What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
I develop and apply dynamic imaging technologies together with automated quantification pipelines to tackle major obstacles for successful cancer treatment, including tumor heterogeneity and cancer invasion. From the therapy perspective, we study solid tumor targeting by cellular immunotherapy and develop new fluorescent guided surgery tools to improve tumor resection. Although these topics are quite diverse and involve multiple cancer subtypes, they all originate from one central theme: advancing imaging technology to benefit patients with cancer. This is also what I find most rewarding about my work; the prospect of potentially making an impact on people’s life during their most stressful and vulnerable time.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I needed a way in which I could channel my creativity into a fruitful career and becoming a scientist allowed me to do just that. Through my creativity I have been able to innovate imaging technology into a tool that allows me to visualize entire organs. My interest in developmental biology led me to use this technology to study organ development, which evidently also involves stem cell research. As a principal investigator at the Princess Máxima Center for pediatric oncology, I now use my interest and expertise in developmental and stem cell biology to investigate pediatric tumors that often arise during embryonic development.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
The potential of - by using the right methodology - finding something unexpected. Something you could not have predicted beforehand and therefore makes for a highly exciting result. I find the subsequent challenge of unraveling the mechanism behind that unanticipated finding and its biological implication thrilling as well. As an example, during my postdoc I developed a novel 3D imaging method that then led to the unexpected finding of binuclear cells in the lactating mammary gland. I subsequently identified the underlying pathways leading to the development of these cells and demonstrated their essential role in milk production.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Be bold! Dream big and don’t be afraid to take control and make decisions. This is something I always share with my team as well: it’s better to make a decision that in the end turns out to be wrong, than to not take any action at all. Without taking action you will never make progress.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Yes! I have been very lucky and received valuable training and mentorship from both my PhD and postdoc advisors; Prof. Christophe Marcelle and Prof. Jane Visvader, respectively. In addition, I have strong ongoing collaborations with Hans Clevers, who I consider an important mentor towards my scientific career and more recent role as junior principal investigator. However, inspiration does not always have to come from more experienced and senior persons. I am very fortunate to receive input, energy and enthusiasm from the young people that surround me every day; the highly talented postdocs, PhD students and master students in my lab and they are my true inspiration. For that reason, I also refer to them as my ‘dream team’.
How do you spend your free time?
I am not going to lie, I do invest a lot of my time in science, but it is because I absolutely love what I do. To balance it off, I like to go out, go dancing and even do something crazy like karaoke singing. As long as it is involves hanging out with my favorite people, I am happy. Oh and I guess I also try to do sports… sometimes...
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
That I am in science because of my artistic side. Looking through a microscope during one of my first internships and getting a beautiful view of the biological sample underneath, something clicked and I knew that I wanted to use imaging to not only drive scientific discovery, but also to generate stunning images that can engage the public and inspire the next generation of scientists.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
Contact with peers! A career in science comes with its unique challenges and sometimes disappointments. If you cannot share that with likeminded people things could get pretty lonely. In addition, collaborations with colleagues in related, yet different areas of research, is what really pushes science forward and can generate highly fruitful projects.