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New Professor Hanneke Hulst is a team player

Hanneke Hulst has held the new Leiden chair in Neuropsychology in Health and Disease since 1 September. From 1 January she will also be chair of the Health, Medical and Neuropsychology (HMN) unit. ‘HMN is my new base. I’m curious to find out about the people who work here, what they do and what motivates them.’

Hanneke Hulst is a true team player. She loves working with other people on scientific questions, educational innovation and recognising and appreciating what is new. In the Amsterdam UMC she put her heart and soul into exploring the research field of people with the brain disorder Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the impact of cognitive problems on their quality of life. ‘Having been part of the close Amsterdam team for 14 years, it was difficult to leave, but it was time for new challenges.’  

In these first few months I’ve already seen so many things that make me happy. Bring it on!

Understanding the healthy and sick brain better

The new professor of Neuropsychology in Health and Disease is inspired by her new colleagues at Health, Medical and Neuropsychology. ‘In these first few months I have already seen so many things that make me happy. There’s Liesbeth van Vliet, for example, with her research on empathy in the doctor’s consulting room, and the effect of empathy on your brain. Or Ineke van der Ham, who combines fundamental science with technological progress on the navigating abilities of people who have brain damage. I’m looking forward to sharing with my new colleagues my passion for the brain and health and taking steps towards a better understanding of the healthy and sick brain, and to implementing these innovative insights in healthcare. Bring it on!’

Photos: Suédy Mauricio

Team science

Hulst is leaving her familiar scientific environment at the top of her game and with an extensive international network. Naturally, she wants to continue along the path that was initiated by her personal motivation – her mother has MS – and where her passion lies. In Leiden, she will pursue her line of research even though MS is (not yet) a focal area here. She will do this in part with the people she worked with in Amsterdam but also with colleagues in Leiden. ‘Science doesn’t stop at the doors of a department, institute or even a university. You acquire the expertise wherever it is. The unique contributions made by different people helps you raise a piece of knowledge to a higher level, so that it has the maximum effect on the patient and the environment.’

‘Working in a team also means investing in the collaboration and learning to speak one another’s “language”. Once you are really in tune with one another, that will have a positive effect on the results and on the creativity of all the members of the team. It is abundantly clear that here the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I’m also happy that the value of Team Science is gaining increasing recognition and that our teamwork was last year awarded a subsidy from the NWA-ORC.’ Her PhD candidate who is joining her in Leiden will also benefit from the move. By working with new colleagues, her research will be fed from a psychology perspective, which might otherwise have been underexposed.’

Broader than MS

Hulst believes it is time to broaden her outlook and study other brain disorders. ‘What are the cognitive functioning of people with epilepsy like? And do we also see changes in the brain after cognitive revalidation in MS equally in people with Parkinson’s?’  As well as studying the sick brain, it is at least as important to understand what is going on in the healthy brain. Here, she sees a possible link with Cognitive Psychology in Leiden. ‘I want to take a broader view on all fronts Hopefully, we are going to learn a lot about brain functions in the coming years. I’m expecting to gain insight into how we can best preserve brain function in people with a brain disease. I’m convinced that preventing cognitive disorders is better than curing them.’ 

Bridge between science and clinic

Something that gnaws at her is the gap that sometimes exists between science and healthcare. We scientists look for answers within a so-called 'research gap'. We are looking for depth and new insights. But we sometimes forget to ask ourselves whether healthcare providers and patients have the same questions. Sometimes they are faced with completely different problems or they look at the same problem from a different viewpoint. Gaining new insights without an immediate application is extremely important for innovation in the longer term. But we mustn’t forget the 'quick wins' for the people who are ill today.

Screening tool

‘One concrete example is the cognitive disorders caused by MS. These affect half of the people who have MS, but they often put the problems down to other causes, such as a busy job or managing a family with small children. It’s only once the problem has escalated that it is brought to the attention of the neurologist. By then, the harm is often done and there are problems at work or in the relationship with the partner. We have a developed a screening tool for the consulting room that will help to identify cognitive problems earlier. This will ensure that the conversation about cognitive disturbances is held in good time, before the situation has escalated. Such a tool will help us provide more targeted care and, above all, improve the quality of life for people with this condition.’

Having had my first meetings with new colleagues, I can say with certainty: I feel at home here.  

Focus on new base

In Leiden, Hulst will seek out the hospital environment at LUMC. She wants to study the clinical pictures of other conditions than MS, explore connections within and outside psychology and set up new partnerships. She also wants to take a broader approach and take steps to implement the new practice of recognition and appreciation of scientists. ‘Theorising is probably part of human nature for scientists, but I also think we should just get on with doing things, so that we gain a good image of the different roles within academia and are better able to recognise and appreciate them, and coach people for the future. It’s a very special feeling for me to be able to play a role in this cultural change. And finally, I hope to share a bit of myself, so that my new colleagues know who it is that’s joined their team and that I’m basically just an OK person. Having had my first meetings with new colleagues, I can say with certainty: I feel at home here.’

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