Clinical virologist consultant, Amsterdam UMC
‘A scientist may also be human’.
I have agreed to meet with Katja in cosmopolitan cafe-restaurant Dauphine which is located in the former Renault garage in downtown Amsterdam. A cheerful and confident woman enters the room and we instantly have a casual and relaxed conversation.
Katja is a medical microbiologist and virologist MD, PHD. Her current position is staff member clinical virology and Principal Investigator at the Dept of Medical Microbiology of the Amsterdam University Medical Centers. She is also the co-founder and science director of the Marie Curie ITN consortium Organovir.
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 Katja about the meaning of her life.
Your personal story – how did you become you?
Katja’s voice shifts from excited and joyful to soft and loving. Katja tells with love about her parents who got a daughter at a very young age, and about her husband who she already met in high school.
“One thing that has been very important for my development is high school. I went to a small school, a categorical gymnasium in Friesland (a Dutch province). That was a very pleasant, fun, and creative school where I made friends who I am still seeing and that is very important to me. My husband and I also know each other from high school and with that I already determined an aspect of my life. I really love harmony and being together and to share things with close friends.
After high school I went on to study medicine at the University of Groningen. It is not like I’ve wanted to be a doctor my entire life. At school I was interested in a lot of subjects, in particular physics and chemistry but also biology, mathematics and foreign languages. Medicine provides a broad base and because of that I reckoned it would be something for me.
More and more of my friends moved to Amsterdam. At that point I had also gathered contacts there in the academic world. I wanted to expand my horizon. So halfway through my study in medicine I switched to the University of Amsterdam. That turned out to be a much bigger culture shock than I had thought. I ended up in a group of Amsterdam corps members that mostly consisted of students with very wealthy parents. These were students with cars, students who lived on the Amsterdam canals, students for who money did not play a role. That was new to me. It was in many ways the opposite of the middle-class family that I grew up in and my circle of friends who were moving into the new wave and punk music circuit.
In order to fill up the time before my internship I applied at blood bank Sanquin to do research as a student. Nine months of researching. A new world opened up to me. I loved it. This was different from the field of medicine as I had experienced it, where there was no room for self-discovery and where you just had to do what the doctors told you to do, especially for women. I have seriously heard people say things like “girls cannot become surgeons”. That was basically the setting in which I had studied. But at the Blood Bank, I worked with people who did PhD research and then I already knew that this is what I wanted too! Because of the advice of my supervisor there I went back to first finish my medical studies. This turned out to be a valuable advice as many (more) doors open for doctors. Here I came in contact with a pediatrician who did research in cooperation with an American academic hospital. I got a scholarship to do research in the pediatric gastroenterology group. Fortunately my husband fully supported this. Just like that I went to Boston for a year on my own.
In Boston I met one of my current best friends. Once again a very special friendship. I was the “rock-girl” and she was a classy girl with a pearl necklace, but we clicked immediately. Furthermore, in Boston I laid the foundation for my career. For a year I did die-hard laboratory research; molecular biology which was quite new back then. Most medical students didn’t do that at the time. Back home in the Netherlands unemployment was huge, also for doctors. I had acquired my dream job within a month. My resume as a doctor with 1.5 year experience of laboratory research and American recommendations turned out to be very useful. That was when I realized that all the time and effort that I spent to finish my medical studies were more than worth it. I did my PhD research on T cell function and T cell dynamics in HIV-I infection under the supervision of professor Frank Miedema, which resulted in a Science publication. Here I learned a lot and I had also made great new friends.
However, while doing my PhD research I discovered that there is a downside to the scientific world; it is a tough world with killing competition, working together with extremely smart people creates doubt about your own capabilities, and the ongoing struggle to provide money.
When did you connect with something bigger, rose above your ego?
I had finished my PhD, now what? Virology suited me, I realized that soon enough. After all those years I had discovered that I did not miss patient care (standing next to the bed with the patients) at all. I am a true lab-person. I stayed off-the-beaten-path for doctors. I searched for a new challenge. I am very curious. I also look for balance. But I am also somewhat of a philanthropist. That is because of the family that I was raised in, with my young parents who lived very consciously. My mother for example was with the Socialist Women (“Rode Vrouwen”) and was involved with emancipation. I am a bit of an activist myself. I am not someone who stands at the front of the barricades. I want to influence, in a diplomatic way. For example, I was on the student council; I participated in anti-nuclear bomb demonstrations; I was a member of a Female Doctor’s Working Group during my studies; I also did Women’s Studies as a secondary subject (for which I did not receive extra credits). What I think is important about Organovir is that we are working on an innovative animal-free research method. Some people consider me to be an activist because I ask questions about the relevance of data coming from animal research. I am not an extremist, nor am I an animal rights activist. No, I simply ask questions. And in the meantime at Organovir we are working hard on research to develop the best model that can help us figure out how it is possible that certain viruses make people, and especially children, certain children, sick. How does this work and how can we prevent certain groups of children to be infected with certain viruses. And how can we use this information to develop antiviral medicines to stop these infections. In order to stop an infection you need to understand how it works. That is where my fascination for organoids comes from, because those are the best humanoid 3D models that are available. That is my motivation for Organovir. With these humanoid 3D models there are countless new possibilities for the development of antiviral medicines. This is where I connect with something that is so much bigger than myself, for the benefit of improved healthcare.
To whom do you belong? With whom do you have a relationship that sprouts from true love?
I think I was born very lucky. I was raised lovingly by my parents. I have a husband, with whom it is still wonderful to live together and to share a life with. I feel very privileged. I realize that I have so much luck and love in my life. The most love-filled moment of my life is the adoption of our daughter. I have thought a long time about whether or not I wanted children. There are so many people on this planet. Friends who I knew from my time at Sanquin had been in the process of adopting a child and I would sometimes talk with them about it. This made me start to think; what do I actually want? Do I have a desire to give birth to my own child? Then a friend told me that it is not a matter of whether or not you want to want a child of your own. The question is if you want to die without having had any children. For me this was a new perspective and a turning point. I immediately knew it. Yes I want a child, I want a family. Sometimes someone gets on you path to push you in a new direction. For example, I once gave a stranger a tour through Amsterdam. He enthusiastically told me about his daughter and I automatically pictured a woman with this man and their pretty daughter. It was not until the end of the day when we decided to get a drink in a bar that I discovered that his partner was also a man and that his daughter was adopted. That was such an eye-opener to me. In my mind I was struggling with the question whether or not you could love an adopted child as much as you could love your own child. In the eyes of this man I had seen that he loves his daughter so much and that it does not matter if your child is your own or adopted. These are the kind of steps that you take on your own life path. And after a couple of years, in 2005 we made the trip to China to pick up our daughter and bring her home. She is now 16 years old.
How do you use your strengths to serve others?
In 2015 I was stationed in Sierra Leone for 5 weeks. Because of the outbreak of the Ebola virus there was a great need for specialists who could diagnose who was and who wasn’t infected with the Ebola virus. I spent 5 weeks in a laboratory container heading a team of four laboratory trained professionals. Those were not just any ordinary 5 weeks. It felt more like a journey to the moon and back. When you have experienced something like that you are once again grateful for the place where your cradle stood. People in the West can act like they accomplished so much but it is not their achievement to have been born in such a wealthy place.”
In December 2019 Katja was nominated for the VIVA400 awards. This award-show pays special tribute to 400 inspiring and ambitious women who stand out in their field of work. Katja has been nominated in the ‘caretaker’ category for her work on human organoids with the aim of replacing animal models in virus research.
In the personal development programme Beyondu for Organovir, we also focus on the development of soft skills; skills that are essential to thrive as 21st-century leaders. Why is this so important to you?
“I have personally experienced how important it is to employ your soft skills, human skills, to be seen and to be heard and to exert influence in science. I am convinced that soft skills are also beneficial for science and healthcare. It is not the case that it is only good for individuals but it also contributes to creating a better world. The world of science is in a certain way a traditional environment. It is a world with a ton of unwritten rules where gentlemen with grey hair and many publications are in charge. That macho behaviour is very much present in the scientific world. I have always managed to hold my own. Recently there are reports of young scientists with burn-outs, and the other day someone asked me if I had seen that when I did my PHD. I immediately said no, but in fact I don’t know the answer. No attention was ever paid to that. Whenever someone dropped out, it was not discussed at all. I think that it is important for people to be in balance and to know themselves, I really do. I think that it will benefit both your work and yourself, that it helps you to do things better and with less effort. I have had some coaching for this but nothing more. It got me thinking that a structured programme is necessary to get the best out of people.
The academic world stands for learning and knowledge, but personal development and soft skills are not exactly getting any priority right now. In my opinion that can be improved. And we are setting an example with Organovir.
Which soft skills have been helpful to you?
That is a difficult question. I often act out of intuition and that is one of my strengths. However, in the past I did not consider that to be a strength. That was because in my field it is important to articulate and share your goals with words, and whoever is the best in debating wins the battle. That intuition has led to important decisions in my life. I weigh decisions in my head, but the fact that we have ORGANOVIR is born from the intuition that we have to go that way. That is a knowing, based on knowledge and experience. And then I search for words. The ratio is added.
I also find the way in which we treat each other and communication, very important. What really concerns me at the moment is how you express appreciation for your team. How does appreciation work and when do you express appreciation to each other? I do, but more on the basis of intuition and not so consciously. How can you consciously develop this?
What I find very difficult is emotion. I am a passionate person. Emotion has gotten me very far at the start of my career. When I was doing my PhD research I was in a group with a lot of female promovendi and a male boss. Emotion was not a sin there. You could walk into your boss’s office at any time to celebrate something but whenever you felt down and you started to cry then he would also be there for you. I never had another boss like that! However, before you left his office there was always the message ‘stand up and fight!’. So no matter how angry or sad you were, you had to stand up and fight. That became my motto. When I moved to a different work environment I had a very different kind of boss. He was a huge macho who everyone was afraid of. So there my motto was very useful: Stand up and fight! That was possible because I had learned it.
In yet another work environment I did not get far with ‘stand up and fight’. There it was nothing but sailing in political boats. The only emotion that I could show here was friendliness. I call it ‘smiling and waving’ but in reality this did not really suit me.
Which soft skills do you want to give (more) attention?
What stands in my way the most is that I am good at stand-up and fight; by content. But I don’t think I can stand up well enough for my own position. I find it difficult to claim space, to claim visibility. It soon feels like bragging to me. As a result I keep myself smaller than I am in reality. I would like to be able to claim more space and to get a better position for myself. Organovir is also a process for me to learn to increase visibility, for the consortium and also for the people behind Organovir, including myself. I’m looking for a new slogan. Stand up and … anyone a suggestion?
With Organovir we want to show that in the world of science it is also okay to laugh and to smile. It is not necessary to act tough from an ivory tower. As a scientist you are also allowed to be human.
Which wisdom do you want to share with us?
Do what feels good. Follow your intuition, also in the world of science and doctors. Learn to listen to your inner compass.”
With many thanks to Katja Wolthers, MD, PhD, co-founder and Science Director of the Maire Curie ITN consortium ORGANOVIR.
Amsterdam, January 2020.
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.
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