therapy targets in diseases, such as obesity and stroke, has not been devised yet. Considering the variety of information sources, a good combination of experts in distinct disciplines is necessary. Sara emphasizes the importance of gathering up the right team of people for a project to run smoothly, and for everyone involved to be motivated, enjoy their task, and confront it eagerly.

When asked about the challenges of planning research, grants application, and scientific work in general, Sara brings forth a question she asks herself continuously through her carrier: “Who do I want to be, and what sort of a scientist do I want to become?”. She recommends trying to determine: “In the broad scheme of things, where do you fit, and how are you contributing?”, which helps shaping your outlook on your work, aspirations, and purpose.

Research should, however, not be limited to science alone. According to Sara, disseminating the obtained information and engaging external audiences is as significant. She stresses the use of accessible communication of scientific findings not only to topic experts, but to a more general audience, as well as publishing relevant data to publicly accessible databases and media.

Children are not exempt from this. In fact, getting them excited about science and motivated to pursue it is crucial. “I feel like scientists should be thinking more about public engagement in that way, also because these are the guys who are going to be picking up the torch later on,” says Sara. She mentioned an event she did recently, where elementary school kids extracting DNA from strawberries were excitedly saying: “Look at this white stuff coming out of those
strawberries!”, “That’s the DNA!” and “That’s really cool!”

Generally, receiving a Veni grant for potentially groundbreaking research towards developing cure for common diseases with a multidisciplinary team of motivated experts is only one part of being a brilliant scientist. But being aware of your goals, role and impact, properly communicating your work, and generating enthusiasm for science is just as important.

“Congresses are good, but eight-year-olds and strawberry DNA are better.”

By Stijn Groten & Despina Stefanoska

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Recreating neural blood vessels in a petri dish

I, Msc Matthijs van der Moolen, work under PhD-candidate Christian van Dijk at the Regenerative Medicine Centre on the 5th floor of the Hubrecht Institute. I utilize a microfluidics-based approach to mimic the human vasculature. Understanding the shuttling of compounds that occurs at the blood-tissue interface, of the brain specifically, can aid the innovation of drug administration strategies for possible treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Incidence of neurodegenerative disease (brain tissue malfunction) increases exponentially after the age of 65 whilst development of treatment for these diseases takes relatively long in comparison to other organs (15+ years instead of 10). The main issue drug development teams are struggling with when trying to reach the affected brain areas is surpassing the blood-brain barrier (BBB), a cellular ‘fence’ that protects the brain from pathogens and monitors compound exchange with the circulation. By experimental reconstruction of the vasculature; good in vitro modelling of blood-brain interaction is possible.

Currently no established model exists that mimics blood flow (microfluidics) efficiently whilst incorporating all three cell types of the BBB, namely endothelial cells, pericytes and astrocytes. Additionally, the ability of models to generate a continuous flow and allow sensitive imaging is limited. Van Dijk’s model, however, harmoniously combines all these important aspects. A fluid flow similar to the flow in blood vessels is created, with a continuous pumping system and using a gel mould (~5 cm) that mimics the collagenous cell microenvironment. Doing this causes seeded cells to experience exactly what they experience in vivo.

Simulation of specific inflammatory environments related to brain disease can be achieved by introduction of certain factors to the flow. Validation of whether or not the response of the model is in line with literature can then be assessed. Eventually, the model can provide basis for understanding the specific interactions that occur on a cellular level in different neurodegenerative diseases.

By Matthijs van der Moolen

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Finding your own niche in research 

Sasha de Henau recently received the prestigious Veni grant for his research on redox signalling. He encountered that research is very competitive and believes that the key to success lies in finding a research subject that you are passionate about and is expected to have a big impact on society. Finding your own spot in the scientific community is an important but difficult task.

Sasha started his career at Ghent University, where he began his studies in biology and followed a PhD focussed on haemoglobin function using the model organism C. elegans. What he liked about this model is that discoveries can often directly be translated to other organisms, including humans. However, he found that his own findings on haemoglobin functions not appeared to be conserved in humans and the research was therefore hard to publish. Still wanting to dedicate himself to fundamental science, he then realized that the clinical application of your research should also be a must in order to succeed.

This brought him to the ‘Center for Molecular Medicine’ where he is currently working in a relatively new research field: redox signalling. Redox signalling is fundamental in cell biology and consists of a balanced combination of reduction and oxidation reactions of target proteins. It is also known that its malfunction plays a major role in some diseases such as cancer. As research on redox signalling is still at a very young stage, there is a need for fundamental research. This could potentially lead to vital discoveries and thereby might shed some light on how to treat these diseases. That’s how Sasha found his way in the scientific community and he aspires to eventually have his own research group studying this subject.

Applying for a grant helps you define your own spot in research, as you have to describe what makes your research unique. However, the road to getting your application accepted is not straightforward. Other scientists that apply are at least as good as you and the odds are not very favourable; nowadays there’s a 10-15% rate of success for getting a grant. That’s why Sasha stresses the importance to think of how you can sell your research. Most importantly, you need to be able to stand out and distinguish your work by showing the importance and relevance to society. Also, it is very helpful to already have key results that highlight the significance of your research and thereby will get grant reviewers very excited.

“The scientific community is very competitive and there is a high chance that you won’t make it”, says Sasha. “If you really want to pursue a career in science you need to really love what you do and it’s important to find your own niche”.

By Diana van Houten & Lidia Parramon Dolcet

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Keep ‘em innovating!

In a time in which hospitals take up arms against monopoly bearing pharmaceutical giants in an effort to reduce costs of medicine, current students hold the ability for an alternative vision, necessary in manoeuvring forward, says Stijn Groten, second year master student drug innovation.

Choosing the drug innovation programme because of the marvellous and magnificent options modern therapies have to offer, it provided an insight in both the fundamental drug development as well as the business side of the entire process, giving an overview that somewhat shifted his opinion. “I started questioning the almost moral code of the industry I am supposed to work in and I think one of the major challenges is the enormous conservative slug the current industry has become, innovation is bought by acquiring (small) businesses, while patents are protected through sketchy law loopholes.”

Moving on to the position of the current students, “I feel students should be well aware of their possible future positions and even the hands-on experience during the master is a first step in forming your outlook. The university has a wealth of top-performing (pharmaceutical) research groups that almost all have ties to the industry, so naturally you are involved in one way or the other. Luckily I see many motivated drug innovators around me with plenty of ideas in all fields the programme has to offer; from novel therapy development on a very fundamental level, to regulation of clinical trials and ultimately application to the patient.”

“Would I chose the programme again? Definitely! It’s easy preaching change from afar, while there is only one option to actually realize those changes.”

By Stijn Groten

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Adapting to the NL for Dummies

A recent comical illustration has wittily sliced our continent into Tomato and Potato Europe. But if you’re a student coming here from the ‘other’ half, there’s more than staple food to adapt to, such as the vastly different culture, weather, and mindsets. In talking to Ilia Timpanaro, a UMCU masters student from Sicily, Italy, insights have been revealed about finding a both comfortable and invigorating spot within a new environment.

For many of our colleagues, the challenges associated with pursuing their degrees contain an extra category. Numerous incoming students may struggle with loneliness, especially considering the cut-off present between them and most social circles.

This is not solely, but significantly fuelled by the language barrier. Nearly all natives are bilingual, yet it’s often difficult to enter social circles as the only non-Dutch in the group. Luckily some groups, especially at the Hubrecht Institute, are more “welcoming and open to diversity”.

Quality social integration is essential. “You have to surround yourself with positive people, who simultaneously maintain a motivating vibe in which you too can thrive academically. It takes a while,” says Ilia, but she has fortunately established a social circle that has conferred a sense of belonging to her.

An additional factor intensifying the feeling of disparity is the rather gloomy Dutch weather, contrasting sun-kissed Sicily. Moreover, views on cuisine differ. In southern Europe gastronomy is held in high regard, and is deeply ingrained in culture. And while there’s an abundant choice of foods available here, they aren’t equally revered.

All this contributes to a sense of culture shock for newcomers.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though! Ilia says UMCU is a stimulating environment, where people can thrive under good guidance, and have their opinions appreciated and their ideas valued. “They take you seriously,” she says. “They listen to your ideas, and they leave you the liberty of doing almost (laugh) what you want.” This is a stark contrast to Italy, where apparently students may be allowed to do menial tasks, but not to make deeper, more meaningful contributions to research.

The beautiful campus in a centrally located and dynamic city is another plus. Ilia is certain that choosing Utrecht for her graduate studies was a step in the right direction, despite the obstacles she had to overcome. And now, she can really see herself here.

By Despina Stefanoska

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  • November 14: LS seminar Infection and Immunity: New strategies to combat multidrug-resistant E. coli
  • December 1: Deadline application U/Select honours programme & QBio honours programme
  • December 21: LS seminar Molecular and Cellular Life Sciences
  • January 16: Research project market
  • January 18: LS seminar Neuroscience and Cognition - Functional architecture of entorhinal-hippocampal memory circuits
  • February 15: LS seminar Bio Inspired Innovation
  • March 15: LS seminar Environmental Biology
  • April 19: LS seminar Toxicology and Environmental Health
  • May 17: LS seminar Epidemiology
  • June 21: LS seminar Cancer, Stem Cells and Developmental Biology
  • September: Deadline application Young Innovators Programme