Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
UM student wins public’s Medical&Health Award at Student Research Conference
Nousjka Vranken (25), first-year physician and clinical researcher, can’t really say there was a special moment when she thought: ‘I want to be a researcher,’ but by now everything is pointing in that direction. For four years, she has worked part-time as a research assistant at MUMC+’s department of Heart Surgery, two years ago her first article was published and last week she won the public’s award in the category ‘Medical and Health’ at the national Student Research Conference in Nijmegen.
For her bachelor’s thesis at Health Sciences, Vranken tried out a monitoring technique that measures the blood flow through the veins of a breast after a breast reconstruction. “This concerns a breast reconstruction in which the skin and fatty tissue from the abdomen is used instead of a prosthesis. The body recognises that these are parts of the body and the chances that the nerves remain intact is greater, which means that there is a greater chance that the breast will remain more susceptible to sensations. The veins from the abdomen are connected with the veins in the breast. Sometimes they get blocked or damaged. If that happens, this will be clear in the first 24 hours. Checks are now being carried out by looking at the colour and the temperature of the skin. The monitor continually records how much oxygen there is in the blood.”
Sticky patches are used to attach the monitor to the breast that was operated on and the healthy breast. The latter is used for comparison to the operated breast. “Just how good the blood flow is, differs considerably per person. Age, mobility, hormones and medication: they all play a role. The comparison with the healthy breast gives you a good idea of what is normal for the woman concerned.” This also means that the technique can only be used in the case of a one-sided breast reconstruction. “These are the most common ones, but during this pilot we also collected data that may make it possible in the future to apply it in cases in which both breasts are operated on.”
The monitor, which can measure oxygen levels in tissue, plays an important role in Vranken’s life. “I have been using it for years.” She investigated the effect on the brain when a vein is clamped during heart surgery, studied microcirculation in the arms, and monitored the risk of blood clots in the legs of patients who were in intensive care with heart and lung problems.
This was all done from the department of Heart Surgery, where she arrived five years ago as a work placement student from her first study programme of Biomedical Studies at Zuyd Hogeschool. “I set up a database at the time containing data from eight thousand people. I then carried out research into the risk factors that play a role in infections after blood transfusion. That eventually became my first article. When I started at Health Sciences in Maastricht – Biomedical Studies was not enough to be accepted as physician and clinical researcher – my supervisor called me. He asked if I would like to do more research. I was so fortunate. It is very flexible so I can combine it well with my studies.”
Vranken has not had enough yet. “Tissue oimetry, measuring oxygen levels in tissue, is really my thing. There are so many different applications. When does it have added value and when does it not?” She would really like to start a PhD track alongside her studies. “Then, in four years’ time, I would be Doctor as well as a doctor. I am already working on it, trying to be first author in articles.” She wants to use the award money of €750 on a visit to a conference. “They are always expensive.”
In her future career, Vranken also wants to combine the two interests. “Although I don’t know yet how my time will be divided. I noticed how I liked the contact with patients during my work placements for Biomedical Studies. I did Higher General Secondary Education, so I couldn’t do Medicine, but I did do an entrance exam in Belgium after I completed my Biomedical Studies. I was unsuccessful, as I had not been able to study enough because I was writing my thesis.” So I took the route of physician and clinical researcher through Health Sciences. Vranken doesn’t know yet what she will specialise in, but cardiovascular diseases would be the obvious choice. “Maybe some day I will tire of it, but actually I can’t imagine that.”
Student Research Conference
The Student Research Conference is organised annually by VNSU with the aim of promoting bachelor’s research in the Netherlands and Flanders. Vranken was one of the thirty students who were invited to give an oral presentation about their research, while thirty others gave poster presentations. There are various categories, in addition to ‘Medical & Health’ there is 'Language, Culture & Law', 'Exact' and 'Economy & Society'. There is a prize awarded by the public and by the jury for every category. In addition the best poster presentation is awarded a prize.