24 June 2020
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BBMRI.nl interview series: Eline Slagboom

In order to showcase the variety of work in BBMRI.nl, we dedicate special news items to BBMRI.nl investigators. We ask them about their work for BBMRI.nl. What excites and challenges them the most, especially during the present COVID-19 pandemic? And how do they see the future for our activities?

We spoke with Dr. P. Eline Slagboom, professor of molecular epidemiology at the Leiden UMC in The Netherlands and a board member of BBMRI.nl.

What is your job title and what does your day-to-day job imply?
I am professor of molecular epidemiology and heading a group of 40 people with the same name at the LUMC. My day-to-day activities vary but I usually discuss results from our research, edit papers, think about novel research, give lectures and teach students and partake in committees to strategize on larger projects, among others.

What is the focus of your work within the BBMRI.nl project?
Within BBMRI I mainly work in work package 2 which is about generating, sharing and analysing molecular data of any type in cohort and patient based studies. We are heavily involved in trying to get people together to work on different data sets, publications and making facilities work, so that everyone can access data sets under the right conditions in order to have bigger datasets and more robust answers. Another goal is to adapt to changes such as the GDPR, novel assays, or novel situations such as the COVID-19 outbreak and turn that into useful science for the community.

My part of this work focuses on a specific cohort study – I am PI of the Leiden Longevity Study and study ageing and longevity.

How does this relate to your other work/projects/activities?
With my PhD students we combine molecular data with the risks that older people develop during their lives for functional decline, disease and mortality. We show younger people in workshops how valuable it is to share data and how much more we can learn about people by doing so. In lectures I teach students, scientist and public audiences about factors determining and marking the (un)healthy ageing process and specific problems in older age. I always include illustrations on how specific programs such as BBMRI.nl can help make data more accessible, findable and usable for health research.

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?
I like to brainstorm with my colleagues and share experiences, thoughts or documents on hypotheses and best practices concerning various issues that deal with novel (COVID-related) research. Exchanging information with other researchers is both inspiring and helps to overcome the hurdles of small studies and solitary actions, and will improve scientific robustness.

What is challenging about your work?
We have to invent novel research, find the budget, the study participants, scientific staff, represent the research to the experts, the public and teach students. I have to be on top of science if I am to be of use to people.

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of data sharing and health research?
The complexity of humans is that every life course is totally unique and personal. For the overall state of your health when you age, everything could matter. You get the best science if you share data to get the best overview of what happened and what is likely to happen to people over their lives.

What makes BBMRI.nl unique in your view?
BBMRI has always focused a lot on sharing data in cohort studies and we published an impressive number of papers together on the molecular studies. With a situation like the COVID-19 outbreak you see how necessary it is to have a national organization of patient data from hospitals combined, if required, with population based data.

Which BBMRI.nl product or accomplishment would you highlight as deserving more attention, and why?
Well, I think we made a lot of progress for a relatively limited budget when compared to international biobanking initiatives. We accomplished a lot in BBMRI.nl which is illustrated by the many publications in renowned journals and the number of international users of the resources we created. In terms of specific results, I am proud that we started in 2013 to generate the same metabolomics data in 30.000 participants in over 20 biobanks and created health scores from this data.

How do you foresee the future for the BBMRI.nl activities?
You need the organisation of cohorts and clinical population to be connected as good as possible along the life-course across the globe. Especially if you want to tackle bigger problems such as the obesity and infectious disease pandemics or ageing societies. If consortia such as BBMRI and Health-RI in the future are able to combine data from different cohorts to cover the life course of people that would be very useful for science.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work?
On the 12th of March I went home and I did not visit the lab for almost 3 months! I was never away for so long except for the two times I’ve been on pregnancy leave! All in all in my professional world the biggest impact is on the students and on people with small children.  And for me it is hard to inspire my group in the online environment as good as when having discussions face-to-face.

How have you adapted to the new circumstances created by the pandemic?
For me adaptating meant organizing all my communications. Communication through online channels is not as inspiring. More focus, less fun and out of the box thinking. 

What newly emergent opportunities do you see as created by the present COVID-19 pandemic?
I can see that I can organise a part of my work more efficiently now since I am working from home. Actually, I would happily work from home a couple of days a week even after the crisis.

In case of new opportunities, can you explain?
This past period has shown how immensely important it is for Health-RI, for instance, to be able to provide the safe environment to share data while respectfully considering privacy issues.

Read the full interview here.