Professor of Viral Pediatric Infectious Diseases
‘Ambition has no limits.’
Dasja Pajkrt is a Professor of Viral Pediatric Infectious Diseases, MD PhD MBA and co-founder and Training Director of the ETN-project ORGANOVIR. A European consortium of European universities, government agencies and commercial organisations jointly conducting research into virus infections with the help of human organoids. Young researchers from around the world have been selected for this project and are not only trained to become top scientists but are also offered a personal development programme, by the power of time off, to develop into confident and resilient human beings; leaders of the 21st century.
An important pillar of the personal development programme addresses ‘Purpose and Passion in Life’. I asked Dasja about her motivation and ambitions in life. Prior to the interview, Dasja shared that she wants a really honest, personal story. ‘Not that you think after reading this: I don’t actually recognize Dasja at all’. A frank conversation with an ambitious, positive and joyful woman.
What are the important events in your life that have made you who you are today?
That is a very easy question for me to answer. There is undoubtedly only one event in my distant past that has been incredibly defining for my entire life. It took me a while to realise this, particularly when I was still young, but there has only been one event in my life that has really made me who I am today, and that is my parents’ emigration to the Netherlands. I was one year of age and my sister was three years old. I have absolutely no recollection of this time. My very early childhood is based on the stories told to me by my parents. They left in 1968, three weeks after the invasion of the Russians into Czechoslovakia. Without even saying goodbye to parents, family, friends, we got into our car that was filled with baby diapers and two master’s degree diplomas. This is actually very symbolic. One can start a new life anywhere once you have your diplomas. My mother comes from a very poor family. She is the only one to have studied, and she became an internist. My father was a civil engineer. They had both just finished their degrees. My father had an assignment involving roads and bridges in Austria, so the four of us initially went there and moved to Switserland a couple of days later. Due to a chain of coincidences, all small trivial things, we ended up in the Netherlands. Sometimes life just goes like that. My mother was unable to find a job as a young internist in Switserland. Via a friend, she was able to apply for a training position as a resident in radiology at the Dijkzigt hospital in Rotterdam. There was no money for a babysitter, so my three-year-old sister and I, aged one, were put in the car, the door locked, while my mother visited the professor for her interview. This is how she started studying again and we ended up in the Netherlands. And how my parents started to build a new home and a new life.
Why did you choose to study medicine?
Just like my mother, I wanted to study medicine. To study was actually more important than what I chose to study. My parents have always encouraged my sister and I to be able to stand on our own two feet in order to always be financially independent! You never know what’s around the corner, and you should always try and have your certificates in order should the need arise to build a future elsewhere.
Unlike in the Netherlands, it was already common practice in Czechoslovakia in the sixties to work as a woman. I think this is where my ambition stems from, to encourage women to be independent.
It was absolutely clear to me that I wanted to get my PhD first after my basic medical training. Even before I started my specialization as pediatrician. I have a passion for research. I didn’t have a particularly clear plan though. I knew that I wanted to do research, that I found infectious diseases fascinating and that I didn’t want to do something with older people. I did my PhD on the topic of anti-inflammatories. I was at the forefront of innovative research in new medicines. By injecting part of a bacteria into humans instead of animals, we created a human model to investigate infectious diseases. At the time, and actually even now, this was revolutionary.
I’m curious about new possibilities. Something that has also become very apparent with Organovir. I like to explore boundaries, crossing them if necessary, to investigate further. I like to push the limits and take the status quo to the next level for the most ethical, good quality and effective healthcare possible. Something we also do at Organovir. The use of organoids in virus research can become a whole new research model for the future. My strength is identifying possibilities and not being afraid to step into the unknown.
I look at things from various perspectives, not just through tunnel vision. I think in terms of possibilities and opportunities. Something I dare to do, only because I truly trust in myself. I have faith that if I stumble, I will stand up again and carry on. And I’ve done that a lot, I fall quite regularly. But if you have that confidence, it’s easy to stand up and start moving forward again.
But you should also be aware that I’ve received a lot of blows too. Sometimes you just have to accept your losses. Because the entire process of doing research or discovering new research areas certainly doesn’t always result in success. You certainly shouldn’t give up, because at some point, something will cross your path, and it will be time to take your chance and fly again. And that flying is something I need.
What is your purpose and passion in life?
(When asked whether she also has a higher goal with all that she does, it remains silent for a while). In the hustle and bustle of daily life, it’s not something that you think about every day. I see that things can be done better and faster in healthcare. This is something where I would like to make a contribution. And I also realize that you need more people for this than just the traditional doctors. Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential and interesting.
It’s important to me to let others grow. Within Organovir, within my family and also within my work as pediatrician I find it important to empower people, so they can evolve. Because ambition knows no boundaries. And neither are these boundaries something you should create for yourself. I hope that I can contribute in a small way to broadening people’s horizons, to think and act outside of the box.
And particularly women! There is still so much room for women for self-development and for the development of the family and partner. I think it’s a task for women, to focus on this and highlight the importance of self-development within the family.
I find an ultra-feminine woman in science so incredibly beautiful. If possible, I’d regularly wear high heels at work and nice clothes. But I don’t, because the culture I work in has stifled this way of presenting yourself. Despite this, I do often look explore boundaries. Every so now and then I get faced with comments such as ‘are you going out, or something?’ Believe me, if someone says something like that, I love it! If you’re not careful, all you’re doing is adapting to an image of how you think others want to see you. You lose yourself bit by bit. Don’t! This applies to both women and men, of course.
What skills would you still like to develop?
I consider the development of soft skills incredibly important. Which is why, within Organovir, we pay lots of attention to the personal development programme BeyondU. On a personal level, I think that the sharp edges in my way of communication can be toned down a little further. Calmer, softer.
I’m not a fan of bla-bla. I want to share my vision in a way that’s honest and to the point. Something I want to continue doing. I do sometimes think to myself, ‘Dasja, be a bit more diplomatic’. I’d like to communicate in a way that makes others feel comfortable and increases the impact of the message.
Wisdom to share with us?
Make sure you are confident. If you’re confident, you’ll also dare to go off the beaten track, explore and cross boundaries. You’ll dare to do crazy things in life. In any case, things that aren’t always the norm. Dare to express yourself. Which is easier if you’ve built solid foundations. This is possible if you have wonderful people around you. What has always helped me; If you stumble, get up, roll up your sleeves, and keep going. Don’t be fooled – you can have so much more than you think.
Amsterdam, November 2019.
By Ingrid Valks, the power of time off.
BeyondU is a state-of-the-art personal development programme with live masterclasses and online interactions, guiding key talents to discover new paths for personal growth. Your projects, your company, the people around you can only grow if you grow.
BeyondU is part of the power of time off.
Are you also interested to guide your key talents towards resilient and confident leaders of the 21st century? Please do contact Ingrid Valks at +31651097805 or firstname.lastname@example.org