“Boston is an epicentre of science”
As a physician and clinical researcher, Frederic Schaper has one burning ambition: to create a ‘map’ of the network connections in the brain. Ultimately, this will enable doctors to provide better treatment for brain diseases such as epilepsy, depression and Parkinson’s. The UM alum and his colleagues from Harvard Medical School expect to publish their first, promising results this autumn.
He would have preferred to have done the interview in Maastricht, the city where he studied Biomedical Sciences, completed the combined Physician–Clinical Investigator programme and did his PhD research until 2019. “I haven’t been there for over 18 months: corona, of course,” he says from his office at Boston’s Harvard Medical School, one of the top institutes in the US. “It still makes me smile to think of the Maasbrug and the places I used to go with friends, family and fellow students.”
Not that Schaper is bored in Boston, where he began working as a clinical researcher in 2019. “Definitely not,” he laughs. “I’m thrilled to be here. The Boston area is an epicentre of science. You’ve got universities like Harvard, MIT and Tufts and companies such as Pfizer and Moderna practically next to each other, thousands of scientists concentrated in a single city. It’s great to be part of that.”
Frederic Schaper studied Biomedical Sciences, completed the Physician–Clinical Investigator research master’s and obtained his PhD in 2019 at UM. He currently works as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. He received a number of awards during his studies, including the KNAW Van Leersum Grant.
Frederic Schaper at Harvard Medical School
In addition to a healthy record of publications, prizes and grants, his CV also contains a list of rejected articles and grant applications. “That list of ‘failures’ is intended to remind myself and others that doing research is not only about success. Every researcher, even those who bring in hundreds of thousands or even millions in funding, has had to deal with many disappointments. I’m just happy to have the opportunity here at Harvard to continue working on the research we started in Maastricht: mapping the network connections in the brain to develop better treatments for severe epilepsy.”
Deep brain stimulation
Explaining what exactly he does in a nutshell is not easy. “My research is on deep brain stimulation for patients with severe epilepsy who don’t respond to medication and can’t have surgery for whatever reason. After implanting an electrode deep in the patient’s brain, we use electrical pulses to try to stop the seizures. It’s comparable to treating cardiac arrhythmias with a pacemaker. Cardiologists have made great strides forward with that.”
Neurologists and neurosurgeons at the Academic Centre for Epileptology in Maastricht and Kempenhaeghe have used deep brain stimulation successfully. “But so much remains unclear. The networks in the brain are extremely complex, with different patterns in every patient. My dream is to map those networks, just like a circuit board in an iPhone or a computer. But I don’t want to create false expectations: we’re not there yet.”
Every researcher, even those who bring in hundreds of thousands or even millions in funding, has had to deal with many disappointments. I’m just happy to have the opportunity here at Harvard to continue working on the research we started in Maastricht: mapping the network connections in the brain to develop better treatments for severe epilepsy.
Schaper completed his secondary education at College Rolduc, a former abbey in Kerkrade, South Limburg (“a kind of Harry Potter environment”). Early on he knew he wanted to become a doctor. But instead of graduating cum laude—a condition at the time for direct admission to medicine in Maastricht—he fell short by one tenth of a point. He then twice missed out on a place by lottery. “The Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences was my fallback option, and gradually I grew more and more interested in medical research. I completed the bachelor’s programme quite happily and then did the Physician–Clinical Investigator research master’s.”
The research master’s is a combined programme that trains students as both medical doctors and clinical researchers. Schaper graduated cum laude and turned down the option of becoming a junior doctor in favour of epilepsy research. “Something about it touched me. More than 200,000 people in the Netherlands, including some of my friends and acquaintances, have epilepsy. Sometimes the symptoms are mild, sometimes they’re very severe and disabling. There’s still a taboo around epilepsy, partly because you can’t tell just by looking at a person that they’re epileptic.”
Epilepsy is currently treated with medication (which can have negative side effects) and, occasionally, invasive brain surgery. In the last few years Schaper’s field of research, deep brain stimulation, has been added to the mix. “I first came into contact with it during my PhD research. My supervisors at the MUMC+ were Professor Yasin Temel, a neurosurgeon, and Dr Rob Rouhl, a neurologist. They always encouraged me to gain experience abroad. So I contacted Dr Michael Fox at Harvard, a global expert on network connections in the brain. After a brief internship at Harvard during my PhD, I was invited to stay on as a postdoc. Clearly I also have the solid education I got in Maastricht and my PhD team to thank for this job.”
With his research group at Harvard, he expects to submit his first publication to a scientific journal shortly. “Obviously it will first undergo peer review, but we expect it to change our thinking about networks in epilepsy. It’s a very exciting first step.” And then? “For the time being, we’ll continue to analyse the data. There’s still so much work to be done before we can apply this in patients.”
Will Schaper one day return to his roots? “Why not? In the longer term, I plan to pursue my first choice: being a doctor. Maybe put into practice what we’ve been researching—that would be nice.”
More than 200,000 people in the Netherlands, including some of my friends and acquaintances, have epilepsy. Sometimes the symptoms are mild, sometimes they’re very severe and disabling. There’s still a taboo around epilepsy, partly because you can’t tell just by looking at a person that they’re epileptic.