Vascular biologist Judith Sluimer was appointed professor of cardiovascular pathophysiology in October 2020. In her inaugural lecture, she alluded both to the importance of oxygen in the functioning of the heart and blood vessels as well as to the ‘fresh air’ she believes academia is always in need of. Biology may be her great love; however, Judith also jumps in wholeheartedly when it comes to greater equality in ‘the system’ and the related support she gives to the bachelor, master’s and PhD students she supervises. “Freedom is a very important component of being happy in my job.I want others to be able to experience that as well.”
Can you tell us about what your chair entails?
“The title of my chair is ‘cardiovascular pathophysiology’ which means I study blood vessels. In doing so, I mainly focus on hypoxia (where tissues or organs are deprived of oxygen) in relation to atherosclerosis and vessel wall ageing. These are two diseases of the blood vessels with accumulation of lipids, inflammation and/or connective tissue, causing stiffening of the vessels, high blood pressure and clinical symptoms like a heart attack or stroke. We know that most people’s vessels stiffen as they age. What interests me is the question: why does one patient develop atherosclerosis and not another? Why does a plaque1 rupture in one vessel or patient and not in another? There are certain groups of people in the world – including in the Netherlands – who live well into an old age. I would like to study their vessels. How are they aging? What is the wall stiffness like? I want to see if there is something to be found in the genetic material of those people that explains a better vessel wall and what is different from people whose vessels age more slowly, or that stiffen more quickly. What I also study is the role that 2 cell types (inflammatory cells and connective tissue cells) play in vessel wall ageing and atherosclerosis and how they communicate with each other."
1Plaque is the accumulation of inflammatory cells, connective tissue cells, fats, connective tissue and dead cells on the inside of the vessel wall.
Can you tell us about the impact of your research?
"A better understanding of how atherosclerosis develops can help us find better prevention recommendations and treatment options. However, my research could be classified as relatively fundamental. The impact I make with it now lies mainly in bringing new concepts. Patients don't notice much of that yet. But fundamental research is incredibly important for innovation. Without fundamental research, we won't reach the patient of the future. Besides, when we get to the point where we better understand the processes surrounding vessel wall ageing and atherosclerosis, the impact of research on society will be enormous. Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the Netherlands and we are all aging. So ultimately my research affects a lot of people, but the road to it is difficult, indirect and requires a long haul. But that’s all part of science too!"
Judith Sluimer studied Health Sciences at Maastricht University and then conducted PhD research in the field of atherosclerosis. After a jaunt at Columbia University in New York, USA, she is back in Maastricht. In addition to her professorship at Maastricht University, she is an honorary lecturer at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh. Her overarching goal and vision is to reverse vascular pathologies such as atherosclerosis and vascular ageing by shedding light on the role of cellular players and metabolic processes. Judith sits on the board of the division blood in CARIM (the Institute for Cardiovascular Diseases) in Maastricht and is an active advocate of the ‘Recognition and Rewards’ programme through her role on the U(H)D-committee.
Oxygen plays an important role in your research on atherosclerosis and vascular wall constriction. However, oxygen – or ‘fresh air’ – also falls under this perspective when it comes to innovation in science. Your inaugural lecture addressed, among other things, the constant focus on funding.
"Indeed, I said that one can spend as much as 20 to 30 weeks a year organising funding. That really needs to change, I think. Science is broken in this respect. I find it shocking how many colleagues – from young talent to learned professors – want to quit because the work-life balance is not right for them, but also because they don't want that frustration anymore. I sometimes see the same situation occurring with my PhD students, great talents that decide 'this life is not for me'. I really do try to let them see that I don't work day and night but I think they are mostly put off by the fact that the chances of scholarships and permanent jobs are so slim. So, I can imagine that this career image – in the meantime – puts them off. Even if they really like the work. Of course, young people also see my disappointment when grants are not awarded, or a paper is rejected. Again, that is also science: learning to deal with disappointment. If you can't put things into perspective and if the balance of positive and negative experiences is not in favour of the positive ones, you don't last. You must find your fulfilment in something other than bringing in funding."
How do you manage that?
"It is partly experience. When I was a PhD student, I did get overwhelmed. It wasn’t working out, it was a really dark time. During that period, I acquired tools to maintain my own work-life balance. I learned to derive the positives from other things: interaction with students both at university and in the lab. It also helps that, as a team leader, you are working on several projects, so there is always 1 project that is going well. Above all: I just love biology! It drives me. Especially when we discover things we don't understand and then together try to find an explanation for them. So, it is the contact with people and the biology itself that is always surprisingly fascinating. That’s what keep keeps me excited about my work."
"The contact with people and the biology itself is always surprisingly fascinating. That’s what keep keeps me excited about my work."
That ‘breath of fresh air’ is also reflected in the active role you have in the academic community. Among other things, you chair the U(H)D-committee (the comittee that advises the dean on promotions to assistant/associate professorship2, making you an advocate of 'Recognition and Rewards3 as well as diversity.
"During my career track up until now, there was no ‘Recognition and Rewards’ programme. Back then, the perception was that a scientist always had to be a ‘schaap met 5 poten’ (an all-round specialist) to get ahead, as the previous dean so aptly put it. That you had to do your very best on all fronts and make sure you do as much as possible as well as possible. I have indeed done a lot on all sorts of fronts, and perhaps that is why I got where I am. However, there are also things I have not done or that have not succeeded at (yet). For example, I don't have any patents."
"I am convinced that the power of diversity contributes to innovation in science. That applies both to the diversity you have in your team and organisation, but also for each scientist personally in the way you build on your own development. For example, through the employers you choose, the kind of research you do, the techniques you use and how 'your' funding is organised. In the U(H)D committee, we are committed to all these aspects of diversity. Over the past 3 years, we have been able to turn around how accomplishments are viewed. For example, rather than the exact number of publications we look at their quality and the contribution of a person to the papers. Similar to personalised medicine, this is almost about personalised career advice. You really must look at all the experiences a person has been through and how this has shaped them into who they are today. It requires a broader view of whether it is appropriate to promote someone to the next job level. There is now much more focus on team players. The transition from old to new will be difficult but we have made a solid start."
2The independent committee that advises the dean on promotions from Lecturer (Universitair docent 1, UD1) to Senior Lecturer (Universitair hoofddocent 1, UHD1).
What else energises you?
"I get a lot of energy from mentoring. I love interacting with bachelor, master’s and PhD students. Especially when we can work 1-on-1 because it allows me to focus more on how a student is developing and I can offer guidance to get through any struggles they may be facing. I greatly enjoy helping students grow in self-confidence and therefore enabling them to achieve better study results. It is somewhat typical of me that I like to be among others and not above them. It still happens – although I must admit that it causes me more stress these days – that when there are too few people available in large experiments, I don my lab coat and join in. I really try to make our projects a collaborative experience and let students have a stake in how we design the research projects in detail. Ownership is everything. Autonomy. The only way to deal with the pressure of this job is that you have autonomy on how to do it: the what, when, where and how. Freedom is a very important component of being happy in my job. I want others to be able to experience that as well."
"I really do it out of enthusiasm for science. That I can reach others means more to me than anything else I do."
Since you invest in people, you also give science and research something for the future. In doing so, you also facilitate impact.
"I hope so. I think that in motivating and educating the new generation – both the bachelor and master students but also the PhD students – lie the biggest pillars of my impact. Communicating ‘Recognition and Rewards’ is also part of that: that the work-life balance needs to change and that as a woman and a mother, you are perfectly able to forge a career in science. I actually thought that was a no-brainer for the younger generations, but apparently, we are not that far yet. It gives me great satisfaction to hear from young scientists that I can inspire and motivate them. I really do it out of enthusiasm for science and scientists and that I reach others with it means more to me than anything else I do."
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