Spinoza prize-winner 2015
Spending 2.5 million euros
Endowed professor of genetics Ciska Wijmenga will be awarded her Spinoza prize on Monday: 2.5 million euros which she is free to spend on her research.
Her team is essential, she says. That is why she will be spending part of the money to ensure that two top talents in her group can remain in her employ for five years.
She also wants to invite famed immunologist Bana Jabri to Groningen for a visit. In doing so, an additional 33 PhD candidates and postdocs will have easier access to top researchers.
Persistence is essential in becoming a top researcher, as are courage and hard work. ‘But you also need some luck’, she emphasises.
Modesty is one of her characteristic traits: she began in MAVO (lower general secondary education) and wound up graduating cum laude with a doctoral degree. Her mentors were crucial in encouraging her to take risks.
Wijmenga wants to do the same for her own ‘scientific children’. The team has to be a safe environment for PhDs and postdocs. New PhD candidates actually have to go out to a bar with the rest of the team.
Wijmenga is breaking ground with her research into coeliac disease. An important question she seeks to answer: why do some people who have the genetic defects associated with coeliac disease not fall ill?
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It’s typical of the genetics professor. If you want to speak to her about her work, her ground-breaking research about the connection between autoimmune disorders and gluten intolerance, she immediately starts talking about her team, how talented they are and how she would be nothing without them. And she really means it. ‘In my lab, no man is an island. It’s unthinkable. Everyone contributes a different ingredient to making the cake: one plus one is really more than two.’
Winning a prize today worth 2.5 million euros means that her PhD candidates and postdocs also share in her joy. Two top talents in her team – Yang Li, from China, and Vinod Kumar, from India – will also benefit from the prize money. Wijmenga says, ‘My most important task is to guide top talent, and a postdoc position is much too short. This gives them the peace of mind and assurance to become even better and, hopefully, go on to win their own funding.’
Beyond that, Wijmenga will ensure that the other 33 staff members working on her floor will also come into contact with top talent. She has long wanted to invite famed immunologist Bana Jabri, who is currently on sabbatical, to visit Groningen. Now, she can say: ‘Come on over.’ She will also be sending young researchers abroad. She has a very promising PhD candidate who is heading to Boston for six months, for example.
Just not sexy enough
Wijmenga is modest. Although she has a striking fashion sense – a fitted dress with a loud print and a leather jacket – she speaks in a soft voice. No inflated sense of self or overblown ego here. That she doesn’t have her own office in the ‘flex work’ style in the Medical Sciences building is seen as a simple matter of fact, despite her prestigious position, the prizes she has won and the 30 million euros in subsidies that she has brought in. ‘I like it, too. You’re always around different people.’
As for her position as a top scientist, it requires motivation, engagement and a lot of hard work to get as far as she has. But there’s more to it than that. ‘You also have to have some luck.’ She simply had an instinct to begin her research into the similarities between autoimmune diseases and coeliac disease. ‘I had submitted a Vici grant application for similar research, unconnected to any actual knowledge.’ That hunch paid off, but it could just as easily have not. But what happened next?
Coeliac disease, or gluten intolerance, is a condition which causes sufferers to be unable to tolerate gluten. Gluten is a protein that occurs in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. It’s also commonly used as a binding agent in sauces, candies or beer.
When coeliac disease patients eat gluten, it damages the mucus in the lower intestine, rendering it less able to absorb nutrients. Side effects of the condition can include chronic diarrhoea (or constipation), malnutrition, anaemia and decalcification of bones, as well as neurological defects or miscarriage.
In 2005, Cisca Wijmenga introduced the idea that coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder, which causes the creation of antibodies against your own tissue. Coeliac disease is common among people with autoimmune disorders, such as type two diabetes and thyroid conditions.
Finding investors to finance research into coeliac disease (see box) – a non-fatal condition which many people suffer from and that has to do with intestines and even faeces – is difficult. It’s just not sexy enough. But thanks to a breakthrough article where she suggested that there was a link to autoimmune disorders, her work suddenly became interesting for people with MS or type one diabetes. ‘Those are somewhat friendlier diseases, so to speak.’ That’s how the financial ball got rolling and she was able to reach the level that she has. And rightly so.
That humility has been a through line in her life, such as the moment when she, after a long time spent studying – lower general secondary education, analyst school, university of applied sciences and then a research university – she finally got her PhD and wanted to go to America. She was somewhat timid, she admits, but she knew what she wanted, and that was to head to the United States. Her mentor, an American professor on sabbatical, helped her to choose which labs would be a good fit for her to apply to, and wrote her letters of recommendation. Unexpectedly, they all wanted to meet her. So she booked a flight, combining the trip with attending a conference. Her presentation there attracted the directors of all five of the labs, all of whom sat in the front row. ‘I gave the worst speech of my life’, Wijmenga recalls. ‘I had ten minutes, but I babbled through it so quickly that we were done in five minutes. Then, everybody had to wait. So embarrassing!’
Much to her surprise, the gentlemen offered her job afterward. But in retrospect, that isn’t so strange after all: ‘I had done my research very well, but I didn’t really think that I was any different from the rest of the academic world. The Internet wasn’t really around yet, so I had no idea where I stood in comparison to others.’
Jump into the deep end
Eventually, she choose to work with Francis Collins at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Maryland, and it turned out to be the best decision she could have made. Collins was the personification of the sort of leader that she wanted to become: driven, always available for people when they needed him and resolved to give new talent a chance.
At the end of her time in America, she had to choose between two projects: one sure thing, where she knew what to expect, and one that didn’t yet exist and she couldn’t predict how it would go. Collins encouraged her to go for the second project, the riskier one. ‘You have to be willing to jump into the deep end, even if you don’t know if you’ll be able to swim or if there will be anyone there who can save you’, Wijmenga often says. The American mentality of daring to think big spoke to her. Even now, she goes to Boston twice a year for inspiration from that kind of thinking. ‘I always come home full of ideas.’
Collins was also the one who told her to persevere once she started the new project. He told her to hang in there for five years, no matter what happened. She was reminded of that often, when things weren’t progressing and she feared that her research wouldn’t yield any results. But in the fifth year, the results started coming in. And yet, ‘If things had gone even a little bit differently, it wouldn’t have worked.’
All of that is to say that Wijmenga believes that her mentors were very important for her and her research. She wants to play a similar role for her ‘scientific children’ in the lab. That means that she does everything in her power to create the perfect conditions for her own people. Resources and technology have to be first rate and in good working order, but she also wants to provide a socially safe environment where everyone contributes and helps one another if things aren’t going well, ‘whether it’s getting stuck in your research or being dumped by your boyfriend.’
‘I pick up the tab’
That means that new PhD candidates and postdocs are thoroughly questioned during job interviews about what their position would be in the group. It also means that Wijmenga sends the would-be researcher to have a drink at a bar with the rest of the team to see if there is a click. ‘They always enjoy that’, she says, laughing. ‘They can go out and I pick up the tab.’
But the end result is a group of people that are strong enough to make true strides in research, and that is what Wijmenga strives for: reaching new insights. She hates the ‘me too’ research: research that recreates what others have already done. Although she acknowledges that it is necessary, it would annoy her to no end. ‘I’d leave research immediately if I had to do that.’
The Spinoza prize is the highest distinction in Dutch science and is also known as the Dutch Nobel prize. Annually, a maximum of four researchers who are measure up among the best internationally are awarded 2.5 million euros to spend on new research.
Previous winners from the RUG were physicist George Sawatzky (1996), physician Dirkje Postma (2000), chemist Ben Feringa (2004) and biologist Theunis Piersma (2014).
It’s a good thing that she doesn’t have to worry about being forced to do similar research, then. Two and a half million euros is a serious sum of money. After allocating funds to securing positions for her top talents and to give the rest of her team an injection of inspiration, the Spinoza prize money still won’t be completely spent. And she hasn’t forgotten herself, after all.
She wants to take more time for herself for reflection and to write a book intended for an audience beyond academia about DNA and what it really is. ‘Now that I’ve said it, I really have to do it!’
And last but not least, she will also use the financing to further the coeliac disease research. She’s been asking herself the same question for years: we know that there are roughly 40 genetic markers that have something to do with coeliac disease, but not everyone who has those markers gets sick. How can that be? She has ideas about that, and she aims to elaborate on those.