Dirk Jan van Veldhuisen

Interview with Dirk Jan van Veldhuisen

Each month we take a closer look at one of the research groups at Groningen Cardiology. Who runs them, which topics do they investigate, and what is it like to be part of them as a PhD candidate? This week, we are interviewing professor Dirk Jan van Veldhuisen. He has been professor of cardiology since 2000 and head of the Department of Cardiology at the UMCG since 2001, with expertise on heart failure.

Dirk Jan his career includes, but is not limited to, an impressive assembly of clinical heart failure trials, international working groups, research grants, and publications. In addition, he has supervised over 75 PhD trajectories over the past 20 years. But who is he?


You studied medicine in Groningen, completed your cardiology residency there, and became head of the Department of Cardiology in Groningen. What is the attraction of Groningen?

That is correct, I studied in Groningen and also did my Cardiology residency here. I did my internal medicine part of the cardiology residency in Rotterdam and also met my wife there. Initially, I reckoned that I would likely return to “the Randstad” (Western part of the Netherlands comprising several larger cities) and work in a peripheral hospital. However, during my residency I started doing research in the form of a PhD trajectory and this turned out to be very interesting and inspiring. The research progressed well, I obtained my PhD degree, was offered a staff position, and was in the lucky position to become head of the department at a relatively young age. Collaborating with a group of people has always been very important to me and in my view there were many opportunities in this department. Great people are very important and I think we truly have a golden generation at the moment, including many young colleagues (among which are a couple of professors) and a large group of emerging talent, people who inspire me every day. At one moment in time we had 10 professors in our department, which is of course quite a number.

Do you notice big differences between your own time as a PhD student and modern PhD students? What do you consider to be your most valuable lessons from doing a PhD trajectory?

Certainly a lot has changed. First off, I did my PhD trajectory during my cardiology residency; nowadays it is much more common for people to do a PhD trajectory fulltime for a couple of years prior to their residency. Also, twenty-five years ago our department was of course not as advanced as it is now, back then one publication was already quite special. Nowadays our department has a much more professional setup, both in terms of research content as well as supervision and organisation.
During a PhD trajectory you learn how to organise a large project from the beginning until the very end. In addition, you learn how to manage expectations from different parties and how to solve politically sensitive issues. Furthermore, you learn how to cope with setbacks and disappointments. These are all-time lessons from a PhD trajectory and good supervision is crucial in this matter.

Was your enthusiasm for research immediately there when you first got involved? And why heart failure research?

Doing research was actually not a predefined path for me. During my internal medicine residency, research was no part of the work package. However, during my studies I had already been abroad for a couple of times for cardiology internships and I also already published an article.
Role models have been essential in my opinion and my colleague from earlier days, Harry Crijns, was certainly one of those role models. He is a true scientist and we wrote articles together. His scientific interest however primarily entailed atrial fibrillation, which is why my initial choice for a research subject was also rhythm disturbances. My boss during that time, Professor Lie, also taught me so much. From the moment that I really started to get involved with (primarily clinical) research, it fascinated me and that has never disappeared. Developing an idea in the clinic, and then deep diving into that idea, that fascinated me. However, doing research also entails frequent travel, which was necessary to develop relationships, but also takes a lot of time. I also really enjoyed writing a sound research article. Looking back, I must admit that I have perhaps always been quite ambitious.
To answer the second question: why heart failure? Sometime around 1990 Professor Lie encouraged me to focus on heart failure research: according to him, this was “the disease of the future”. This had, among others, to do with the fact that patients with a myocardial infarction survived this event increasingly often, although with a damaged heart. He was absolutely right: around that time several important trials presented their results, among which was the SOLVD trial (1991), which led to heart failure becoming increasingly treatable. It was really interesting, everything that was happening at that time. Soon I became involved in a variety of large international trials and I met interesting people from the field, which was of course a great experience. Those people inspired me; of course, you hope to inspire other (young) people in the same way later on. Being able to inspire, provide room, and applaud others’ achievements in a group are, in my opinion, crucial factors in this.

“Collaboration is of utmost importance to us, we really applaud others’ achievements.”

What do you perceive as your biggest success or most important achievement from your career?

The fact that we built such a magnificent team (cardiologists and non-cardiologists) together in Groningen is what I perceive as my most important achievement. We started 20 years ago by attracting a couple of talented people with each their own expertise to Groningen, and after that the main contribution came from some of our own young people who went through a tremendous development. There is a good atmosphere within our group and I consider each and every one of our team members to be a nice and inspiring person, which is something I also often hear from people outside of Groningen. Several people from our group have been part of European (ESC) Guideline Committees in the past couple of years, and in the field of heart failure we have always been represented in the past 15 years. In addition, our people from Groningen have been prominently involved in nearly all big (international) heart failure research projects and we have made a name for ourselves in Europe (and outside) on this topic. This is also supported by the fact that we have had the Editorial Board of the European Journal of Heart failure in Groningen for a couple of years (see image). Nationally we are also actively involved in many committees and next year Prof. Rudolf de Boer will take over the position of Chair of the Netherlands Society of Cardiology. Of course that makes me really proud, and when I receive a picture of an international congress showing 30 – mostly young – enthusiastic people from our department who are full of plans, at the beginning of their career, that’s fantastic to see. Collaboration is of utmost importance to us, we really applaud others’ achievements. Doing it together is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of research, and I think that our department is a very suitable and inspiring place for young people to do research in all its aspects.

You are a cardiologist, professor, head of the department and still an active scientist; is there any time left for hobbies?

I love sports and adore music. In terms of sports I primarily played tennis and hockey, and once I completed the New York City Marathon. That was really tough, but an unforgettable experience. Nowadays I go golfing every now and then. Apart from this, my social life is very important to me, (before corona) I enjoyed going to the (movie) theatre, but I find having a good conversation at home also very pleasant. In general, interacting with people is very important to me.

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