Interview with Gijs van Woerden

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? Last Tuesday, we spoke to Dirk Jan, but this time it’s Gijs his turn: one of the PhD students that has been working with Dirk Jan for a couple of years now.

Gijs was born and raised in Groningen and in 2017 he graduated from medicine. After obtaining his MD degree, he started his PhD trajectory under supervision of Dirk Jan van Veldhuisen on the subject “Epicardial fat in heart failure with a preserved ejection fraction”. He indicates that heart failure interested him from the start during his final medical internship, on the one hand because it is a widespread disease with an important societal impact, in consequence leading to an increasing demand for better treatment, and on the other hand because it is also a very challenging and multifaceted disease that is studied a lot nowadays.


Please tell us, how did that go; how did you end up in cardiology and how did you subsequently opt for a PhD trajectory? Had it been a longer-term goal for you to do a PhD?

Cardiology was already on the top of my specialties list in which I took interest during my Bachelor’s. In the first year of the Master programme I remember a lecture where we had to analyse heart murmurs using a stethoscope. I was fascinated by the fact that you could localise a heart condition by means of a type of sound. After that, I arranged to do my final medical internship at the Department of Cardiology, and this turned out to be a good decision. Dirk Jan was my supervisor on the patient ward during this clinical internship and we clicked from the start. His enthusiasm for research is contagious. Subsequently, I did my research clerkship (also part of medicine) with him and after that went straight into a PhD trajectory. If you would have asked me 3 years ago whether I would go into research after graduation, then I probably would have said “no”. During my Bachelor’s, I was not really attracted by research. However, after my research clerkship in cardiology, I was convinced!


Did you have to get used to certain aspects of doing a PhD? Any hurdles to overcome when you first start as a PhD student?

Absolutely. I just graduated as a medical doctor and throughout the medical studies you are used to working guided by a plan and/or guidelines. As a PhD student you suddenly have to figure everything out yourself and that definitely took some getting used to. In the beginning, I was a lot more hesitant towards my promotors. In the end you realise that you just have to start somewhere and from that moment onwards you’ll get there eventually.

Gijs presents the results of the VIP-HF trial on the European Society of Cardiology Heart Failure Congress of 2020.


You are one of the researchers that plays an important role in the national DECISION trial, a multicentre clinical trial that was set up in the UMCG itself by your promotor and others. What is it like to help run a clinical trial and what are your thoughts on the combination of patient care in a research setting and your PhD trajectory?

I think that my PhD would have been way less fun if I didn’t have any contact with patients. In the end, I consider myself to be more of a clinical person than a lab rat and I really enjoy interacting with patients. The fact that we are coordinating a big clinical trial from the UMCG for almost 40 centres in the Netherlands is really exciting. You feel that you are close to the fire and that this really matters. I am very grateful for that experience.

Do you miss the clinic?

Yes, definitely. I studied medicine because I like helping and treating patients. Combining research with patient contact does provide an additional dimension to the treatment of patients, and I am therefore really happy that I chose this path. In the end, I do want to go back to the clinic.

What is the work-life balance like when you do a PhD?

This is probably a question that you should also ask to the people I am close to, but I think it’s certainly doable. As I said before, you are responsible for your own time planning, and that also applies to your work-life balance. Of course there are times when you have to put in that extra bit of time and effort to catch deadlines, but the overall balance is good.

And finally: you are from Groningen, you studied in Groningen, and now you are doing a PhD trajectory in Groningen; what is, according to you, the attraction of Groningen?

Groningen has everything you could desire, but then just a little bit smaller. I love that you can cycle from the South of Groningen to the North of Groningen within 15 minutes. It’s that combination of many facilities on a smaller scale that renders Groningen so attractive in my view.

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