Thesis supervisor Remco Havermans is proud of Imke van der Velden. “She has been a dedicated student from the beginning”, he says in the video Maastricht University made for her. “Over the years, I’ve seen you develop your academic thinking skills.” But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. “Thinking about what happened to you makes me feel sick”, says Havermans.
Van der Velden is very open about the pain she has been living with every day since the summer of 2020. It disrupted her master’s degree in Health Food Innovation Management at UM in Venlo. “It’s frustrating, but I couldn’t do it anymore.” She can only spend a limited amount of time studying online and staring at a computer screen.
“In June 2020, I fell off my bike and suffered a concussion. Then, in July, I was in a car accident.” Van der Velden didn’t have any fractures, wounds or other visible injuries. But if it was up to her, she says, she would rather have broken all the bones in her body than suffer this pain, invisible to others. “My head always hurts and I’m hypersensitive to light and noise. The doctors say it’s whiplash, a post-traumatic syndrome.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that she had already completed her prize-winning capstone thesis at University College Venlo by then.
Van der Velden had originally planned to study the impact of blue light on alertness in nurses working night shifts at the hospital. But then COVID-19 struck. “I no longer had access to the ICU for my study.” After two months, she changed her topic. She decided to continue something she had previously worked on during a summer job in a research group run by Remco Havermans, professor of Youth, Food and Health. “It’s about adolescents’ eating habits. What’s important is the question whether they can be influenced through informative posts on Instagram. Can we get them to eat a more plant-based diet? Back then, I helped set up an intervention, based on behavioural models.”
She built on this work in her capstone project. For example, she took pictures of plant-based products in the supermarket and of animals in the petting zoo (“so that secondary-school students can actually see where their meat comes from”). The pictures were posted to an Instagram account created for a select group of young people from Limburg. “A previous study had already shown that secondary-school students often have no idea what plant-based food is, where to find it in a supermarket, how to prepare it (how to make a bean burger) or why it’s better for the environment. We used social media to try and teach them knowledge and skills.”
Van der Velden spent ten weeks collecting data to analyse. Was she able to conclude that all of the participants will be eating bean burgers from now on? “No, unfortunately. It had no effect; they didn’t start eating more plant-based foods. It’s important to note that the data were incomplete, though. Quite a lot of data were missing, especially from the last data collection point at one of the participating schools. COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works.” Even so, Van der Velden thinks the topic is worthy of further research. According to her, young people and social media are a golden combination.
How about Van der Velden herself? Is she a fan of falafel or vegetarian tomato-mozzarella schnitzels? “I regularly eat plant-based foods, but I don’t follow a purely vegetarian diet.” Food, health and innovative products are subjects she is very interested in. She really hopes to be able to continue her master’s degree this September. And the 500 euros she won? “The money went towards my medical bills”, she jokes. “I’m kidding. I’m saving up for a car.”