Building Partnerships - A Spotlight on the Netherlands

Aug 14, 2020

To celebrate Hartstichting (the Dutch Heart Foundation) joining forces with the British Heart Foundation and the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK), we've turned the Alumni Stories spotlight onto three BHF Alumni based in the Netherlands. Teodora Aldea, Temo Barwari and Emma Robinson tell us about seizing opportunities after leaving their respective BHF labs, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives and work, and their predictions for the future of the research community and beyond. Click on their name to read their story...

> Teodora Aldea, Associate Medical Communications Manager, Excerpta Medica BV - Adelphi Group

> Dr Temo Barwari, Resident Internal Medicine, Academisch Medisch Centrum (AMC)

> Dr Emma Robinson, Postdoctoral Researcher, Cardiovascular Research Institute (CARIM), Maastricht University

The Maastricht skyline at sunset


Dr Teodora Aldea
Dr Teodora Aldea, Associate Medical
Communications Manager, Excerpta Medica BV

Teodora Aldea

Teodora completed a BHF-funded PhD at the University of Edinburgh. She is now Associate Medical Communications Manager at Excerpta Medica BV, in Amsterdam.

Firstly, congratulations on completing your PhD at the University of Edinburgh last year!  What have you been up to since graduating? How did you come to be in the Netherlands?

I’m actually still looking forward to my graduation day, even though it will probably be on Zoom! I was on one of the 3-year BHF PHD studentships so, even though I technically finished the degree a year ago, I had an extra year to write up my thesis. This came in very handy as I got a job offer right after my funding ran out. As I was finishing in the lab, I got recruited on LinkedIn for the position of Associate Medical Communications Manager with Excerpta Medica, based in the Netherlands. After several interviews, and a long weekend in Amsterdam, I decided to make the move and embark on this new adventure.

How has your PhD, and your other roles and experiences, prepared you for your role in medical communications?

My PhD and the experiences outside my PhD have prepared me in very different ways. An MD or a biomedical PhD is pretty much required for jobs in medical communications nowadays, since being able to understand and discuss clinical data in depth is essential. But the science is only part of the job. Communication – whether it's client management, working with different departments within your organization, or the dynamic within your own team – is very important. Luckily, I was able to draw from several other experiences in this area, such as my work for different student newspapers and magazines, and my involvement in fundraising and science-related events.

Tell us about the challenges, and opportunities, that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought you and your colleagues at Excerpta Medica.

We've had our share of challenges like any other business. Most medical education activities (especially sponsored by pharma clients) are organized around large international congresses, and medical societies have had to either cancel events or transform them into virtual meetings in a very short time span. Where large meetings went virtual, industry-sponsored events had to follow suit and adapt quickly. We, in turn, had to adapt to meet client expectations. Luckily, our business model and dedicated teams made it easy to transition and deliver high-quality projects from our gardens and kitchen tables.

What's the importance of partnerships like the DHF-BHF-DZHK partnership to the research community and beyond?

I think it's a brilliant initiative, not only from a financial angle, but also because it will foster collaboration between the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. I think the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how far we can propel research when countries work together to address medical issues. Scientists from different backgrounds and institutions inevitably bring different perspectives to the table, and I think it is these differences that foster innovation.

Looking ahead, in what ways do you think things will be different for the research community, and those in related spheres?

I think things will be slow for a lot of researchers in the coming months (or even years). COVID-19 has set everyone back in one way or another, and scientists are no exception. Even though COVID-19-related research picked up very quickly and delivered a lot of informative results, research on other diseases has lost a lot of ground. Lockdown has disrupted research continuity, plans for publication and funding. Moreover, COVID-19 management in hospitals across the world has pushed back, or enforced changes to, clinical trials. I think it will take some time for things to balance out but I also believe we have learned a lot from the past few months – most of all, how to adapt.


Dr Temo Barwari
Dr Temo Barwari, Internist, Amsterdam
University Medical Centre

Dr Temo Barwari

Dr Barwari was a BHF-funded PhD student and Postdoctoral Research Associate at King's College London.  He's now an internist at the Amsterdam University Medical Centre.

You joined us at our event for alumni and friends in Utrecht in March 2019, a lot has happened in the meantime, what have you been up to since then?

Since my transition back to the Netherlands, I have started my clinical training as an internist at the Amsterdam University Medical Centre. I currently work in a general medicine ward in a teaching hospital just outside of Amsterdam, focusing on infectious diseases, endocrinology, vascular disorders as well as haematology and oncology, whilst also doing shifts in the A&E department. In addition, I have temporarily worked in a clinic focusing on bariatric surgery, where my role consisted of assessing eligibility for surgery as well as managing postoperative endocrine and gastrointestinal problems.

Tell us about your hospital work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the challenges and opportunities you’ve been faced with during this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a major shift of clinical practice during the March-April peak. Our hospital quickly formed a determined COVID-19 ward, staffed by our team but complemented with staff from other departments. I was most struck by the incredible sense of solidarity and inventiveness across the hospitals, and within the healthcare system as a whole, undergoing a major logistic transformation to cope with the shift in patient flow. It attested to a great sense of resilience and determination amongst hospital staff. All in all, I was happy to be working in the Netherlands where the virus spread was relatively well-controlled. I am also very glad that we avoided a ‘code black’ scenario, which would have involved making horrifying choices about life and death.

What’s the importance of partnerships like the DHF-BHF-DZHK partnership to the research community and beyond?

A major lesson for the future is the importance of international collaboration, especially within Europe, where our communities are highly interwoven. I am still very grateful to the BHF for providing me with the opportunity to pursue a PhD in the UK, as well as enabling me to work as a postdoc at the BHF Centre at King’s College London. This allowed me to be part of a multicultural research environment that I couldn’t have found anywhere else. To me personally, these years have emphasised the benefit of working with people from various backgrounds, which I believe really enriches the work that is being done. One of the pitfalls that became evident during the pandemic within Europe was the discrepancy between expert analyses and imposed measures across countries. Conflicting advice from neighbouring countries certainly weakened the motivation across the general population to adhere to imposed measures, such as the use of face masks. The lack of proper fundamental research due to the fast spread of COVID-19 obviously impeded evidence-based policy making, but I believe that closer collaboration across different countries, and more dedicated funding, would lower the threshold for large-scale, multinational research. This would greatly support the uniformity and scientific basis of healthcare across Europe.

Looking ahead, in what ways do you think things will be different for the research community?

In the short term, the pandemic will continue to draw a lot of attention to vaccine development and clinical or translational evidence for optimal treatment of COVID-19 infections. However, for the long term, I hope that the pandemic will kickstart collaboration across universities and countries. Funding opportunities for international research projects would certainly facilitate this, as there is already a great willingness amongst research groups to collaborate internationally.


Dr Emma Robinson
Dr Emma Robinson, Postdoctoral
Researcher, CARIM, Maastricht University​​

Dr Emma Robinson

Dr Robinson completed her Masters and pre-doctoral research in a BHF-funded lab at the University of Cambridge. She's now a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Cardiovascular Research Institute (CARIM) at Maastricht University. Follow Emma on Twitter.

What have you been up to since you left the BHF-funded lab at the University of Cambridge, in 2012?  How did you come to be in the Netherlands?

After completing my pre-doctoral research with Roger Foo in the BHF-funded Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, I moved to The Babraham Institute to carry out my PhD research under Llewelyn Roderick. Two years into my PhD, Llewelyn left Cambridge to take up a Professorship at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. I considered trying to wrap up my PhD research quickly and remain in the UK. However, we were in the middle of some novel research into the molecular basis of how the heart ages and the similarities and differences to cardiovascular disease. I didn’t want to quit this part-way.

And so I moved with my supervisor to Belgium in 2015! It was the best decision I ever made, both for my research career as well as personal development.

During the three years I spent at KU Leuven, I started collaborating with Stephane Heymans. At a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Italy in 2017, Stephane and I discussed scientific direction and possibilities on the banks of Lake Como, and he suggested a postdoctoral research position with him in Maastricht.

Taking risks and grabbing opportunities, as well as being open to meeting new people, led me to my research post here in Maastricht. It showed me that I should always be open to change and new challenges, even if it seems daunting at the time.

Have you maintained links with the British Heart Foundation and BHF-funded researchers?

In Roger Foo’s lab, I discovered my drive and passion for understanding the molecular basis of how environmental risk factors can influence and regulate genes in the heart, leading to cardiovascular disease. Ten years later, we continue to work together, including having joint research grants and scientific exchanges.

Dr Emma Robinson and colleagues in Singapore
Roger Foo (front row, second from right) and Emma (centre) with
colleagues in Singapore in 2019

I have also maintained links to BHF-funded researchers Anthony Davenport and Janet Maguire in the Department of Experimental Medicine and Immunotherapeutics, who are using heart tissue removed from patients during heart transplantation to understand more about what goes ‘wrong’ in gene regulation in end-stage heart failure.

Tell us about the challenges, and opportunities, that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought you and your research colleagues.

This time has been unexpected and difficult for everyone, and we have all had to adapt quickly. Fortunately, I was at a point in my research when I had a lot of data to analyse and write up, which I could do at home. After 8 weeks we could apply for permission to go in for essential lab experiments, with distancing measures in place. This has been safe and manageable. For our graduate students, trying to complete their doctoral research with limited time left on their contract, this was more stressful.

For many researchers, it’s the future we’re more concerned about. Most fundamental and translational research into the biggest global health challenges is publicly funded through charities or governmental funding bodies. The COVID-19 crisis has required a huge influx and redirection of public financial provisions worldwide. There is still a lot of uncertainty as to how these funding bodies, as well as charities, will recover.

I have been applying my knowledge, and using existing data, to understand the acute and long-term consequences of COVID-19 infection on the cardiovascular system. We are already routinely taking and storing blood samples and heart tissue from cardiovascular patients. We have extended this practice to patients with COVID-19. Colleagues are using these samples to understand more about the pathophysiology of COVID-19, to search for blood-based diagnostic tools and monitor long-term effects on the cardiovascular system.

The pandemic has brought the importance of biomedical research to public attention. I hope this situation has highlighted the importance of scientific research to policy-makers and political parties. 

What's the importance of partnerships like the DHF-BHF-DZHK partnership to the research community and beyond?

In these changing times, COVID-19 related and otherwise (a nod to Brexit), collaborative cooperation between researchers, institutions and funding bodies is more important than ever. No researcher, or even research group, is an island. Bringing together cross-European expertise from different disciplines to tackle the major gaps in cardiovascular disease seems an optimal strategy to hasten advances in understanding, and in patient care. 

I have seen how well this works in the Netherlands, where a lot of cardiovascular research is funded by the Dutch Heart Foundation through national multi-institutional consortia. Extending this to international consortia with pooling of financial resources, especially now, will be an effective way to conduct excellent, impactful research. I hope it will be the start of further research partnerships between UK funding agencies and institutions, and those on the European ‘continent.’

Looking ahead, in what ways do you think things will be different for the research community?

I believe we will travel less, do as much as possible remotely and work from home more than ever before. However, I’m concerned about trying to convert too much to a digital format. Nearly all of my research collaborations, as well as employment opportunities, came about through somewhat unpremeditated interactions and discussion at conferences. Sharing the latest data and information, both with researchers with whom you already work, and with those you do not, is where novel ideas stem and innovation happens. These face-to-face networking opportunities are crucial for career development. I hope scientific conferences and meetings will be able to resume, safely, soon.

What’s next for you?

I’m moving a little further afield – I will continue my research into novel gene regulatory mechanisms underlying cardiovascular disease with Tim McKinsey at the University of Colorado in the United States! I now have a bug for travel, discovering new places, experiencing different research environments and meeting new people. This is such a wonderful privilege and opportunity in my profession.


Find out more

News

'Four million euros of European funding to tackle heart and circulatory diseases', BHF News, 5 August 2020

Hartstichting (the Dutch Heart Foundation)

The German Centre for Cardiovascular Research (DZHK)

Organisations

Excerpta Medica BV

Academisch Medisch Centrum (AMC), Amsterdam

CARIM, Maastricht University

Researchers

Roger Foo, Senior Consultant and Professor, National University of Singapore

Llewelyn Roderick, Professor, KU Leuven

Stephane Heymans, Professor of Cardiomyopathies and Head, Centre for Heart Failure Research, Maastricht University

Anthony Davenport, Professor of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, University of Cambridge

Janet Maguire, Senior Research Associate, University of Cambridge

Tim McKinsey, Associate Professor & Director, Consortium for Fibrosis Research & Translation, University of Colorado


Other news