A Personal Touch of Robin van der Lee

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Please learn more about colleagues in our "Personal Touch" series setting employees in the spotlight. A light-hearted manner to learn about the colleagues you know and those you don't!.

This week: Robin van der Lee






1. Name, nationality, current function, department & theme?
Robin van der Lee; Dutch; PhD student; Centre for Molecular and Biomolecular Informatics (CMBI), theme Mitochondrial diseases comparative genomics group (Prof. Martijn Huynen).

2. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up? Can you tell us something about your childhood years. 
I don’t think I knew what I wanted to be; if so I can’t remember. I did always have an affinity with puzzles, later with maths, chemistry and biology. So, naturally, I became a scientist.

3. What was your previous academic training, where did you study and why did you choose that study/those studies? 
I received my B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in molecular life sciences from the Radboud University Nijmegen. During my master studies I specialized in computational biology and worked in structural bioinformatics with Prof. Gert Vriend (head of the CMBI). I then visited the group of Dr. M. Madan Babu at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (UK), where I studied the role of disordered segments in protein degradation.

4. The RIMLS motto is ‘to understand molecular mechanisms of disease’. What does this mean for you?
I just enjoy studying molecular systems and understanding more about how they work, both in health and disease. In some projects the link with disease is closer than in others, and I think both can be equally stimulating in terms of the science. I am however strongly motivated by projects that are directly related to disease, such as working with patient data.

5. Which international scientist inspires/inspired you the most? Please give a motivation why.
Two scientists that I admire are Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) and M. Madan Babu (whom I was fortunate to work with in Cambridge). Francis Crick not only discovered the DNA double helix, but also went on to make big contributions to our understanding of the genetic code. Madan Babu is a great all-round mentor to me and taught me a lot about how to be a scientist; he was appointed as one of the youngest independent group leaders at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

6. Which research discovery that you have made has made you most proud?
We recently finished a study where we discovered novel genes involved in the innate antiviral response. What allowed us to find these genes was a combination of computational and experimental biology. A good understanding of the biology of the antiviral system was very important for guiding our bioinformatics approach and resulted in what turned out to be reliable predictions. A great collaboration then led to experimental confirmation of many of our predicted candidate genes.

7. Given unlimited finance what experiment would you perform? 
Instead of spending a lot of resources on a single big experiment, I think it would be useful to facilitate many smaller projects. One big issue that we face as independent computational biologists (i.e. not being integrated in a wet lab) is finding collaborations with experimentalists who could verify our predictions. Many projects end with novel ideas that we are fairly confident about (e.g. gene X functions in process Y), but are never tested. So, one way to use the hypothetical unlimited resources would be to enable many small-scale experiments that would characterize such predicted function in detail.

8. What does your working area (desk, office) look like and what does it say about you (or your research)? 
Being a computational biologist, my working place obviously has two computer screens for viewing the data I work with, and two backup systems for saving my data and analyses. My desk is almost always clean and organized. I’d like to think this also applies to the way I do research.

9. What type of person are you, quick insights:

a) Mac or  PC:
b) Theater or Cinema:
c) Dine out or dine in: 
Dine in
d) Ferrari or Fiat:
e) Schopaholic or chocoholic:
f) Culture or Nature:

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