Below is a interview from Leiden University with Andrea about the Stevin Award.
Congratulations! What went through your mind when you heard the news?
‘I was on the train, on my way to a PhD ceremony in Denmark, when NWO chair Stan Gielen called. I was speechless; my mind went blank. It was only when Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker called that I began to comprehend what it was for. “This prize is also a reward for good collaboration, and that’s something you are very good at,” he said. And it’s true, he had point there: it’s also a prize for our whole team and our many contacts within and outside the University.’
The Stevin Prize is awarded to researchers who have been ‘particularly successful in the field of knowledge exchange and impact on society.’ Why do you think you have been awarded the prize?
‘Impact on society has always been one of my main motivators. I believe that we all want to rise above ourselves in some way or another in our lives, to contribute to the greater whole. I do this by contributing to the most valuable thing that people possess: their health. As I sometimes say, losing a leg isn’t as bad as being unable to deal with losing a leg. But the medical world often focuses exclusively on physical health, which means less attention to the interaction between body and mind.’
And you are trying to shift this focus?
‘Exactly. I am part of a fundamental change that is currently underway in health care. Slowly but surely, we are moving away from the idea that the medicine alone determines the success of the treatment. We have numerous pills for chronic diseases such as diabetes, but despite this more and more people are developing these kinds of disease. About 40% of the Dutch population will contract one of these in their lifetime! The reason? Traditional health care looks too little at behaviour and lifestyle. What are the patient’s expectations of the treatment? How does the doctor treat his patient? Those kinds of things. When this context is crucial.’
Can you give us an example?
‘I do a lot of research into placebo and nocebo effects. Nocebos are side-effects that occur if people have negative expectations of the treatment or medicine. It has been shown that people who read the leaflet about the medicine or ask their GP about side-effects later report more of these. And if doctors say, “this may hurt a bit,” it is very likely that it will actually hurt more. Another communication style can already make a world of difference to the patient. We show that this does not just work for physical symptoms but can also affect the immune system or whether patients are prescribed medicine. But oddly enough, the medical world does very little with this information at present.’
You devote a lot of time to interdisciplinary collaboration, also with partners outside Leiden University. Why?
‘Because I enjoy new challenges. Some colleagues love to immerse themselves in one topic, but I like to always be innovating and to have an impact in other ways. For instance, we will soon be starting a study into stories from the general public about placebo effects, and I have asked artists to visualise the input from the public. And at LUBEC [in Dutch], our new University treatment centre, we combine scientific research with treatments and teaching, which is fairly unique for our discipline. I think that this combination of fundamental research and impact on society is what sets us apart.’
You are also developing a digital self-help tool for people with chronic conditions who are trying to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Could you describe this tool?
‘We are developing this self-help tool with a national consortium that also includes organisations from the public and private sector. Benefit For All is based on the premise that you should reward people for maintaining healthy habits. With this portal, people can save for discounts on trips or products, for instance, depending on what works as the best incentive for them. Lots of partners, such as businesses and insurance companies, like the idea of helping their employees or clients adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle.’
Your colleague Carsten de Dreu won the Spinoza Prize last year, and Eveline Crone the year before that. What makes your institute so special?
‘I think that what makes us unique is this combination of fundamental research and applications in society. This connecting role makes our research extremely attractive because there is always an application just around the corner. In addition, we are given quite a lot of freedom with regard to the content of our research, which leaves a lot of room for creative researchers. This principle of freedom is an intrinsic value in Leiden, a value that attracts a lot of freethinkers to our university. That is why I think Leiden does so well at securing personal grants.’
You will receive 2.5m euros to spend as you please on scientific research. How do plan to spend it?
‘I want to further the options for interdisciplinary research and work on the unique combination of fundamental research together with clinical applications and more impact. This could be at various levels, with other disciplines, but also through collaboration with artists or other partners, for instance. I like to build bridges with partners outside academia so that we can bring our joint activities to a higher level. Only then will our research make a real difference in society.’
About the Stevin Prize
The Stevin Prize is awarded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) to individual researchers or teams of two to three people in the Netherlands that have been particularly successful in the field of knowledge exchange and impact. Researchers must be nominated for the prize. NWO awards up to two of these prizes per year. The laureates each receive 2.5m euros to spend on research and/or activities relating to knowledge exchange and impact.
Source: Leiden University
Text: Merijn van Nuland