Women in science: a story of creating impact, the power of data and unraveling mysteries Feb 11, 2019
Despite all the efforts of the global community in engaging and inspiring women and girls in science, less than 50 % of the researchers are women in most countries and enrolment of female students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related fields remains low. In honor of the ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we want to steer away from the long-standing biases and gender stereotypes by showcasing some of our amazing UHasselt scientists and provide girls and boys with new role models in science.
OMNE TRIUM PERFECTUM
“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, creativity, or curiosity.” – Mae Jemison.
Omne trium perfectum, good things come in three. Today, we sit together with three researchers who are determined to make this world a better place. In order to achieve this, they are pushing the field of biomedical sciences to the next level. More specifically, their research’s aim is to advance the field of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Over 2 million people are affected by MS worldwide. It’s a devastating, chronic, and unpredictable disease that wreaks havoc inside our central nervous system (brain-spinal cord-optical nerves) by destroying the insulating layer that surrounds our nerves. To this day, the exact cause of MS is unknown. Scientists are working day and night to unravel the mysteries of this disease and improve the quality of life of patients suffering from it. Let’s get to know our kickass scientists of today who are doing exactly this!
A STORY OF CREATING IMPACT, THE POWER OF DATA AND UNRAVELING MYSTERIES
Evelien: “Hello everyone, my name is Evelien Houben. I am a Ph.D. student in the group of Prof. dr. Niels Hellings at UHasselt.”
Liesbet: “So am I, or at least a post-doc in my case. (laughs) I am Liesbet Peeters.”
Ilse: “Nice to see both of you again. My name is Ilse Lamers and I work also as a post-doc under the supervision of Prof. dr. Peter Feys. So how did both of you end up here at UHasselt working in the field of MS?”
Evelien: “I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, but to be honest, in high school I was more passionate about mathematics. However, despite my preference, I still choose to study biomedical sciences. My main motivation for this was the, in my eyes, better job perspectives that coincide with the latter field. After my studies, I applied for an FWO-grant from the government to start as a Ph.D. student. A lot of hard work and finger-crossing went into it, but I managed to obtain one, for which I am super happy and grateful.”
Liesbet: ”Just like Evelien, when the day came that I finally had to pick my university trajectory I also choose something else. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to become a veterinarian. However, at the time I didn’t want to go to Ghent as this meant I had to sell my horse and give up competitive horse riding. So I decided to go to Leuven instead and in my search for a new road to travel on I discovered bioengineering sciences. After that, I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the investigation of genetic predisposition in sports horses for allergic reactions, namely summer eczema. Yet somehow I ended up here working on Multiple Sclerosis (laughs). How about you Ilse?”
Ilse: “I was very convinced of my choice to go study rehabilitation sciences. I really wanted to actively participate in our healthcare system and help people. However, I too had somewhat of an unexpected change in course. I was always convinced I would start a private practice. However, during my master thesis, I came into contact with scientific research and I was immediately hooked. When you’re a physiotherapist, you can have an impact on the life of your patients. But when you do research in rehabilitation sciences, you can potentially have an impact on a much larger amount of people. And that’s why I ended up doing a Ph.D. at UHasselt.”
Evelien: “So what was your research about? I am eager to find out the link with MS.”
Ilse: “Our philosophy is that everyone deserves the best care and rehabilitation. But in many cases, we don’t know what this is for people suffering from a specific pathology or problem like MS. During my Ph.D., I investigated and evaluated the arm and hand functioning of persons with MS, as well as studied how we can use technology in both assessment and rehabilitation. In order to achieve this, I worked together with MS patients, nurses, paramedical therapists, neurologists, engineers, etc. You learn a lot from them both professionally and personally, especially the patients. What makes this research very rewarding for me is the fact that when I started it there was little known about the arms and hands functioning in MS patients. Through my Ph.D., I was able to bring this issue into the spotlight, which resulted in various other research groups all over the world starting to look at this problem as well. I am therefore very happy that I am able to continue this research as a post-doc. And before I forget, I am also part of the MS DATA CONNECT story. But I am sure Liesbet can explain this much better than me.”
Liesbet: “Indeed, I might be able to do that (laughs). It’s almost unbelievable how many data is generated and available these days. During the lifetime of an MS patient an enormous amount of data is collected (yearly MRI’s, visits to their physician, …). However, despite all this information being within our grasp, it is barely used. There are various reasons for this, like privacy problems when sharing data or poor data management in hospitals to name a few. Developing novel and user-friendly techniques to collect, store and connect data to improve the health-care process of people with MS is what my post-doc research is all about. On top of that, we also develop and implement new statistical methods to process this type of data.”
Evelien: “It’s so weird that this hasn’t been done before. It’s such a great idea.”
Liesbet: “I thought so to. The whole process of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of people with MS is still suboptimal. A friend of mine suffers from MS. It took physicians 2 years after the appearance of the first symptoms to diagnose him correctly and another 3 years to find him a suitable treatment therapy. So in total, he had to wait 5 years. With my research efforts, I hope to make a difference for people like him, however small that difference may be.”
Ilse: “Is this only a problem in Belgium?”
Liesbet: “Currently, I am also the coordinator for the international project called ‘MS Data Alliance’, where we try to tackle these problems on an international scale. It is really interesting to see the differences between various countries. Just to give you an example, in Kosovo people with MS only get 1 MRI during their lifetime if they are lucky. While in Belgium the standard is 1 MRI a year. This inequality between patients from different countries, even within Europe itself, motivates me tremendously. The day that we can show governments through data that healthcare for these patients is inadequate is the day that actual change can be implemented. Luckily, everyone within this alliance feels as passionate about this subject as me.”
Evelien: “It’s great to see how all of us are working on different aspects of this disease in order to improve the life of the patients.”
Ilse: “It sure is. So Evelien, on what topic are you doing your Ph.D. research?”
Evelien: “The focus of my research lies in unravelling the mysteries surrounding the mechanisms of MS. By doing this, we might discover novel therapy strategies. In a healthy person, the nerve cells have a protective layer surrounding them, called myelin. Specialized cells, the oligodendrocytes, produce this substance. We are looking at how we can stimulate these cells to recover the loss of myelin in MS patients. In addition to this, my research also focuses on the blood-brain-barrier (BBB). Normally, our brains are protected from the outside world by an almost impenetrable wall, the BBB. Only through special gates can cells and substances enter the brain. However, in patients with MS, more of these gates appear in the BBB and sometimes there are even holes present. We are trying to find ways to reduce these gates and holes to ensure that ‘bad’ cells can’t enter the brain anymore. Yet despite the progress we have already made, in the end, I believe that the key to finding a solution to such complex problems lies in interdisciplinary collaborations.”
Ilse: “That sounds great and I couldn’t agree more. As I said earlier, I learned so much from working together with a wide range of specialists from different fields. Together we made more progress than we could ever do by ourselves.”
Liesbet: “The same goes for our data research project. So what holds the future for the both of you?”
Ilse: “I would love to have a look at the neurological effects of rehabilitation. Solve intriguing question like: Can rehabilitation cause structural and functional changes inside our brains? However, MRI’s cost quite a lot of money (laughs). On top of that, I would also like to improve the translation of research results to actual clinical policies, to ensure that patients always get the best and most up-to-date treatment.”
Evelien: “For me, that’s a rather difficult question, but luckily I still have two years left to figure it out. I certainly want to keep doing research. I really like pondering over research questions and executing experiments. However, I like to work more as part of a team rather than all by myself and would also love to be closer to the patient, like Ilse. What about you Liesbet?”
Liesbet: “I hope I can stay on the research trajectory I am currently on. Imagine the impact we can have if we are able to develop the next generation of data management for MS. This would allow us to collect all the valuable data people like both of you generate during your research, process it, translate it into new models and, in the end, operate on an individual level for each patient. Just like Netflix would advise you what to watch based on your data processed by algorithms, we would perhaps be able to do the same with treatment therapies for MS patients. It’s a dream that motivates me to keep going in the years to come.”