'The right combination of proteins can save lives'
Lisette van Os (21) just finished her first year of the Medical and Pharmaceutical Drug Innovation (MPDI) master programme with top marks. Now she is ready for the next step. 'I'm going to California to research the forces and interactions between cells and proteins in fibrosis.'
The master student emphasises that she’s somewhat off the beaten track, considering that within the six tracks MPDI offers, her research does not exactly fit any of them. ‘I chose somewhat of my own path within the master programme. While completing the bachelor Life science & technology I got intrigued by regenerative medicine, which deals with the self-healing of organs and cells. Ultimately, this led me to want to research the role that cells and the extracellular matrix play in the lung disease Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF.'
Cells and health
Lisette explains: ‘This disease of the respiratory system causes lung tissue to indurate, eventually filling up the lungs until breathing is impossible. Modern science doesn’t know what exactly causes IPF, only that the matrices surrounding the cells cause them to overproduce proteins, which form scar tissue. Ideally, we would discover a protein to influence the disease so that the cells stay healthy and supple.’
Pauline van Wachem-award
Her supervisor during the research projects is Principal Investigator Janette Burgess, who is specialised in lung disease and regenerative medicine. They already met during Lisette’s bachelor years, and met again in the first period of the master programme. She was the one that urged Lisette to send in an abstract of her research for the annual congress of the Dutch Matrix Biology Society. Not only was Lisette invited to speak to researchers and PhD-students from all over the world, she was also awarded best junior speaker.
‘I will continue the research, but expanded to fibroses in general,’ Lisette states. Her visa for the United States just came through. In November she starts working with Elliot Botvinick, professor in Biomedical Engineering at the university of California Irvine. ‘He has high tech microscopes that can measure the forces and interactions between cells and proteins.’
Choose your track
Does she have any advice for future MPDI students? ‘In the first semester the Principal Investigators introduce the tracks and their specific research interests within these tracks. Oncology, Medical neurosciences and neurological diseases, Infection and immunity, Medical nutrition and metabolic diseases, Medical system biology and bioinformatics and Drug innovation. Choose the track that sparks your interest and aspirations, or find a way to follow your interests outside of the beaten paths. Being “trackless” worked out great for me.’
'MPDI is in many ways science without borders'
Back home in Brazil, Wellington Candido studied Medicine. An exchange year led him to the Netherlands, where he spent most of his days in the laboratories of the University Medical Center Groningen. In 2016 he returned to participate in the top-master Medical and Pharmaceutical Drug Innovation (MPDI). 'I loved the days in the lab, it is fascinating what happens on a molecular level.'
The last couple of week were busy ones for the 28-year-old. ‘I have just started my second internship,’ Wellington says. ‘I am focussing my research on kidney transplantations and the way we can decrease the damage that occurs when the kidney is outside of the body. That can run up to hours, since donor organs can come from any one of the other European countries. As it is on its way to the receiving patient, the kidney starts to deteriorate. What is going on in that time in the cells?’
Science is team effort
This second-year research is one of the main components of the master’s programme. Ultimately, it will lead to the student writing a PhD-proposal. ‘The programme asks a lot of self-study and hours in the lab. Ultimately, you learn how to be a scientist. But,’ Wellington emphasizes, ‘you don’t make science alone. During classes, students are stimulated to be pro-active and to present their research methods, facts and figures to top-researchers and fellow students. Everyone thinks along, asks questions and offers a new perspective. Because when you only take your own opinions in mind, chances are that your research is to restricted.’
The focus of the study is molecular biology and the unravelling of the molecular mechanisms that determine health and illness. With the internships, students are free to follow their aspirations, even to perform the second research proposal abroad and further enhancing their international experience. For the first internship Wellington worked in the characterization of mutations in breast and ovarian cancer. Currently he is doing his second project in the Experimental Nephrology, about kidney transplantation. Wellington chose to stay in the Netherlands since he is planning to combine research with clinical work: ‘MPDI has definitely changed the way I see and make science, and I will carry this with me in whatever I do in my future.’
‘Make sure you are willing to put in the time and effort. In the online course descriptions you can read all the information on each class and track. It is also important to keep organized and look up what deadlines are coming. And if you have any questions, the professors and other students are always willing to help.’
'You can only find this specific combination of (bio)medical and pharmaceutical sciences here'
Ambitious, motivated and talented: according to programme director Jolanda Smit, these words perfectly describe the students of the master programme of Medical and Pharmaceutical Drug Innovation (MPDI). 'The vast majority of our students aspire to an academic career and continue as a PhD student after graduation.'
Prof. dr. Smit is responsible for the content, organisation and quality of the master’s programme and its different tracks. ‘MPDI is embedded within the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) and the Groningen Research Institute of Pharmacy (GRIP), combining (bio)medical and pharmaceutical sciences. Emphasis is on the field of (bio) medical sciences but students also learn the fundamentals of drug research. This unique combination allows students to not only obtain a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of diseases, but also gain an understanding into the development of novel innovative therapies.’
The lectures are top-researchers from the UMCG and GRIP and teach students all indispensable research skills for the future. From critical reading and scientific writing to presenting, debating and making well-thought decisions. ‘Crucial for future top researchers is to be able to make decisions independently and in a well-reasoned manner. Students are guided in every step of the process,’ the professor says. ‘That way they learn to ask critical questions before deliberating on the next step, to formulate hypotheses and use these to perform experiments and gather evidence. In my personal experience and that of the other professors, there is nothing more fun than teaching MPDI students; they are highly motivated and eager to learn.’
Which track to choose?
With the six different tracks, students are given freedom to focus on the fields of their interest. Each track will be presented at the beginning of the programme and students can decide if they want to participate in a track or follow a general programme. Students are assigned a mentor who helps them with decision making. Before students enter their first research project, they are asked to arrange a personal interview with three UMCG/GRIP professors of their choice. ‘That is where your motivation and independent decision making comes in again. You have to argue –via an oral presentation- which of the three laboratories suits your research ambitions the best.’ For the second-year research project, students are encouraged to go abroad. All the knowledge and skills that you have obtained culminate at the end of the programme where students write and defend their own research proposal. The best students will be offered a PhD scholarship and have the ability to execute their own proposal. This is quite unique and obviously lots of fun.’
Biologists, medics and pharmacists
Fact: MPDI students come from different cultural and educational backgrounds. That shapes the master program in a good way, prof. dr Smit adds. ‘This year we have welcomed students of 14 nationalities and different bachelor degrees. Yet they form a tight knit community and learn a lot from each other. Looking at issues from different perspectives, they complement and strengthen each other’s knowledge.’
‘Yes, we have a selection procedure but do not be intimidated by this,’ prof. dr. Smit says. Students are screened on the basis of their CV, motivation letter and a letter of recommendation. Students that pass the requirements will be interviewed by the Admission board. During this interview - either in person or via Skype - applicants are asked to present a research project from their BSc study and an article. ‘The pressure is on, but just remember that you can prepare yourself well. Your motivation and talent for research are most important. Show them that you are a serious candidate.’