In this series of spotlight items, 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? Today, we share our interview with professor Rudolf de Boer.
You are originally not from Groningen, but what brought you here?
Together with the fact that my parents decided to move to Groningen, I was also selected for the medicine program at the University of Groningen. During my studies I went to Salt Lake City for a 1 year rotation, and this was immediately something that I thought was interesting and had potential for the future. The internship was at a lab and we were working on development of stents and thrombosis. Together with my clinical internships this made me enthusiastic about cardiology. I decided to apply for a research position in different cities and eventually got a position in Groningen. In retrospect, a very fortunate thing to happen!
You are now head of the Experimental Cardiology department, but how did you first get in touch with basic science? Did you have affinity for basic science early on in your career?
Thinking back to my time in medical school, I believe I always was most intrigued by the biological subjects of the studies about physiology or chemistry topics. At some point in time I even considered studying physics. The research project that I started working on during my PhD was one of the first experimental studies performed on apoptosis in heart failure under supervision of Dirk-Jan van Veldhuisen.
You obtained your medical degree and PhD in Groningen, after which you were selected for clinical training to become a cardiologist. Were you, during this trajectory, able to combine clinical training with research?
Combining these two is a difficult task. During my PhD I realized that I wanted to thrive for a career in academia. Therefore, I decided to first do a year of post-doctoral research at Harvard in Boston in the United States. When I returned, I continued my clinical work and was fortunate to receive a grant from the Dutch Heart Foundation. This grant was awarded based on the work I did in the States. With this money I was able to appoint a PhD student, which continued the work in the lab while I was working on my clinical training. This was the first critical phase during which it was a challenge to keep combining research with clinics. The other critical phase I experienced was when I approached the end of my clinical training. When you do not keep on pushing, tend to lose momentum, and –typically- also have other family priorities (kids), the combination can be tough.
How did you transfer from a post-doctoral position to head of the Experimental Cardiology department? What were the timelines?
I finished my clinical training in 2008, back then the Experimental Cardiology research was still performed at the Pharmacology department. One of my mentors, Wiek van Gilst was at the time head of that department. The department ambitioned to set up an independent Experimental Cardiology unit. Those were busy years, finding a lab space, acquiring all the lab materials. Shortly after this period, in 2013, Wiek got appointed an important function for the Dutch Heart Foundation. This was a time-consuming position and resulted in me taking over Wiek’s tasks. Because the department was still new, the function as head of the experimental department was also still relatively new.
‘You will only be a good doctor, if you become better than your supervisor.’
What do you enjoy most of pursuing a career as a physician-scientist?
Being able to balance research and clinical aspects in my job is the part that I enjoy most. There is always something new and days are never the same, adding continuous dynamics to the job. Performing research enables you to travel and get to meet many new people; people in science range from extraordinarily intelligent, to rather eccentric, to a little ‘crazy’, of whom you can learn new things in new places in the world.
How did you develop specific interests in basic science topics and in for example cardio-oncology and PLN?
I believe one of the weaknesses of research in cardiology is that it is difficult to obtain cardiac tissue. Therefore, experimental research is very important in this field. This is in contrast to for example hematological research, which can be done more readily in patients, since there is blood and bone marrow available. My interest in specific diseases is based on their dominance in the clinic, such as diabetes and obesity, but also PLN patients, which we see relatively often in the north of the Netherlands. Being able to study specific mechanisms in an experimental model and then translating this back to the clinic is what is intriguing and highly relevant to the patient.
And lastly, on another note, how do you manage to relax? Spend time with family? Any hobbies?
I enjoy spending time with my family and three kids. Also, I try to maintain my social contacts with friends that go back for years. I do sports and try to stay fit, I used to play basketball, but not anymore. It may sound odd, but I realize my work is more my hobby than for example the stereotypical fishing or birdwatching. I enjoy working in research, have made numerous friends around the globe-it gives me energy and provides me fun. I have recently accepted to become the President of the Dutch Cardiac Society so I will not be bored any time soon.
Finally, do you have one last tip for future physician-scientists?
One of the quotes that stuck with me from during my training; ‘You will only be a good doctor, if you become better than your supervisor.’