Thanks to the YAG, I started as one of the lucky few new interdisciplinary PhD-students at the UG last summer. It’s a unique opportunity to work together with several research groups in Groningen to combine knowledge and research fields that would otherwise not meet each other that easily.
In my case, we combine the fields of bioinformatics, chemistry and oncology to get a fresh view on cancer. More specifically, we’ll be investigating the complex field of cell metabolism: the “metabolism” of a cell is the complex and dynamic array of chemical reactions that occur within a cell, which for example determines how glucose is used to gain energy, or how building blocks such as nucleotides and lipids are created. The crucial thing to realize here is that the behavior of cancer cells is different than the behavior of ‘normal’ cells. After all, to enable tumor cells to divide infinitely, alterations have to take place to satisfy their increased energetic demands. Through the years it has become ever more clear that a tumor does not consist of just one cell type, but that it contains a microenvironment of a lot of different cell types and subtypes, which all together enable the disease: this adds even more to the complexity of the problem.
Luckily there’s a huge amount of researchers looking into this field, and because of the approach of this project, I get to work with many of them. This means that we can use bioinformatics to look into the gene expression of cells and find interesting new targets from seemingly undecipherable amounts of data, organic chemistry to make molecules to investigate the activity of some enzymes in certain metabolic pathways, and in the end we can even work together with the oncologists at the UMCG to use the new molecules for characterizing and diagnosing different subtypes of cancer and gain a better understanding of cancer as a whole.
As you might have guessed already, I am a huge fan of interdisciplinary research, and the possibility to work together with young academics and PhD students from many fields is exactly how I envisaged my PhD. Nothing seems as fruitful as putting three or more researchers from different fields with open minds and bright ideas together within one room, combining knowledge. It allows a lot of creativity in a research project, something that seems to be lacking in some of the more achievement-focused projects. Then again, the huge amount of possibilities and paths offered might easily get you lost, and I would certainly advise any interdisciplinary PhD-student to work systematically and aim to master each field and technique, to be able to fully benefit from the knowledge of all the different fields and grow as a researcher.
It’s still early days in the project, but I am confident that during these four years we can connect a lot of dots in cancer research and contribute a lot of new, exciting and bright ideas to science as a whole.
Vincent Leeuwenburgh is carrying out his Interdisciplinary PhD project under the supervision of Young Academy members Marthe Walvoort (UG - Stratingh Institute of Chemistry) and Rudolf Fehrmann (Medical Oncology - UMCG)
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