Working for science and scholarship

Emilie van der Sande (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience)

This time in Working for Science and Scholarship, we talk to Pieter Roelfsema and Emilie van der Sande of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. Pieter is the director of the institute (read his interview), and Emilie is a PhD candidate there. We put the same questions to both of them.

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience (NIN) examines how the human brain makes awareness, perception, movement, learning, social interaction and other cognitive functions possible. It also studies how brain disorders can disrupt these functions.

Emilie van der Sande, PhD student

Emilie studies the genetic and environmental factors of myopia (near-sightedness).
Born in Tilburg in 1992.

What’s nice about working at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience?
‘The fact that there are so may intelligent and ambitious researchers under a single roof, all of them working to expand our understanding of the brain. I find the enthusiasm and curiosity of my colleagues here inspiring. There’s also a lot of advanced research equipment within easy reach. Our building may not win any beauty contests, but it’s a welcoming place and we have a nice cafeteria.’

What does the institute’s research mean for everyday life?
‘We naturally do a lot of basic research, and it’s hard to identify its immediately relevance for society. But that basic research lays the foundations for our applied research into a wide range of neurological and mental disorders. We also work with patients here who take part in our research projects as subjects. It’s very motivating to see the people that we’re actually trying to help with our research.’

What type of research appeals to you?
‘If you mean within our institute, then I’d pick Joost Verhaagen’s research. He and his team have demonstrated that RGMa – a protein that plays a role in the formation of nerve fibres and neuronal connections – might be involved in Parkinson’s disease. Further research is needed to demonstrate whether neutralising this protein would impede or even cure Parkinson’s.’
The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience has a Sleep Lab. What keeps you awake at night?
‘I never have trouble sleeping, so I’m not likely to go to the Sleep Lab. But part of my PhD research on myopia involves studying our circadian rhythm. Artificial light from streetlights, mobile phones, computer screens  and other sources can interfere with that rhythm. There is evidence that the development of the eye is also disrupted by artificial light, leading to myopia. It seems that giving your eye enough rest – in other words, darkness – can help prevent near-sightedness.’

Which scientist would you put on a pedestal?
‘Can I choose three? Because I’d pick the 2017 winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young. They identified the components of the mechanism that governs the circadian rhythm in plants and animals. The daily biological clock plays a huge role in our health in all sorts of ways. They absolutely deserved the Nobel Prize.’

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around?
‘I’d like to walk around the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental and Stem Cell Biology. I’d be interested in seeing which of their techniques might be useful for my own research. I didn’t take part in the Academy Job Shadow Days this year, but if the Academy organises it again, then I’ll definitely sign up to visit the Hubrecht Institute.’

Read the interview with Pieter Roelfsema, director of NIN.

Interviews: Carel Jansen