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How to avoid terrible labs

How to avoid terrible labs

Photographer:Fotograaf: Alf Mertens

An interview with ‘ageing professor’ Jan Hoeijmakers

The importance of your mentor, choosing a good lab, and ageing. Three of the topics in the career interview with TEFAF professor Jan Hoeijmakers, organised by research school GROW. One thing is clear: Hoeijmakers is no fan of the US.

Journalist: “I know you are a modest man, Jan, but please leave that behind for now. In the coming two hours, we will do a so-called College Tour, which is a rip-off from a TV programme.”

Hoeijmakers: “It is on TV?”

Journalist: “Yes, but don’t worry, you aren’t. If you win the Nobel Prize, then you will.”

The dialogue marks the start of the interview with Rotterdam geneticist Jan Hoeijmakers, in broader circles known as the ‘ageing professor’. On Friday, 12th of January, Volkskrant journalist Martijn van Calmthout is interviewing the TEFAF professor in Kasteel de Hoogenweerth.

Hoeijmakers was the first to clone the so-called DNA recovery gene in humans and created quite a stir in the field of DNA repair and ageing. In 1999, he was awarded the Spinoza Prize, the most important science prize in the Netherlands. In the meantime, he retired, but didn’t stop working. On the contrary: he recently founded two labs, one at the Prinses Máxima Centrum in Utrecht and another in Cologne. In Germany, there’s more money for research.”

As pictures on a screen show, Hoeijmakers (1951) grew up in poor circumstances in Sevenum, a village in the northern part of Limburg. In a family with no background in science at all. “When I was four, we lived close to my great-grandmother, whose face was full of wrinkles. That is when my fascination with ageing started. How did she become so old? Meanwhile, my parents died, my mother passed away this Christmas.”

Reputation

Lots of topics are discussed, but mentoring gets a great deal of attention in the interview. “Always check the reputation of the research lab and the head of the department before you start working there,” says Hoeijmakers, who did his PhD under Piet Borst in Amsterdam. “He was a blessing, a role model, in terms of systematic thinking and hard working. But he had a tough reputation as well. ‘Are you sure you want to go there’, people asked me. Borst could burn you down, but I wasn’t afraid. I never had any conflict with him.”

The next one was Dick Bootsma, in Rotterdam. “He was a people manager and stressed that everyone developed his own talents. He was interested in your private life. He was an example for me. As a group leader, I once encouraged a technician to do research, now he is a professor with his own research group.”

A PhD student stands up and says that her postdoc appointment in the US turned out to be a “real disaster. The group leader had a two-sided personality. Things went fine in the beginning, partly because I brought my own money, but later on it went wrong. How do you choose the right department?”

Hoeijmakers: “Yes, some places can be terrible, especially in the US. My advice would be: go to the lab and talk to people, other than the principle investigator. Do people talk freely? Are they doing things together?”

Van Calmthout to the PhD student: “How did you end up in this lab?”

“First because of my topic. The group leader had a good reputation. Looking back, I would have checked the list of publications of the other staff. They only published like once in every six months. A bad sign.”

Hoeijmakers emphasises that researchers must gain experience in other labs, but that doesn't necessarily mean spending four years in the US. Preferably not, Hoeijmakers knows terrible work places there. “I know researchers who behave so badly that they would end up in prison in the Netherlands.”

DNA repair

Then a video starts in which Hoeijmakers tells us that he wants to leave a better world behind than the one in which he grew up. Part of that involves ageing healthily.

Van Calmthout: “So ageing is something we could control?”

Hoeijmakers: “In my opinion, ageing is an imperfection of biology. The real cause is DNA damage.”

How is that? The genetic material is constantly being damaged; a cell can encounter a hundred thousand scratches each day. Fortunately, cells are able to repair this damage themselves, but on a rare occasion, something goes wrong. And that can be the beginning of a tumour. Or dementia.

Pfizer announced recently that it stopped all the research into Parkinson and Alzheimer. Was Pfizer on the wrong track, Van Calmthout asks?

“Yes, the focus on protein aggregation is not the solution. The real problem of all forms of dementia is ageing, which comes with DNA damage, and this subsequently leads to the protein aggregation. Prevention is more important than curing. Dietary restriction is the key. When an organism gets less food, it put its energy not into growth but into maintenance, into DNA repair.”

A visitor: “So you want us to skip lunch?”

Solid publications

In the meantime, businesses complain that many results don't hold up in replication research, says Ramaekers.

“Results can be wrong for many reasons. Researchers make mistakes and sometimes jump to conclusions, make findings look better or invent results. I would say: don’t hurry, we need solid publications. In my group, I set the example, not explicitly but by doing. Teamwork prevents the manipulation of conclusions. If only one person finds a magical outcome, then forget it.”

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