Meet Our Expert is our newest interview series where you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Ellen opens up about her childhood, talks about her studies and discusses about her recent transition from the academic to the commercial world. She also elaborates on the current challenges within the cancer diagnostics field and how our revolutionary tool helps fill that void. Besides, Ellen also gives a glimpse into our work culture and describes her personal experience at Cergentis so far!
What was your childhood like?
I grew up together with my twin sister in Nijkerk, where we lived for like 13 years or so. Nijkerk was a nice neighborhood as there were many same-age children and we used to always play outside when we were little. We actually never watched television in the morning, like kids would maybe normally do. Whenever someone would ask me “have you ever watched Barbapapa?” or whatever children television program, I would say “I have no clue what you are talking about” [laughs].
Then, we moved to Amersfoort when we turned 13, for (junior) high school. Again, growing up, I was always together with my sister!
What did you decide to study after high school?
My sister and I started our biomedical sciences studies in Utrecht. After my bachelor’s, I could become a technician. But at some point, I decided that I wanted to do a bit more. So, I went on to do a research-based master’s in oncology in Amsterdam. That was also the time when my sister and I stopped going to the same school.
After that, I continued with a PhD in Leiden, which was on translational gynecologic oncology. That, I really enjoyed! The research was focused on how to implement molecular characteristics in clinical pathology and diagnostics. But I was also curious to study why these markers were prognostic and their underlying mechanisms. After my PhD, I was looking for a post-doc position at Oxford University and wanted to continue staying in the same field. I was planning on staying there for 1 month to find a group, but I already flew back to Utrecht within the first week for an interview at the UMC Utrecht. It was for a postdoc position on ovarian cancer research. At that point, I didn’t know that I would ever leave academia! But then, last year, I decided that it was time for something different and decided to come to Cergentis.
How did you come to choose biomedical sciences as your major at university?
Back then, there were like crime scene investigation shows on television, which of course are nice to watch! So, there was this Forensic Science study in Rotterdam that I was interested in, but it had just started. Since it was going to be the first year [of the program], I decided that it might not be the best to go there after all, because then you will always be the “test subject”. Also, I decided to go for something broader, something less specific. That’s why I decided to do biomedical sciences in the end.
I also went to the Open Day here in Utrecht. The university was in the Wittevrouwen neighborhood, in a beautiful building known as “Het Ooglijdersgasthuis”. It was a very small study, only focused on life sciences and chemistry, with only a few hundred students. I really liked the small-scale interaction! That’s why I decided to go to Utrecht. So yes, I wanted to study science mostly due to the detective series/shows on TV [laughs].
Well actually, being a twin, we together with our parents were then already for a long-time part of this Netherlands twin registry (NTR). Which is quite large. So, every now and then, you participate in lifestyle survey studies. And that of course, always triggers you to do research as well.
I recently learned that you already had a bit of exposure to a commercial setting early on during your education! Was that a deliberate choice, in terms of helping to better decide your future career path?
Yes, so my studies really recommended us to do one internship in an academic setting and one in a commercial environment. Since it was only a recommendation, most students ended up staying in academia. But I decided to try it out, to see how industry would be and if I would like it. Although I only stayed in academia afterwards, TNO was definitely not the reason why I decided not to continue in industry! Indeed, I really enjoyed my internship there!
During your studies, you had the opportunity to go abroad! Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Yes, during that time, my sister went to Rome for her internship, and I decided to go to London. That experience was really nice! It was also great to be there at that time because London was also hosting the Olympic games and celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee! So, there was a lot going on in London that year!
I really wanted to go to the UK because of the language. I didn’t want to go to any other countries because you will always have this language barrier. Also, my English was not that great and I wanted to improve it. So, I decided to go to the UK, for those reasons.
On top of that, I wanted to do something with oncology, cell lines and fundamental research. Back then, I had heard that some of the former students [from the same studies] had previously gone to Imperial College. So, it was easy to make connections there. It turned out to be a great experience!
How did your transition to Cergentis come about?
I was already working for 3 or 3.5 years as a postdoc at the UMC Utrecht, and our PI left to industry at some point. Because the PhD students [in that lab/group] had either recently graduated or were about to finish up their last project, they were also busy planning their next career step. So, I thought, “maybe it’s time to change to something else!”
I already knew a little bit about Cergentis because a colleague at the UMCU had worked on a similar technology to detect gene fusions and translocations in paraffin-embedded tumor samples, or in limited sample materials, with a targeted approach.
Also, because I worked solely with paraffin-embedded tissue samples during my PhD, I know how challenging these samples can be. That’s also another reason why I decided to join Cergentis, because I know that its technology can really add something!
I also knew that Cergentis was a nice and small company but that it was growing.
Then, I saw a nice Product Developer position online last year around November/December. I thought that it would be nice to stay in the lab, on the R&D side. Something close to the academic world, and something that I was familiar with, since my experience was completely lab-based. But Erik (CTO) emailed me back and told me that the position was already filled. But he also told me that he liked my CV and that they might have another vacancy soon for a Clinical Scientist and whether I might be interested.
At first, I thought “it’s not lab work, so it’s nothing for me.” But then, I had the first interview and really enjoyed talking to Harma (Head of Business Development Oncology), Erik (CTO) and Joost (Product Developer Oncology)! I also had the chance to learn more about the company and the technology itself. Then, I was invited for a second interview, and I was like “OK! Maybe I should just go for it!”. Then, I made the decision to change jobs. Which I didn’t expect would ever happen!
Can you briefly describe to our readers what your responsibilities are?
I’m a Clinical Scientist within the R&D team. I work on all the validation studies for the oncology-related applications. Together with Harma, I’m managing all the clinical collaborations. And together with Joost, I’m responsible for the data analysis for all the processed FFPE samples. I am also involved in reporting back those data to our clinical collaborators. What’s nice about my job is that I can help establish connections with collaborators, help with data analysis and help think along about projects. But the most fun part of course, is to report back the data! It’s nice to see that our collaborators are always enthusiastic and that they really see the added value of our technology!
Can you help explain what sets our method apart from other technologies, standardly used in cancer diagnostics?
TLA has a lot of advantages over conventional technologies, but it also depends on the tumor type. Cergentis is very good at identifying translocations, rearrangements, or fusion partners. Which can be of added value. As for most tumor types, fusion partners are not known yet. The cancer diagnostics field is actually growing and there is a real need and demand for a robust gene fusion testing method.
The most challenging part of the job is to convince pathologists to change their current approach. In the Netherlands, most of the diagnostics are performed at the pathology department, and pathologists have always worked with paraffin-embedded tissue samples. So, they’re not going to change that any time soon. So, it’s good that our technology works on those samples!
Do you find this job-related challenge exciting and is this something you had expected prior joining the team?
It’s something that I expected. Because you also have the same in your normal life, with your “daily rhythm”. You’re not going to change that to something else immediately. So, it’s normal, I think. Therefore, no matter how laborious FISH may be, pathologists know what they can get out of it and they don’t need to validate anything anymore. However, I know how relevant our approach can be for cancer diagnostics and the unique added value we bring to the field!
You have been working for 6 months now at Cergentis! How is your experience so far?
Well, the “funny” part is that I can sometimes regret making these kinds of changes. Because I always used to say to my sister that we could maybe write a Stelloo & Stelloo et al paper one day! Which of course is less likely to happen now that I moved to industry.
But besides that, I’m really happy that I made this change to Cergentis! It’s a new environment compared to academia, so I’m learning quite a lot! For instance, I get to work on strategies. I like that it’s a real team effort. Everyone looks out for each other and is happy to help! That’s also mostly why I’m happy here! If I don’t have the knowledge, then I can simply ask someone else within the team or within Cergentis, and we can do it together. People here also check up on you to see whether you are still fine, if you don’t have too much workload, etc. Cergentis has a work-life balance mentality.
What I like the most about this position, is that I have various responsibilities. I’m not just doing data analysis, but am also on the project management-side of things. So, contacting all the collaborators and helping to initiate projects. But I also help designing the capture probes that we use in our projects, help think along how we could better analyze samples, etc. And now, I also work once a week for the Service team! To help them out when it’s getting busy, but also just to get the hang of TLA analysis!
Besides being an oncology expert, what are your other secret skills and favorite hobbies?
I like Italy and I like to learn the language! Actually, I will start again with my Italian lessons later this year!
Besides that, I really like hiking and going for long walks during the weekends. It’s a pity that this year I will not be able to join the Stelvio For Life charity event in Italy. Every year, researchers from the UMCU and many other people participate in that event!
I’ve also been crocheting during the corona lockdown period. I’m not making too much progress with that [laughs] But I’m slowly getting there! [laughs]