Interviews with Scientists: Jonas Teuwen
In the next in our Interviews with Scientists series we spoke to Jonas Teuwen of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Jonas is the group leader of AI for Oncology and is working on the development of AI algorithms for the improvement of cancer diagnostics and therapy. He completed his PhD in 2016 before becoming an Assistant Professor in Medical Image Analysis in 2018. He has a keen interest in politics and has ambitions to bring positive change to society through his work.
He recently spoke openly on social media about living with bipolar disorder and the impact this had on his PhD studies. We were moved by his honesty around the subject of mental health in academia and were interested to find out more about his thoughts on the subject…
Thanks for speaking with us, Jonas! Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role at the Netherlands Cancer Institute?
I am currently leading the AI for Oncology group where we develop AI algorithms for the improvement of cancer diagnostics and therapy together with a group of postdocs and PhD students. Our research is quite broad from an oncological point of view. For instance, we investigate how we can accelerate MRI such that we can adapt radiation treatment real-time to motion during the irradiation. We also develop algorithms which can adapt MRI protocols during the image acquisition such that we can develop very fast breast MRI screening protocols, opening up the possibility of using breast MRI screening for a larger group of women. A lot of our research is also focused on biomarker discovery where we investigate what markers in the patient data are relevant for therapy response, for instance in the case of immune therapy.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?
When I was younger, I always craved to understand the world around me and loved to learn new things, whether it were dynamics between people or how lightning works. My parents did not attend university, but they definitely supported my interests where possible. And to be honest, I also really loved to understand things better than others… (although after a while in academia you become more humble!)
What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?
STEM is full of people from different scientific backgrounds, personalities and cultures. These aspects provide a lot of space for personal and professional growth. Each day is a new learning opportunity for me, and at the same time you are able to push the boundaries of science – what is there not to like?
You’ve recently spoken openly about living with bipolar disorder. What effect has the condition had on your career over the years?
Over the last few years, it hasn’t really impacted me so much. The period when I was really ill (during my PhD) did teach me a lot about self care and the importance of being persistent.
You received a diagnosis during your PhD studies. How did things change for you once the condition was recognised?
The diagnosis was an eye opener. I always thought that depression and anxiety were ‘just a part of me’. Getting a diagnosis was important for getting the proper treatment, which in my case, was very successful. Unfortunately it had a significant impact on my performance during my PhD, but that turned out well in the end. It has also taught me that if you want to really heal and improve as a person, it requires a very strong will to change.
Mental health issues are common within academia. Why do you think this is?
I think academia draws a lot of ambitious people with a very strong will to excel. In academia you end up in an environment with a lot of these people, and it is hard to ignore other people's performances. This definitely puts a lot of pressure on people. Eventually those that are most successful have found a way to handle this amount of pressure and this creates a perpetual circle.
What more could colleagues do to support researchers and scientists with mental health issues?
This is a really hard question. I have found that academics are very open and accepting people. But it is hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone with mental health issues when these are foreign to you. There is a lot going on around diversity in academia, and mental health should definitely be a part of that conversation.
We should be aware that although those leading right now may be the ones who can perform very well in high-paced and high-pressure environments, these qualities shouldn’t be what defines one to be a successful academic. In the end it is about doing good science, and making an impact on the world. It’s not about how you dress, how you identify, where you are from or how you handle stress. I think raising awareness of all these differences between people is what will help in the long run.
In general, to overcome mental health issues requires a lot of effort and willingness to change. People should be given the space to do this. Even though research is about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, not everyone is always able to perform at the best of their abilities.
What advice would you give to a young scientist who is struggling with mental health issues?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that you are the one responsible for your own health, so you should seek appropriate treatment and work on your issues. It’s okay not to perform as well as you wish you could. During my PhD, my mental health issues certainly affected my performance in a negative way. When I found a way to manage this, things improved and it all turned out alright.
What has been your proudest achievement as a scientist so far?
Getting to the position where I am able to guide a group of very talented scientists!
How do you see your career developing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I am not a full professor yet, so that would definitely be my foremost goal. Eventually I see myself progressing towards more of a management or political role, as I feel this would be the way to bring more positive change to society rather than focusing on a narrow field in science. After leading a research group for some time it has become important to me to be able to give more space to others.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career?
The best skill I’ve learned over the years is to stop caring what other people think. It really helped me to make the right career decisions and find interesting research topics.
Who has been your greatest role model in science, and why?
I have a lot of respect for my PhD advisor. Not only is he a primary example of what it means to be a scientist, but he has also been very important in providing me the space to overcome my mental health issues. It is very important to find good role models or mentors.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most? (e.g. hobbies, passion projects, etc.)
I’m a keen traveller, and really like to see many parts of the world (this is also an advantage of being an academic!). I’m also really passionate about politics.
And finally… what’s your favourite science quote?
“The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” - Baruch Spinoza
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview Jonas! We wish you the very best with your future career.
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