In Meet Our Expert you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Maurijn opens up about his childhood, his interests for outdoor activities and his love for Scandinavia. His fascinating research experience is a true embodiment of borderless science. Don't miss out on this interview to find out what made him join Cergentis, his personal view of our corporate culture and how his responsibilities have grown together with the rapid expansion of the company!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the East of the Netherlands, in a village called Markelo. Before that, I lived around that area but also spent 2 years in Africa as a baby. As far as I can remember, I always lived in Markelo. The place to be! [laughs]. My parents have a farmhouse, so I spent a lot of time outdoors. I’ve always loved nature, drawing, and played hockey.
Is your family also working in the scientific field?
My father is a general practitioner (GP). He used to be a physician in Africa for a few years. Given his medical background, he had the option to either join the army or help a third world country. After which, he became a GP.
My mother used to be a teacher. But after my brothers and I were born, she became a full-time mother. At some point, she went into child daycare.
I have 2 brothers. One is a dentist and the other one, a physiotherapist. So, we all went a little bit into the medical field and health care direction.
How were you as a kid? Were you always passionate about scientific subjects at school?
I was good at chemistry, so I picked that path and started studying it. However, the moment we [the students] were given the chance to branch out, I decided to go into biomedical sciences because it was more attractive to me. I was really interested in genes, proteins, and their functions. I am really drawn to the fact that one cell can become a complete functioning organism just through the correct ‘wiring’ of a complexity of (molecular) mechanisms.
What motivated you to study in different countries?
Actually, it was my interest in zebrafish that led me to all those different places. Back then, zebrafish wasn’t so popular in the Netherlands. So, it was difficult to find a project that involved that organism. I love this model because it’s a beautiful in vivo model without the high cuddle factor that comes with, for instance, a mouse. Knowing myself, I don’t think I would have been able to work with mice.
I started doing research on zebrafish during my master’s at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. It was a combination of me really liking Scandinavia as well as connections that got me there: it was during my first master internship in Nijmegen that I was able to get in contact with prof. dr. Lars Holmgren in Sweden.
What makes Scandinavia so special to you?
I went there a lot as a kid, together with my family. And I still do. From an academic point of view, the research there is of high standard. Karolinska Institute is very well-known for its research. Scandinavian countries are just so nice. The people are kind, nature is beautiful, and everyone speaks English like a charm! There were also a lot of foreign people in the group I joined. In Sweden, my supervisor Dr. Simona Vertuani was Italian of origin. She is as keen on good coffee as I am, and before anything else was done: “first coffee”. That’s my type of supervisor! [laugh] The professor/group leader (prof. dr. Lars Holmgren) was also very enthusiastic and energetic. It was super nice to be part of his group, both from a personal and scientific perspective. He was able to pull all the different experts together to build valid data cross-species. He was a really good supervisor.
What did you do after your master’s?
During research in Sweden, I came in contact with the Hubrecht Institute, in Utrecht. Prof. dr. Stefan Schulte-Merker was so kind to share a zebrafish model. When I finished my studies, I contacted him because I wanted to continue working with zebrafish. At that time, he was just about to start up a project in collaboration with the Wageningen University. I applied for that position and rolled into a PhD programme.
That project’s basis relied on a proteomics approach. Having a more genetics-based background, it took some convincing. On one hand, it’s nice if you start with something that you’re familiar with. On the other hand, it’s also nice to learn new stuff. I think that PhD period was really nice mainly because of my colleagues. Especially among the PhD students, we would go a lot on trips together, skiing, going away for weekends, for drinks and enjoy together.
Can you tell us a bit more about the research you did during your PhD?
I studied skeletal development using the zebrafish. Yes, zebrafish have bones! I had to explain that a lot of times, especially to a lot of people in my family because everyone would say “fish don’t have bones, they have “graten”" [laughs].
It was a slow start because I had to develop new methods to extract the proteins from the zebrafish skeleton. Zebrafish adults are between 3-5 cm, but I had to do the same thing during development. So that leaves you with really, really, really small zebrafish. [laughs] The goal of my research was to get an overview of the skeletal protein composition, study its change over time, find interesting targets and eventually continue with genetics by making knockout (KO) models and see to find the function(s) of those proteins.
By then, did you already start considering leaving academia?
Yes, I was already looking for opportunities to work in a company. But I found it very difficult to transfer, especially with a specialization in zebrafish. So instead, I kept my options open. I ended up finding a research group in Belgium that was working on pancreatic development. But they had the intention to branch out using the zebrafish as a model to study pancreatic cancer. It was a nice project, that started almost from scratch. We set up a model that would reflect pancreatic cancer in humans. Ultimately, the goal was to study molecular mechanisms and implement a fast model to not only study cancer development but also potentially screen for potential drugs and cures. I believe it was actually my supervisor’s ‘dream’ to branch out towards cancer research, which gave me a very enthusiastic and involved (in a good way) supervisor. The project was given 2 years, during which we built several models. This in turn gave them a platform to continue their work on.
How did you find out about Cergentis?
After my postdoc, I wanted to leave academia. The “politics” wasn’t enjoyable anymore and it is always a struggle to find funding, positions, or the combination. What I also find difficult in academia, is that you bond with a lot of people, you make friends, but then they or you eventually finish and leave. It’s difficult because you become a family, make good friends and then you have to move on… Instead, I wanted to have something steadier, build a life.
I started looking for a job in a company, something more in the direction of lab technician and genetics. I then found Cergentis through LinkedIn and this vacancy came by! Although there were some other options, this opportunity caught my attention. Due to corona, I did all of my interviews online and got to meet everyone from the Service team online. Regarding the lab and office spaces, I had to do with a specially made video recording [laughs]. I never even saw our facilities and offices in person before my first week here!
During the interview rounds, everyone was very open and friendly, professional but leveled. That motivated me even more to join the team!
Can you describe the work culture here?
I think the work culture here is very open. Everyone shares a common interest and enthusiasm. You can be very direct. I don’t mean direct as in putting someone in his or her place but direct in the sense of being able to voice and share your opinions, concerns, etc. That’s what I like the most about Cergentis. You can discuss everything with everyone.
Can you describe your responsibilities?
Together with Melinda Aprelia (Service Team Technician & Lab Manager), I oversee sample receipts until sample sequencing. We take care of all incoming samples and handle the TLA prep/process. Besides that, I am also responsible for the preparation of kits. These kits allow our customers to perform TLA themselves, in-house. Since Maaike van der Weij (Quality Manager) joined us, my responsibilities have also evolved and grown to include quality management system (QMS)-related matters in a more structured way into our daily work. This is in line with the fact that we are getting the ISO/IEC 17025:2017 accreditation.
Interestingly, a few months after you joined Cergentis, the company underwent a rapid and massive expansion! How did you personally experience this change?
It’s nice to have a much bigger team! When I started, the team was much smaller. “Back then”, you could really feel that it was more of a “start-up” environment. However, we were already so busy at that point that you could immediately see and tell that the company was doing well. The expansion started shortly after. I’m very happy to be part of that growth and to be able to contribute to that growth!
You participated in your first Cergentis outing not so long ago! Did you enjoy that day?
I was amazed by the sheer size of the group! Due to the pandemic, I never saw all our colleagues together in person in one place. Just to arrive there and see everyone, it was very a bit unreal! You can really tell, by looking at the size of the company, that Cergentis is doing well.
I think those activities are important. It is really nice to see everyone in a completely different setting. Bonding and teambuilding that way eventually results in a better atmosphere at work. Although we have grown immensely over the last year, all the people that joined Cergentis in that time are very approachable, open, and enthusiastic.
Besides work, what are some of your favorite pastimes?
I do a lot of things! [laughs] Field hockey, drawing and I also work with wood and resin. I like wood carving and like working with my hands.
During my PhD, I had these magnificent bone staining of zebrafish and I produced blocks with them. So “artsy” kind of things. I really like that!
My main problem is that halfway, I get more enthusiastic over another project. So, I have a lot of unfinished projects! [laughs] During COVID, because we could not do much in the evenings and weekends, and because I’m lucky to have a lot of space around my house, I have spent a lot of time outdoors and in the nature.