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Dutch Medicines Days - Rob van Wijk

The smartwatch on my wrist reports >100 bpm. Nervously I dry my hands on my suit while walking on stage. Why doesn’t this pointer work? It’s not a great start of my presentation during the PhD competition at the Dutch Medicines Days in Ede, bordering the Dutch National Park "De Veluwe".

I prepared well and even rehearsed my presentation once more for my colleagues after being selected at the LACDR Spring Symposium. It’s a challenge to reduce three years of PhD research into seven minutes for a broad audience from the full scope of pharmaceutical research – especially when the subject involves an exotic and new model organism: the zebrafish.

Luckily I got a second opportunity to tell my story to someone who had never heard it before – I was invited for my first interview for the DMD edition of Medicines journal. If I can explain my work in this interview, I can do it for the DMD audience as well. And because I received the draft interview beforehand, I got an impression of what messages of my story remained. It can be surprisingly different how you thought your story would get across.
The conference itself was broadly oriented, but within the parallel sessions there was enough possibility to go into more details. These specialised parallel sessions satisfied my interest in pharmacology and computational modelling (especially Aletta Kraneveld on gut-immune-brain axis, and of course the session on the French BIA-trial that went horribly wrong and resulted in a casualty among the healthy volunteers), while the broader and larger audience was served with impressive keynote speakers like Nico van den Brink (pharmaceutical impact on ecology), Emile Voest (personalized medicine as a result from genome and biological context), and Hans Clevers (organoids grown from stem cells).

I was sitting next to a PhD student that worked on the BIA compound analysis immediately after the disastrous trial, which gave an appealing view on the experiments themselves, including the synthesis of the compound from scratch (read: what was available at the chemistry department, which of course didn’t match the patent description).

I decided to skip the evening programme to join my parents, who live close by, for dinner. Unfortunately, one step into their home I was informed we had to reschedule because of an ‘emergency baby sit’ of my two nieces. A lonely night was more than made up for by the message from my brother waiting for me when I woke up, announcing the birth of his third daughter. Great start of the day!

After the lunch break, the PhD competition started, and it’s announced I will be the last of the five candidates to present. Alphabetical order, I’m sure. I’m used to it. The competition itself is high (not jealous of the jury having to make a decision). I was especially impressed by the presentation on the link between raw cow milk and asthma incidence (heads-up: a little dirt is not bad, farm born and raised children have lower risk of asthma). A lot is at stake – this price is a valuable notation on a PhD resumé soon applying for a job or even a grant. But once I reach my slides introducing the zebrafish and its advantages, I forget everything else. Practice (and passion!) pays off and I’m able to bring the key message to the audience and the jury – especially by answering their questions extensively. Twenty minutes later the jury returns with the verdict: First prize!

The second evening programme I’m definitely not skipping: it’s time to celebrate!

Rob van Wijk

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