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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 Connie Engelberts and facilitated by de Graduates School of Life Sciences.

•   Graduate School news •   Scientific independence; the next big step in an academic career
•   Drugs cause addiction, right? Wrong! •   A great program for great diversity
•   Getting serious about humor •   Can microbes help agriculture?
Be part of the Going Abroad community  Risk your health but earn a fortune?
•  Master of questioning •   Agenda

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 Tuesday March 22nd from 16:00-18:00h a Going Abroad meeting will be organised.

During the first part of this meeting, a Master’s students, a PhD student and an associate professor 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? Tuesday March 22nd from 16:00-18:00u (16:00 lectures, 17:00 start market and drinks)
  • Where? Pink 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.
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Online Rubrics
The Graduate School of Life Sciences proudly presents her online rubrics. Rubrics are used as a tool to give feedback during interim or final assessment. By clicking on the different criteria in these user-friendly assessment tools, your supervisor can give you insight in your performance and progress. After signing the rubric digitally, a pdf of the rubric can be made. This pdf can serve as the report of your interim assessment meeting or as the motivation of your final grade.

Questions? Please send an email to the Research Project Coordinator – Els van der Vlist

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Prepare for the next step in your career: Career Services
Do you need some advice about how to start your career? In order to prepare you for a smooth career start Career Services offers various tests and checks, training and network events that help you prepare for your first job in academia, health care, industry or another sector of your interest. 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

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Drugs cause addiction, right? Wrong!
Why the way we’ve been fighting drug addiction is counterproductive

Drugs cause addiction. Addiction kills. Conclusion: drugs kill. The chemical “hooks” in drugs will inevitably cause addiction. At least, that’s what most people believe. However, experiments performed in the late 1970’s as well as the recent case of Portugal prove otherwise. It’s not the drugs, it’s the lack of genuine human connection that kickstarts addiction.
By Hugo van den Hoek

The current public opinion about drugs mainly stems from dated experiments performed on rats in the early 20th century. It looks easy: you put a lone rat in a cage and you give it the choice between heroin-laced water and normal water. The rat obviously chooses heroin, becomes addicted and will eventually overdose.

However, this experiment fails to consider many variables. In a  famous experiment performed in the late 1970’s by professor Dr. Bruce Alexander, he instead placed the rats in an idyllic environment called “Rat Park”. The rats could socialize, play and exercise as much as they wanted. They now bonded with other rats. When given the same choice between water bottles, the heroin bottle was left to catch dust. Surprising, right?

Of course, rats are not people. But we actually happen to have a huge human case study. Portugal once had one of the biggest drug problems in Europe. In 2000, they decided to radically change their failing drug policy: they decided to decriminalize all drugs. More importantly, they spent all the money saved from their war on drugs on bettering the lives of the drug addicts and helping them reconnect with society. Fifteen years later  the results look very positive: drug use has declined by 50% (!) and ex-addicts report having regained a sense of purpose in their lives because of this policy.

Looking at these results, we should reconsider the way drug addicts are treated. It could revolutionize the tackling of drug problems worldwide.

Want to know more? Kurzgesagt has made a very clear video about this subject, but you can also watch Johann Hari’s TEDx talk.

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Getting serious about humor
Humor and science is a unusual combination and the two are rarely combined in a lecture hall. But put a bunch of scientists in a cafe and suddenly they go hand in hand. The relaxed setting takes science to a different level. This is the concept of the monthly Science Cafe, an evening organized by Studium Generale and TivoliVredenburg. Every month they set up a stage behind the glass windows of the cafe “Het Gegeven Paard” and put science in the spotlights.
By Tara Brosschot

Science Cafe is a great way for scientists to think outside the box, and for students too. Next edition presenter Sofie van den Enk will talk with scientist about the essence of love, on the day after Valentine’s Day. Because all you need is love, right? This spring, Filemon Wesselink will dive into the latest biomedical research. In March, he will try to get more insight in the mysteries of the human brain, with the help of Prof. dr. Iris Sommer from the psychiatry department of the UMC Utrecht. May will be all about the developments in stem cell research as Prof. dr. Hans Clevers will visit the Science Café.

In the November edition, the first one at the Tivoli location, presenter Filemon  got serious about humor with scientists from different research fields. Professor in behavioral psychology Jan van Hooff gave a lively imitation of a chimpansee’s laughter, which in turn made everyone in the audience laugh. Is laughing contagious? Or are we just releasing tension? Philosopher Martijn Veerman explores the logic behind humor. He explained that not much has changed since the Roman Empire: we are not throwing people in front of lions anymore, but we still laugh at people rather than with people. We all know laughing is healthy, right? The link between humor and health was discussed with Sibe Doosje, who teaches clinical and health psychology. She researched the health benefit of Cliniclowns in hospitals. The clowns provide a welcome non-medical contact and distract ill children, but it could not be proven that this leads to better recovery.

Later that night, students Daan Boom & Stijn van Vliet (which you could know from the TV-show Streetlab) joined in and there was room for audience participation. The questions that came from the bar caused a lively discussion: why do we laugh more when we drank alcohol? Is there a difference between men’s and women’s sense of humor? We do not know yet. The conclusion of the evening: we should do more research into positive stuff. Cheers!

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Be part of the Going Abroad community
So you want to go abroad for your second research project, but you have no idea how to get in contact with a lab overseas? Are you struggling with finding grants and lost in all the bureaucracy? Are you covered in cold sweat whenever you think about your visum? And how about housing… There is no general path you can follow, because each path is so different. However, there have been students that walked your path before that could help you answering your questions.
By Tara Brosschot

You find yourself surrounded by students from your Master’s programme, or students in your lab, which are in the same boat. This is nice of course, but it can be very useful talking with someone who already went abroad. Last May the first Going Abroad meeting was organized for GSLS students. Several professionals talked about the value of international experience, educational officers told us about practical issues and a few students shared their experience of interning abroad. Especially the ‘market’ afterwards was very successful. A dozen students that went to different parts of the world were standing at cocktail tables labeled ‘USA’ or ‘UK’ and even ‘Finland’. Curious students could approach them and ask questions or listen to the students talk eagerly about what seemed to be the best time of their study, and receive some very useful tips.

This market place idea is now being digitalized. The format will be found on blackboard soon and is called Going Abroad communities. It is already in use by medical students that use it extensively to share experience on medical internships abroad. The communities are divided by country. Here you can find reports written by students that recently went there. They exchange stories about for example nice landlords or which scholarships they used to pay for the expenses. Perhaps you can find advice on what kind of visum you need to enter the country and how to make the process as smooth as possible. Soon this useful concept will be available for GSLS students. It will be launched on the next Going Abroad meeting (Tuesday, March 22 in the pink lecture hall) and show up under ‘My Communities’ in Blackboard.

Do you want to share your experiences abroad with your fellow students? Please use this format to tell your story.

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Master of questioning
When a child is 4-years old, it asks around 300 questions a day. At this age I was probably annoying my parents with questions like ‘’Are we there yet?’’, “Why is the sky blue?’ or ‘’What day is it?’’. Alright, this is an easy one, my mum thinks: ‘’Wednesday’. Then I asked: ‘’But… why?’’ It just is, my mum would reply, and please stop with all the questions already. But fortunately I never stopped asking questions.
Selfie by Tara Brosschot

Curiosity is how little children nurture their knowledge. Before they start going to school, that is. What happens? In school they get rewarded for having answers rather than questions. Their creativity and engagement drops gradually until graduation. At this point they are afraid to ask (stupid?!) questions, or even worse: they think they have all the answers.

I was still hungry for answers after high school. I was not going to settle with the explanations in my biology text book. I wanted to know why cancer exists, how the brain is able to control our behavior. What if there was a virus that could infect the neurons and control our behavior…? I needed to know.

To study medicine, learning about diseases from the surface, would not satisfy me. I wanted to dig deeper into the disease and ask questions about the things we can’t directly see. I’ve found the study program that fits my needs: Biomedical Science. The more I’m learning about the body in health and disease, the more I know how much there is that I don’t know. So much… But I am not giving up, motivated by curiosity. In my master’s program Biology of Disease we study the mechanisms behind disease, looking at all organs together. This time asking questions is actually rewarded. I believe when we master the art of questioning, we will provide the greatest insights in medical science. 

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Scientific independence; the next big step in an academic career

Here we speak to dr. Sabine Middendorp. She works at the Wilhelmina children’s hospital, where she is doing research on a disease causing intestinal failure in infants, using organoid cultures. Last year, she has achieved a VIDI scholarship. By means of this she has managed to conquer a place in academia, and is now an independent researcher.
By Martijn Rotteveel

Sabine Middendorp works as a group leader at the Wilhelmina children’s hospital (WKZ) and Regenerative Medicine Centre Utrecht (RMCU) where she studies microvillus inclusion disease (MIVD), a genetic affliction characterised by chronic diarrhoea in infants. MIVD is usually fatal but can be treated by intravenous feeding, bypassing the digestive track, or intestinal transplantation.

Dr. Middendorp, who did her PhD at the Erasmus medical centre previous to becoming an assistant professor in Utrecht, wants to study two genes causative for MIVD to understand how mutations in these genes cause MIVD. To this end she uses patient-derived organoid cultures, small three-dimensional structures that accurately recapitulate organs. By studying the MIVD genes defective in these tissues she hopes to not only better understand the disease mechanism, but also work towards developing more effective treatment.

To set up this line of research and start her own lab, dr. Middendorp wrote a VIDI grant. Dr Middendorp explains “The VIDI grant allows young scientists to start an independent line of research”. The grant entails a maximum of 800.000 euros and provides for five years of research. When asked what it takes to apply for a VIDI grant dr. Middendorp explains. “It is not enough to just have a good idea. The valorisation, and development of a long term strategy are  just as important.” On top of that, a resume with a good track record is also crucial. Despite she has proven otherwise, the old guard of academia still thinks it is necessary for scientist to have worked abroad, Sabine remarks. She received the VIDI without having been abroad.

After a period of writing and an oral presentation in front of a broad scientific committee, Sabine received the news that she had achieved the grant. Just in time, since her temporary contract would have finished 2 weeks later. The grant allows her to pursue her own line of research. Setting her on a path to scientific independence. The rarity of obtaining a permanent position makes one wonder why it is worth the trouble. To this Sabine replies that her passion for science drives her. The chance of helping patients and developing treatments gives her great satisfaction.

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A great program for great diversity
The MCLS Master's programme has a unique offering of theoretical and practical courses, and allows students to delve into a wide range of subject and scientific fields. A student tells us why he picked this program, and what drives him. 

Selfie by Martijn Rotteveel

What will I do now? After finishing a bachelor almost every student is faced with this familiar question. For most of us the fact that we will do a master is clear but that still leaves the question of what master program to enrol in. Here a student tells you why he choose his program, and why you should do the same.

The molecular and cellular life sciences (MCLS) master program has offered me an opportunity to become familiar with a wide range of life science fields, ranging from protein crystallography to biotechnology. The wide range of subjects has enabled me to pick and choose subjects that I find interesting and develop myself as a future scientist without losing breadth of focus. The program does furthermore not only provide an excellent theoretical backing, but also provides students with an excellent practical education, in the form of two internships.

So what have I been doing for my first internship? For the past 9 months I have been working at the faculty of veterinary medicine in Utrecht. Here I have been studying labelling methods for extracellular vesicles is breast milk. This newly discovered component of breast milk has since its discovery in 2013 brought a new dimension to the ways in which breast milk is understood to influence the immune system of the new-born. This project combines both fundamental cell biology and chemistry embodying the diversity of the MCLS master track in state of the art, world class research.

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Can microbes help agriculture?
Microbes are responsible for a lot of key functions all over the world. Can microbes help us to develop a more sustainable agriculture? Simone Weidner, a PhD student in the Ecology and Biodiversity department of the Utrecht University talks about her study on the interaction between microbes and plant growth.
By Mario Diaz Muñoz

Why microbes? When we think about agriculture people usually only think about plants and are less interested in other living organisms in the soil. However, life below-ground is “a fascinating world, where there is so much going on”- says Simone, and she is right! If we take just a second to think about the importance of microbes in the world, the amount of processes in which they are involved is overwhelming. From soil to human microbiome, in food and in relation with plants, microbes are everywhere.

Can a more sustainable agriculture be achieved by studying and applying microbes? Currently, Simone is focusing her research on this question and she has three more years  to continue with it. There is a huge number of microbes that live very close to the roots of plants and they could provide the answer to that question. These microbes are involved in a very complex relationship with the plant and other microorganisms, and they are responsible for the performance of plants and help them by protecting against pathogens in the soil.

Imagine a set of microorganism that could drastically reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides around the crops of the entire world when they were applied to plants. No need to say that such a project matters a lot. This kind of research could have big implications for the sustainability of agriculture. And it is becoming even more important in the following years with the ongoing population growth, which puts a demand on food supply.

Simone is aware of the complex aspects in the study of the microbial world, but “To do something that matters”, as she says, “is a fantastic motivation to continue”.

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Risk your health but earn a fortune?
Have you seen the ads around the coffee machines and the rest of the university? Being a test subject earns you a lot of money in little time, which must be very appealing especially to students. But how safe is participating in a trial for a new medicine? Last month, in France, a trial went devastatingly wrong...
By Dorrit de Jong

The first administration of a new medicine to humans is known as phase I trial. This phase is purely to determine the highest concentration at which a medicine can be administered until side effects such as head aches or nausea start to occur. All vital functions are monitored thoroughly and continuously. Administration to humans is always of lower concentration than what was safely administered to animal subjects.

In Rennes, France, the new medicine BIA 10-2474 was tested in a phase I trial, as it was potentially a new pain killer for Parkinson’s patients. During the trial, BIA 10-2474 had been administered to 84 healthy males, in rising concentrations. Nothing went wrong. Subsequently, 6 healthy males received a just slightly higher concentration than al previous test subjects. Devastatingly, three days later, five of them got sick and incurred serious brain damage, of which one subject was even declared brain dead and died several days later. The trial has been suspended and is being investigated by the French government.

BIA 10-2474 is an inhibitor of the enzyme FAAH, which breaks down the human variant of THC, which is the active component of Cannabis. In other words, the medicine mimicks the function of Cannabis. When a test subject would receive a massive concentration of this medicine, enormous brain damage would not be a surprising result. Since test subjects that received a lower dose of BIA 10-2474 reported no abnormalities, a possible explanation for the accident is that the dose that was administered to the affected subjects was measured incorrectly.

After hearing this story, Life Sciences students Tara Brosschot and Martijn Rotteveel would never think about participating in medical trials. Tara: “Previously, I had thought about it. But I knew no-one that did it so I knew too little about it. But I wasn’t aware that it could end so horribly.”

And Tara may be right, because this is not the only time that an accident was reported. In the Netherlands for example, the largest incident with human test subjects was reported in 2008 at the UMC Utrecht. The trial did not involve a medicine, but probiotics were given to patients with pancreas inflammation. 24 of them died, against 9 lethalities in the placebo group.

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•   March 1st and 14th Career Services: Workshop Self-analysis for career development*
March 15th Career Services: Workshop LinkedIn*
March 17th LS seminar TXEH
March 22nd Going Abroad Meeting
•   April 21st LS seminar CSDB
•   May 19th LS seminar NSCN
June 16th LS seminar ENVB
*Career Services workshops are free of charge.
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