This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist, Mieke Metzemaekers, 26, from the Netherlands, is a PhD student at the Rega Institute KU Leuven in the Laboratory of of Molecular Immunology, Belgium.
Her research focuses on a set of auto-inflammatory diseases, which are rare but severe immune diseases that usually affect children. Typically, these patients display high levels of neutrophils, a particular subtype of white blood cells, in their blood. In their project, they therefore extensively study the network of chemokines: proteins known to be important for migration and activation of neutrophils. Enjoy the interview with Mieke and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
In fact, when I was in high school, it didn’t even cross my mind to go for a scientific job. I was rather ill-informed about the choices I had. I wanted to become a doctor. As a child, I was already fascinated by how the human body works. By a twist of fate, I went to Leuven to study Biomedical Sciences (hoping to switch to medicine at a later stage). But from the first week on, I knew Biomedical Sciences were absolutely the right choice for me. I realised that I had a special interest for the mechanisms underlying diseases.
Who are your role models?
I prefer the term ‘inspiring people’ to the expression ‘role models’. I work with inspiring scientists every day. You really don’t have to look too far to find your sources of inspiration, male or female. There is a lot to learn from people that come your way.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I came to Belgium in 2011 to start a bachelor education in Biomedical Sciences at the KU Leuven. In my first week, it became clear to me that research is my passion and I realised that I had a special interest in immunology. I chose to do a master’s in biomedical sciences with a major in basic and translational research. The oral classes taught during the bachelor education made me highly curious and excited to discover how life would be at a real research laboratory. So, I was happy that I was given the chance to fulfill three internships at research labs during my first master year. As I am highly intrigued by immunology with a special interest in the regulation of inflammation, the internship at the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology (Rega institute, KU Leuven) under supervision of Prof. Dr. Paul Proost, had my special attention. The laboratory has a broad expertise in biochemistry, molecular immunology and immunobiology. In consultation with Prof. Dr. Paul Proost and Dr. Anneleen Mortier, I decided to write my master thesis at the lab. The validity of my decision to start a study in Biomedical Sciences was once again confirmed by the motivation I felt for research in immunology, during both the experimental work and preparation of the thesis. In agreement with Prof. Dr. Paul Proost, I decided to start a challenging PhD in September 2016. I am very dedicated to my PhD project, which aims to unravel the role of chemokine modifications in neutrophil recruitment during auto-inflammation.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I like doing biochemical work in combination with in vitro and in vivo experiments, literature research and scientific writing. I am interested to study subtle but potentially important aberrations in basic principles of the normal physiology which may correlate with disease, and to investigate whether the observed differences may identify targets for future development of new therapeutic strategies. Therefore, I am very excited about my current project which implicates a combination of biochemical and immunological research and is the coolest project I’ve been working on so far. For this research project, we have access to unique patient samples since my co-promoters, Prof. Dr. L. De Somer and Prof. Dr. C. Wouters, are affiliated to the only reference centre for these diseases in Belgium, recently recognised by the European Union in the ‘rare immunodeficiency, autoinflammatory and autoimmune disease network’ (RITA).
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
With my PhD project, I became the only Flemish laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO-FWO ‘For Women In Science’ program of 2017. This prize came as a huge surprise and really motivates me. Like a dream come true. Research is my passion and the prize allows further progress towards my objectives. I’m very thankful and inspired to push forward with full commitment.
What is a “day in the life” of Mieke like?
I never go to the lab with any reluctance. My work as a PhD student includes a combination of performing experiments, data analysis, literature research and scientific writing. The experiments I’m currently working on are mostly related to the collection and analysis of patient samples and optimisation of innovative techniques to thoroughly investigate the chemokine network in auto-inflammation. My daily work is challenging and diverse, something I particularly like about it.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
With my PhD project, I wish to contribute to a better understanding of auto-inflammation. In the future I hope to find a position that allows me to continue doing research, preferably in the field of immunology.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
There are so many nice things to do! I enjoy spending time with friends and family, I like sports, reading books, travelling, trying new restaurant, listening to music.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Don’t let prejudices hold you back. If you are passionate about science, then just go for it. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
Science covers such a variety of topics that I don’t believe one breakthrough will make it. Though, I think it is important to pay more attention to so-called ‘orphan diseases’ in the future. Much research focuses on rather common diseases, which, of course, makes an extremely valuable contribution to human society. However, we should not forget that a number of relatively rare diseases also severely affect patients and their relatives. They also need our help very badly.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
When you decide to go for a high responsibility job, in science or any other field, it usually means that you have to set priorities and make sacrifices. This is not easy, for women in particular, since women still bear the greatest burden in terms of care obligations for children and the elderly. Further, I think many
women tend to compare themselves to other women. This could imply that young women rather choose careers where other women are successful. Since most high responsibility positions in science and research are held by men, a vicious circle is thus maintained. To this end, I feel that leading female scientists play an important role. By highlighting and recognising the historical and current contribution of women to the scientific field, we can encourage young women to pursue a scientific career. Successful women in science should be made (and make themselves) more visible.