Brazilian Alexandre Marques started his Global PhD project in January 2022. His view on research? “Every step we take in research gets us closer to the truth”. Let’s delve into Alexandre’s view on life, research and the project he will be working on.
Alexandre is part of a collaboration between the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital. Different from a lot of other PhD students walking around at the LUMC, Alexandre is not a biologist, biomedical scientist or a student of medicine. Rather, he is a statistician. But it’s for this exact reason Alexandre thinks he can bring much to the table. “I think one of the main problems in institutions is that we tend to stick to our own discipline. People do what they do without connecting with each other and each other’s knowledge”, says Alexandre.
Interdisciplinary research; an essential approach to solving modern research problems
Sticking to your own discipline in research is a crucial mistake, as far as Alexandre is concerned. “Even though I’m a statistician, I can use my knowledge to solve some problems in for instance biology and vice versa. Nowadays, we’re dealing with more complex issues that cannot be solved by sticking to your own ‘box’. For example, biologists may be unaware of statistic tools they can use to solve new problems, but by working together with other experts, they can widen their view. And the same goes for me too. An interdisciplinary approach to modern problems helps me broaden my own view and come up with solutions I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about. It’s called ‘uni’-versity for a reason.”
Why this project
It’s for this exact reason Alexandre was so keen to join the LUMC and Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital project. “The LUMC already has this interdisciplinary approach to solve research problems. There’s a mix of great scientists in different fields here, complemented by extraordinary data scientists and other experts. We can all learn from each other. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to meet all these different experts and researchers. It’s why I was so eager to come to the LUMC, because it’s not that easy to find research institutions that approach research the way the LUMC does. Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in turn helps me develop my knowledge as a statistician further. It really makes for a unique and wonderful project.”
Research: a reflection of life itself
“What this experience is showing me is that we’re more equal than we think. Despite Brazil still being more of a developing country than the Netherlands, I can now see that some of the presumed gaps aren’t nearly as big as I initially thought. We both have excellent research groups and as people, we’re more similar than we tend to think. For me it’s an eye opener: I can go back to Brazil and tell other people that there’s something out there, that it’s more attainable to add value in other countries than you think. The LUMC is giving me a chance to break barriers. It’s a good stimulus for doing science and constructing myself as a better human being. So far, being abroad at the LUMC has been a humbling experience. It has already taught me so much about looking beyond my own perspective in research and in life”, Alexandre beautifully states.
Despite gaining interdisciplinary research experience and valuable life lessons, Alexandre is logically working on a research project with a clear goal. Alexandre: “The goal of the project is to develop computational tools to better understand immune responses and vaccination. We approach the research from the development side and by investigating new applications of tools already available. For the latter, we’re trying to determine how we can use already available tools for new issues and what limitations these tools have that we need to address. This combination is important. Developing existing tools revolves around extending the methods of the tools. For developing new tools we create new models and then check where these models can fit.
A concrete example and the necessity for advanced computational tools
I’m currently working on an existing application and see a lot of opportunities to improve it. Usually, we develop a tool for a specific dataset. But now, we want to develop tools that can be applied to multiple datasets. This way, we give someone the means to make comparisons and get answers to several questions. So it needs a generic approach. For example, I’m working on why there’s differences in susceptibility for certain diseases between adults and children, like COVID-19. But we could develop tools to look at differences between two groups from any kind, not just adults and kids. But this is a good example of comparing datasets.
And we need more complex tools, because the way we’re conducting experiments is changing. 20 years ago, research was completely different than it is now. We have so much more possibilities to gather data. Statistical data analysis’ demands are therefore completely different too. Modern data is often too complex for old models. We need to develop these tools to go hand in hand with the complexity of data gathering and complex hypotheses.”
Personal goals and future
It’s safe to say Alexandre has his work cut out for him. It will help him to become a better professional and it will open doors for him in research worldwide. “A PhD is valuable, especially in a fast-growing field like bio-informatics. Learning about this subject can really help my career.” But Alexandre doesn’t dwell on the future, he lives in the moment. “I just try to think about today, tomorrow and perhaps the day after. I just try to do the best I can do today and tomorrow. And right now, that means putting in the work every day to push this research forward.”
The African-European Tuberculosis Consortium (AE-TBC) is an international multisite group of African and European researchers who investigate the use of host biosignatures for the diagnosis of active TB disease. For over ten years, the LUMC groups of Infectious Diseases and Cell & Chemical Biology from Prof Annemieke Geluk and Dr Paul Corstjens respectively, have been partners of the EDCTP consortia for tuberculosis (among which AE-TBC). The AE-TBC recently won the prize for ‘Outstanding Research Team 2020, awarded by the EDCTP.
The Janssen-Cilag International N.V COVID-19 vaccine has received authorization for emergency use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on March 11. Developed with fundamental support from the Molecular Virology group of the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC), it is the fourth vaccine to be administered in the European Union. The Netherlands has ordered more than 11 million vaccine doses.
“This is an achievement in alignment with the mission of VODAN-Africa to generate continuous, real-time, high velocity clinical observational patient data from resource-limited communities that have not been well represented in digital health data. The key feature is that the data produced remains in the health facility only. It will not leave the health facility. Since the data is machine-actionable the input of the data only happens once; in the deployable architecture, the data is used for four parallel use cases” (VODAN to Africa, 2022).