Interview with Isabelle van Gelder

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’re interviewing professor Isabelle van Gelder. She has been a cardiologist at the UMCG for over 25 years now, focusing on electrophysiology and rhythm disorders.

Research and education belong together. Isabelle is and has been the mentor of over 25 PhD candidates during their individual tracks, and since 2006 she has also taught medical students as professor at the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Groningen. We interviewed her to find out how she got here and what it means to hold these positions.


You’ve been with the UMCG for over 25 years now, but I think you originally hail from a different region of the Netherlands. How did you end up here, and what prompted you to stay?

I’m originally from Leeuwarden, so studying in Groningen together with my classmates wasn’t odd at all. The northern parts of the Netherlands had a certain draw to them however, and I ended up staying even after finishing my studies. The calm environment and beautiful surroundings charmed me. There’s drawbacks to this area as well, such as when I had to travel to Utrecht on a weekly basis, but the downsides were manageable.

I initially wanted to train in internal medicine. I was offered a training spot here in Groningen, but with a long waiting period beforehand. That’s when I almost accidentally ran into the field of cardiology, right here in the UMCG. I seized this opportunity, and never really felt the urge to leave for greener pastures.

What is or what are Groningen Cardiology’s greatest assets?

High-quality healthcare and research.

Back in the day I was the second PhD candidate and there were eleven cardiologists—our department has made huge progress since then. Our main strength is that we have specialists on every topic in cardiology with national and international renown. That means that our patient-related care is of a very high standard. We’re also a team instead of loosely connected individuals, the latter is often seen when many specialists work together in one department. Working together like this helps us deliver the best standard of care possible. I use the opportunity to discuss topics I’m not specialized in with my colleagues on a weekly basis—this teamwork is one of our greatest assets!

The same goes for our research: we’re the best in the world on several cardiological topics. We perform very relevant research, and our main goal is to improve the ways in which we treat patients. We’ve got this great connection of clinical and pre-clinical or lab-based research, allowing us to do really translational research which can quickly be applied in real-life cases. There are multiple generations of researchers working here: the old guard which I belong to, a great group of researchers from 40 to 50 years of age, and a younger group as well. Recently, several of our PhDs received a Mandema or Dekker grant: that’s only possible if a research department lets its researchers thrive. I personally enjoy seeing younger generations of researchers develop themselves. The opportunities and resources granted to them lets them stay in control of their own career paths, and the possibility for researchers to stay true to themselves is very important for a department like ours.

When you look back at your own time as a PhD candidate, are there big differences compared to the present-day PhD track? And have you copied any of your own mentor’s strategies or behavior from back then?

Everything regarding research is a lot different today. Back in the way, research was a lot rarer. When I was a researcher, I had just three colleagues, so the very important aspect of interaction between researchers really wasn’t a thing. Initiating and managing a research project or clinical trial has changed a lot over the years as well. My first randomized trial, flecainide versus placebo, was a completely different experience from our RACE 3 trial. A lot of aspects of research have improved, for example data quality and maintaining a level of privacy. The safety of researchers themselves has improved as well.

My supervisor was and still is peculiar in his ways. I have a good relationship with him, and we still work together even today. His enthusiasm, creativity, patience, and the fact that he always managed to find time for teaching, those are all aspects of his personality. I’m good at other things, but I think our enthusiasm and affinity for education are something we have in common.



This enthusiasm for research, specifically clinical research, have you always felt this? And what makes rhythm disorders such an important topic to study?

That enthusiasm really only developed once I was invited to do research at the department of cardiology. Prior to that, I had never done research before, but I immediately felt interested after starting. I became hooked to delving deep into incredibly specialized knowledge, in my case rhythm disorders, more specifically atrial fibrillation. It still feels great to work on new treatments, new clinical strategies, and to learn from the results of your own and other researchers’ studies. Working together with different departments, working with colleagues from other centers, I have always found it amazing and it still is something I’m enthusiastic about.

Researching rhythm disorders is important because they’re very common, don’t always get diagnosed early enough or at all, and because they are still difficult to treat even today. We know atrial fibrillation is associated with heart failure, CVA, dementia, and general mortality—so there are several very good reasons to examine rhythm disorders more closely!

What do you consider to be your research career’s greatest achievement?

I consider the RACE studies to be my greatest achievement. When the RACE I was accepted as late breaking trial by the American Heart Association in 2002, I would go on to present the result in a conference room with more than a thousand attendees. Not soon after, the article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine—definitely my greatest success, and I think this is what made my career.

You’re a cardiologist, professor, board member of the European Heart Rhythm Association, do you still have time for hobbies? How do you manage?

Definitely! My mentor taught me to work hard, even at the cost of other things you would like to do, but once you’ve made a deadline or you have submitted an article, then it’s time to relax. This is pretty much how I treated my initial period as a student of medicine as well—a few weeks of hard work, studying for exams, and relaxing once they’re over. Planning my week so that there’s always a day without any cardiology has been and still is important to me as well. Usually that’s Saturdays for me, when that’s possible at least. That planning made it so that I always had time for sports like jogging, though nowadays I mainly prefer walking, cycling, reading, and enjoying good food.


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