The Scientist: Marius de Leeuw

Marius de Leeuw studied math and physics at Utrecht University. Afterwards, he worked as a postdoctoral researcher at consecutively the Albert-Einstein-Institute, ETH Zurich and, currently, the University of Copenhagen.

What made you decide to go into research?

I went into research because from a young age I wanted to know how things work. I liked reading science books and I loved mathematics and physics in high school. It was therefore an easy choice for me to study math and physics in university. After that, I knew I wanted to go into research and work on open problems. It is fun and interesting to work on problems that no one knows how to solve and to try to make sense of them.

What is your area of study?

My field of study is theoretical physics. I work on theories that aim to describe nature at the smallest distances. At the moment I am working on so-called holographic models. These are quantum models (such as a model with photons, the fundamental particles of light) that have an alternative description via a model of gravity. My work is purely mathematical and theoretical. I try to find equations that describe these holographic models and use them to do computations. One of the questions I am trying to address is how to describe systems with strong interactions. Examples of such systems are superconducting materials and interactions between the building blocks of matter (quarks). Strongly interacting systems are not well understood at the moment and are relevant for experiments such as those performed at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

What is the result that you are most proud of so far?

The work I am most proud of has led to our understanding of symmetries in certain holographic models. It turns out that you can already learn a lot about models by only looking at what symmetries they have. To visualize this, consider rotating a square by 90, 180 or 270 degrees. Each of these rotations will give you the same square back. This is a symmetry of the square. Similarly, some holographic models have lots of more general symmetries. I found that these symmetries are of a new type. This discovery helped to compute observables, like particle energies.

What is the hardest thing about being a researcher?

There are two difficult things about being a researcher. The first thing is research related and it is the fact that you get stuck a lot. This often happens when solving a problem with which you simply do not know how to proceed. You feel like nothing you are trying is working and this can be very frustrating. To make matters worse, it sometimes happens that you are trying to find solutions that don’t even exist. In these circumstances, it can be hard to stay motivated. I generally try to solve this standstill by talking with colleagues to get some fresh ideas or by temporarily  working on another problem instead.

The second difficult thing is more related to the job of being a postdoc. In physics, if you want to get a permanent position at a university, it is important to have significant research experience abroad. This means you have to do several postdocs. A postdoc contract usually lasts for two years, after which you need to try to find another postdoc. So, for a long time you only have temporary contracts and have to move between countries every two years. This can be stressful, since you don’t have any job security, and makes it hard to build a social life. Moreover, in theoretical physics there is a lot of competition, so getting a postdoc (let alone a permanent position) can be very hard.

What do you enjoy most about doing research?

What I enjoy most about doing research is working on the cutting edge of science. You’re trying to solve problems that have not been solved before and to understand more and more of the workings of the universe. It is a great feeling when you understand something new or finally crack a difficult problem. Thus, although doing research can be hard and challenging, it is also rewarding and very inspiring, which motivates me to continue doing it.

The Scientist: Silvia Proietti

­Silvia Proietti got a Marie Curie fellowship to perform a post-doc at Plant-Microbe Interactions at Utrecht University in 2013. She recently returned to her home country and is now a senior post-doc and lecturer in Biochemistry and Bioinformatics at the University of Tuscia, Italy. There, she will start her own research line.

 What made you decide to go into research?

I like to answer quoting Albert Einstein: “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder”. Ever since I was a child, I found it exciting to be outdoors admiring the scenery, trying to learn as much as I could about the things around me. When I was in high school I was impressed when learning that the tiny cells we are all made off, have very intricate and complex machinery inside of them. This drove me to choose to study molecular biology at university. At university, I saw that new things were discovered all the time. This made me want to be part of the action, to make a contribution that would improve our world. Ever since then, I cannot think of anything else I would rather do than doing science.

What is your area of study?

I study the cross-talk between plant defense hormone signaling pathways. Like humans, plants make hormones that function in many plant processes, such as development and immunity. Cross-talk between these hormones allows different hormone signaling pathways to inhibit or activate each other, allowing a plant to flexibly tailor its adaptive response to a variety of environmental cues. As mentioned, I study this crosstalk in the context of a plant’s response to pathogen attack. The plant defense hormones salicylic acid, abscisic acid and jasmonic acid play a central role in the regulation of plant immune responses against these attacks. My current interest is to understand the effect of salicylic acid and abscisic acid on the jasmonic acid pathway and to discover the regulators that mediate this effect. I believe that my results will not only provide novel knowledge about plant immunity, but will also help to develop new resistant crops by rewiring hormonal signaling pathways.

What is the result that you are most proud of so far?

After having performed a very complex and tough bioinformatics analysis, I found new potential regulators of the hormone crosstalk that I’m studying. Later on, I was able to show that these regulators are involved in plant defense against pathogens and pests. This proved to me that it will be valuable to pursue my studies on their mechanism of action. Moreover, thinking about my previous research focus, I’m proud to have characterized a plant defense protein that has a strong activity against plant and human fungal diseases. This defense protein could open new doors for using plant proteins in the medical field.

What is the hardest thing about being a researcher?

I think one of the hardest  things in science is accepting that a lot of research takes a very long time before you make progress towards understanding how things work. It is not unusual that years and years of work have to be done before the results can be published. This can cause some frustration and demotivation! In addition, as a researcher working at a university you have to deal with the fact that in academia there are mostly temporary contracts. Unfortunately, during my career I have seen many excellent scientists who have been forced out of the field because of a lack of funding or stability. This is very sad.

What do you enjoy most about doing research?

The basics of doing research are very simple. You think outside the box about something of which we do not know how it works. Then, you can ask a simple question about this something, think of a way to answer it, and perform experiments to find out if your theory is right or wrong. Both this seemingly easy and logical basis, and everything else that comes in between or around it, is exciting and makes me love to be a researcher. The idea that my research can impact the current knowledge in a significant way, in addition to being useful for the entire society is a good motivation to continue doing this job in the best way that I can. Moreover, sharing ideas, discussing results and building collaborations with other researchers, thereby often getting in contact with other cultures, also enriches my personal life.

The Scientist: Eline Verbon

Eline Verbon, me!, is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

What made you decide to go into research?

My interest for doing research was not kindled by work in the lab. Instead, I became interested when writing research proposals for two courses during the final year of my undergrad. I loved the curiosity- and creativity-driven process of writing these proposals. When I later started doing research in a laboratory, I continued enjoying the thinking behind the experiments and the process of interpreting the results. That was when I decided to try to continue doing research.

What is your area of study?

I study the interaction of plant roots with bacteria naturally present in soil. The bacteria I study induce plant growth and resistance against disease and are therefore promising agents to increase crop yield. I am interested to know what happens in the root upon colonization by a bacterium on the molecular level. I believe that knowing this is both cool in itself – we will know more about cross-kingdom communication! – and will ultimately contribute to using bacteria in agricultural settings as a replacement for pesticides and/or fertilizers.

What is the result that you are most proud of so far?

Right now, among other things, I am working on a project with people in the USA. We are trying to find out how plants change the expression of their genome – the DNA that carries the genetic instructions of all processes in a cell and thus in an organism - in response to bacteria. While we are not done with the analysis, I am already very proud of this project. We have worked really hard to gather these data and the data looks promising.

What is the hardest thing about being a researcher?

It can be tough that the relevance of my work is not always immediately clear: I am not building a house, curing a patient or helping people with their finances. Sometimes I work on a project for weeks or months and it turns out it does contribute to the bigger story. On the other hand, the freedom to do what feels right and the uncertainty of what will be found is also what makes doing research great.

What do you enjoy most about doing research?

I love discussing my results with other people, both with colleagues and with my students. These interactions very often lead to new ideas and insights and make me all the more enthusiastic about what I am doing.