Dr. Marieke Kuijjer’s research focuses on solving fundamental biological questions through the development of new methods in computational and systems biology. Her research also focuses on implementing these techniques to better understand gene regulation in healthy tissues, and also in diseases such as cancer.
Here she shares some insight into her career to date.
How did you get interested in research in the first place?
I’ve always really enjoyed solving problems, and after high school I studied mathematics for a while. However, I soon realized that it was much more rewarding to solve problems that can actually help others, rather than solving the more ‘abstract’ puzzles that you find in mathematics.
I had always really enjoyed the beauty of biology, and that then became my focus. It’s so complex and it’s always changing. It’s a whole new world – almost a like a fantasy one, but it’s real. Whenever I learn one thing, there’s always something else to learn and that’s something I love.
Can you describe your research in a nutshell?
My research focuses on developing tools to model how genes are regulated by other factors in the cell, in so-called ‘gene regulatory networks’. I then work to develop methods to integrate these networks with other data types, such as cancer mutations.
I have a background in cancer biology, and I’m particularly interested in using the tools I develop on large-scale cancer datasets to better understand what drives cancer, and to hopefully identify new treatment options. The ultimate hope is to find new targets for treating cancer sub-types, or to help find solutions for those patients who are perhaps not responding very well to their current treatment.
How do you see your group growing over the next year? Who are you hoping to recruit?
I would really like to have a team with different scientific backgrounds; I hope to recruit one candidate with a computational background and one with a background in biology - I’ll start by recruiting one PhD student and one postdoc.
In early 2019 my group will also be joined by a postdoctoral fellow visiting from Leiden University Medical Centre, whom I will be co-supervising. I’m also hoping to find undergraduate and Master’s students who are interested in projects in computational biology.
In terms of my lab set-up, it’ll be primarily a dry lab (much like the Mathelier Group at NCMM) but in the future I might work on validations in collaboration with other groups, so will potentially do some ‘wet lab’ work. I also hope to build up some collaborations with other researchers in Oslo, such as the Institute for Cancer Research at Oslo University Hospital. I previously collaborated with some researchers there when I was a graduate student, and I’d be really excited to try and work with them again.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you joined NCMM?
Before NCMM, I was a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Chan School of Public Health in Boston. During my postdoctoral fellowship I developed several methods to analyse and integrate `omics data. I built a tool to model how miRNAs regulate their target gene expression; a tool that helps cluster tumour samples based on their mutations; and a method to model gene regulation for individual patients. I then applied these methods to large datasets, including data from cell lines, healthy individuals, and cancer patients.
Before that, I was a graduate student in the bone pathology group of Leiden University Medical Centre. I studied genomics of bone cancer by analysing and integrating different `omics data types.
What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?
That would be my first publication! I had just joined the lab at Leiden University as a PhD student, and was analysing some data from a large European cohort. I found a signal from genes involved in the immune system which was associated with metastasis-free survival in osteosarcoma. Interestingly, part of this dataset had been analysed before, but the immune system genes had been filtered out because they weren't initially thought to be drivers of cancer.
As a student who had just started, I was able to take a fresh look at this dataset. I found that the immune system genes (in particular, genes expressed by macrophages), were important in protecting against metastasis in osteosarcoma. When I presented my results at a conference, a group who had additional experimental evidence for my finding got in touch, and we were able to team up to write a manuscript which was published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21372215)
What impact would you like your work to have on your field of research?
For some cancers, specific targets for treatment have been identified. However, for a large percentage of cancer patients, understanding their tumour’s genomic alterations doesn’t help us in identifying new treatment options. Likewise, some patients first respond to targeted treatment, but then relapse because they develop resistance.
I hope that integrating multiple `omics data types, using a systems approach, will help us to better understand what drives cancers. Finding specific alterations that can be treated will help to give us answers on why some patients relapse and others don’t. I also hope to better understand the general mechanisms of how gene and protein expressions are being regulated, and to be able to integrate more data types into the methods I am developing.
What are you most looking forward to about living in Norway?
I am really excited about breathing the crisp and clean Norwegian air! I enjoy living in the city, but don’t enjoy smog or hot and humid weather, so it’s great to be able to live in Oslo but still access green spaces so easily.
I also very much support the Norwegian way of life; I think the culture here, and aspects like their welfare system are really wonderful. It’s nice to live in a country that aligns with my own values. And I’d love to see the northern lights!