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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
Research project market
On Tuesday January 16 the annual Research project market takes place. At this market research groups from het UMC Utrecht, the faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences groups from the Science faculty are present. Visit this market from 17:00-19:30 to get an overview of all the research project options, to meet with future supervisors and to find your ideal project. Sign up for the market during the evening itself from 17:00 in the ‘Kroonluchter’. Upon this registration you will receive a free meal.

Feedback on course evaluation results
In the National Students Survey, students have indicated that they would appreciate to get feedback from course coordinators on their evaluation forms. From now on, the course coordinators will send their feedback on course evaluation to the students, after the course ended.

Preliminary result accreditation
Successful preliminary result for the accreditation of the Master's Biomedical Sciences, Neuroscience & Cognition, and Health Sciences! Verdict committee: very enthusiastic students, alumni, teachers and a big compliment for education.

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.

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Tips to successfully obtain a grant for your future PhD project

Second year PhD student, Carl Schuurmans, from the Biopharmaceutics Department of Utrecht University has successfully received one of four Future Medicine Grant’s offered from the NWO to Utrecht University. His project is on the delivery of paracrine factors and cells for tissue regeneration. Here are 3 tips from Carl’s grant application process.

1. Communicate openly about your passion
Carl began contemplating a prospective PhD project during his master’s degree, reading peer reviewed journal articles. He additionally had an interest to submit grant applications for his own innovative PhD project. “I made this interest known early to my supervisor at that time, Dr. Tina Vermonden. So, she could help guide me. I could not and still cannot see myself doing anything else, but scientific research. A PhD seemed like the next logical step and submitting for a grant appeared as a good challenge”. 

2. Provide yourself with enough time
Preparing a grant application from idea to full-fledged proposal takes several months, and requires you to establish many collaborations with different institutes, in order to build a team of advisors for a project. In Carl’s specific case, he prepared four consecutive versions of the grant application and had to assure all collaborators agreed with the final version. “For me the grant application from idea to funding took about half a year and this is considered relatively short”. 

3. Be flexible and adapt to the call of projects
A scientist must be able to adapt to the call of projects for a grant. The grant Carl applied was for projects investigating cellular therapies, which he did not have a very strong background in. Though, he was able to merge fields he had strengths and interest in, to make a compelling application. Since current stem cell therapies for tissue regeneration have low cell retention after injection into the target tissue, he determined it would be interesting to investigate a hydrogel system to load the stem cell into, improving their retention time. “I wanted to bring a new perspective to this concept of cellular therapies by using my past education in material science and current interests in drug development. I had an interest in drug development and wanted to connect this to my earlier experiences in physics and chemistry. I feel the most interesting innovations occur when two fields come together”.

By Julia Peterson

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Sleeping With Technology

Those belonging to the millennial generation were born directly into a new era of technology. Young people today are more connected and wired than any other generation. It can have its perks but also its drawbacks, as master student Trishala found in her research; the use of electronic devices before bedtime is significantly associated with the sleep cycle.

Trishala Jadoenathmisier, a second-year master student of the programme Toxicology and Environmental Health had the chance to do a very interesting 9-month research at Utrecht University. Her goal was to find an association between usage of electronic devices before bedtime - mobile phones, computers, laptops, watching TV - and sleep quantity and quality.

She chose to look deeper into this topic because she was concerned about the high prevalence of mobile phone usage in general, especially among young people. She was curious whether this could indeed affect sleep quality and quantity. Furthermore, she was up for the challenge to work with the commonly used statistical programme ‘R’, which is known to be a real nightmare for some students.

Her research consisted predominantly of data-analysis, as the data was already collected. She used results from two cohort studies for her research, namely the EPIC cohort (consisting of 13969 participants) and the AMIGO cohort (consisting of 14829 participants). These cohorts covered questions regarding age, sex, alcohol consumption, frequency of usage of electronic devices and watching TV, smoking, bedroom characteristics, sleep habits and occupational situation. After struggling a little bit, she finally managed to get some interesting results. She found a significant association between usage of electronic devices and loss of both sleep quality and quantity. The main known cause for this alteration of the sleep cycle is the high light level and the close distance to the devices which leads to the suppression of melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone. Conversely, they found that watching TV was not significantly associated with sleep quality, nor sleep quantity.

“As you can see, there is an association between technology in the bedroom and the quality and the quantity of our sleep. However, we cannot confirm whether people lose sleep quantity/quality because of phone usage or whether they use their phone because they can't sleep”, says Trishala. Just in case, maybe we should try avoiding electronic devices before going to bed if we are hoping for a good night’s sleep!

By Lidia Parramon Dolcet

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Student Numbers over Quality of Education

It’s early November 2017, after a slow start getting out of bed, I head to the library. Simply looking for a place to study is a hassle, every spot is already occupied by someone or a tactical coat and bottle placement indicates that it is taken. How dare I even try to come in here a bit later in the morning?

Each year all Dutch universities, including Utrecht, grow larger and larger, which means more people than ever get the opportunity to study at the highest level. However when growth starts limiting the quality of education as a whole, it might be time to critically assess that statement.

As mentioned in the introduction, spots in the UU library are, in my opinion, the most well-known example of limited capacities. Even with the new library additions, places are occupied in no time. Leaving those who can’t make it at exactly the break of dawn to search for something else.

In course admittance limitations are visible as well, the GSLS praises its multidisciplinarity, but it is surprising how many subjects are no option for those with a different name tag on their master’s because it’s already at maximum capacity. I understand that as a teacher you don’t want some layabout in your perfectly laid out course, but making a gross overstatement, it limits those who are willing to expand their boundaries beyond their own field. And is it better to enforce the negative, or encourage the positive?

The rise of online courses, seems to be an applied concept to alleviate the growth pressure. No need for classrooms, no need for teachers, the ideal solution. This is of course a good way to share knowledge with those not at the UU, however I think the main argument students studying here give is that these courses are easy points that can be simply gained at home. All the power to you, go get those easy points, but if this is what is meant with ‘future-proofing and enhancing teaching practice’, I’d rather get a stern look when I am late for my lecture.

In these ways the quality of education is slowly being pinched away. They are admittedly still relatively minor issues, but look at other (smaller) universities that stepped to the government last year because they were ‘unable to handle the massive influx of students’. There seems to be no stopping the increasing number of students, so aren’t we heading in a similar direction? Isn’t it time to stop thinking short-term, glorifying the massive numbers choosing for the great bachelor’s and master’s programmes that our beloved university has to offer and start thinking about what these studies actually offer to those students?

Alas after the search for a study spot without success, I head off in search of any other place to study, so I can browse Facebook, check WhatsApp and do some online shopping, all the while I can say “I have studied so much for that exam”. In the end you can lead a student to water, but you can’t make it drink.

…well you probably can, it is a student after all.

By Stijn Groten

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Using CRISPR in Zebrafish to Save Kidneys

The broad spectrum of congenital anomalies of the kidney and urinary tract (CAKUT) makes it one of the most common developmental diseases in humans. Research by Glenn van de Hoek, at Regenerative Medicine Center Utrecht (RMCU), screens CAKUT candidate genes to eventually ‘Revolutionize drug treatment approaches’ for CAKUT patients.

CAKUT includes zero to mild gradations of severity as well as life-threatening pathologies, resulting from birth defects. Although this disease has a high occurrence among the population, the cause for most patients remains unknown. CAKUT shows onset in the early embryonic stages of life. When abnormal interactions occur among important developmental players; mutations can manifest and alter tissue function. Since treatment of CAKUT needs to be specifically tailored towards the specific malfunction, an effective model that can differentiate between genetic malformation and disease pathology is of high priority.

Advancements in next-generation sequencing has allowed identification of prospective genes that may give rise to CAKUT. After identification, genes are implemented in zebrafish models utilizing CRISPR-CAS gene-editing technology. The embryonic offspring of these mutated zebrafish are then monitored for possible gene candidates that elicit CAKUT phenotypes, using fluorescence microscopy. In ordinary terms, zebrafish that show kidney dysfunction after addition of a specific gene, confirm the link between that gene and CAKUT.

Clearly established links between specific gene regulation and CAKUT phenotypes can provide basis for deriving drug treatments. By interfering in kidney related cell signaling driven by this gene, development of CAKUT can be avoided. 

By Matthijs van der Moolen

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The Big Bad Wolf or the Big Good Wolf?

This year, four wolves were already seen in the Netherlands. The fourth wolf was found as roadkill on November 13th in Overijssel near the German border. Yet while the wolves may not seem to fit in the highly urbanized Netherlands, they might actually complement the Dutch ecosystem nicely.

Although wolves have long been gone from the Netherlands, they are a native species. They roamed all of Europe long ago, but vigorous persecution finally led to the disappearance of wolves in the Netherlands in the 19th century. The first wolf to visit our country after their disappearance was in March 2015. Since then, wolves have been spotted more and more often.

The wolf found on November 13th in Overijssel was already the 4th confirmed wolf to be spotted in the Netherlands in 2017. Of the four wolves seen this year, two were hit and killed by cars. Another killed two sheep on a farm pasture. Only one out of the four came and left without killing livestock or being killed. From both the humans’ and the wolves’ perspective, this raises the question of what good can come from the wolves’ return?

One way both sides benefit is when the wolves take up their role of large predator and reduce the numbers of big game. Since there are no large carnivores, the populations of large prey grow unchecked. For example, the Vereniging Wildbeheer Veluwe counted a record amount of wild boar this year; more than 6.000. But roughly three quarter of that population needs to be culled to prevent overpopulation.

The sheer amount of large game causes several problems. The Stichting Wildaanrijdingen Nederland estimates that every year, roughly 12.000 deer and wild boar are hit and killed by cars. These collisions are very dangerous, given that wild boar and some species of deer can weigh 100+ kg. Additionally, these animals cause €150.000 to €200.000 euro damage to agriculture each year, according to the Vereniging Wildbeheer Veluwe.

It would seem that the wolf might just be what the Netherlands needs. We already have the large game, now all that’s left is the large hunter to complete the set.

By Wendy Lichtenauer

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A New Method for Rejuvenating Aging Cells through Senescence Rescue

A treatment that chemically reactivates splicing factors and causes old cells to look, behave and replicate like young ones, was published this October by researchers at Exeter and Brighton University. The method is based on analogues of the compound resveratrol which is naturally found in red wine, chocolate and blueberries. These switch the factors back on which progressively switch off as humans age. 

With the sharp increase in life expectancy in recent decades, humanity has become the subject of many age-related degenerative diseases. Organs become more susceptible to diseases due to their decreased regenerative capacity with age, a phenomenon linked to the accumulation of senescent cells in tissues over time. Those cells are alive, but lack the functionality of young and healthy ones. Rescuing them by reverting them to a younger profile may remedy this, and therefore play a major role in maintaining overall health.

When cells are senescent, they experience an altered expression of certain mRNA splicing factors. The newly-developed mechanism works by modulating these factors’ levels. In the authors’ words, the treatment “was associated with altered splicing factor expression and rescue of multiple features of senescence".

Anti-aging research features an abundance of attempts at recreating a fountain of youth by reverting aged biology to that of young organisms. Parabiosis, which is the transfusion of a young specimen's blood to an old one, is one such example. In a 2014 Stanford University study parabiosis increased cognitive performance in old mice, but has also sparked heated debates regarding the ethics of such approaches.

Moreover, as the planet struggles to support an ever-increasing population, some question the implications of further expanding human life-span. Professor Harries, who leads the research team at University of Exeter, has claimed that the aim is to increase life quality rather than quantity, saying "This is a first step in trying to make people live normal lifespans, but with health for their entire life."

Indeed, helping aging populations remain healthy, active and contributing members of society is certainly an invaluable asset to humanity. It remains to see whether this study will be further translated into an effective and affordable treatment for the general population.

By Despina Stefanoska

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Veterinarian turned veterinary researcher? When your childhood drives your future

Veterinary Medicine student Andreas Papanikolaou seized the opportunity to explore the world of research during a one-year internship at the Department of Pathobiology. As a student with veterinarian aspirations, what encouraged him to delve into the lab-oriented veterinary field of research?

Growing up on a farm, Andreas was surrounded by chickens, pigs, cows, goats, cats and dogs from a very young age. The first pet that they had at home was a cat. But he recalls the life-changing moment when he got his first dog: an enthusiastic, well-listening animal that followed him around. Memorable moments with his pets and with the local veterinarian left a lasting impression during his childhood. This made it clear to young Andreas that he also wanted to ‘play with animals’ when he grew up. Making the animals better would be a nice bonus.

During his bachelor study, Andreas was rather surprised that there were other possibilities within the veterinary field, other than solely becoming a veterinarian. In order to explore a different career option, he enrolled in the Honour’s Programme which gave him the opportunity to perform a one-year research-orientated internship. He wanted to have a look at a career alternative that was rather unknown to him.

The focus of his research was on the development of a tissue microarray (TMA), which can be used to elucidate the interaction between a virus and species of interest. As an example, think of the TMA as one block containing ~30 different chicken tissues, where the binding characteristics of the Influenza A virus can be assessed simultaneously.

While the TMA-model is an established method within cancer research, it is a pretty novel method in infection biology. The goal of Andreas’ project was to establish the proof of concept of this method by developing and studying a mammalian-TMA. The preliminary results of this project proved to have so much potential that the department assigned a PhD-position for this project.

At first Andreas did not think about this PhD-position. After inspiring conversations with fellow colleagues within the department, he started to wonder whether he should apply for the position or not. Andreas: “This was a very difficult decision for me to make, it really seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Although the research field was very interesting, in the end I decided to follow my childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian.”

In retrospect, Andreas has a new-found appreciation for lab-orientated research within the veterinary field. “I started the project unable to hold a pipette properly, halfway through the project I was debating whether or not to apply for a PhD-position… I have to say that it has been a fun and very educative experience”.

By Kiran Kanhai.

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  • December 21: LS seminar Molecular and Cellular Life Sciences - Transporting cargo over long distances: insights from dynein/dynactin structure
  • 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