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Jeroen Jansen: ‘I use chemical data to gain sustainability’

Interview with dr. Jeroen Jansen (Analytical Chemistry group)

Jeroen Jansen, recently appointed Associate Professor in the Analytical Jeroen JansenChemistry group within the Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM) of Radboud University, is actively involved in Green Information Technology. Green IT aims to drastically lower the energy demand in the coming decades via innovations in IT. Jansen searches for opportunities to work together with institutes and industry, who can develop our fundamental research further into digital solutions for healthier people and processes that are more environmentally friendly.

Jansen’s research group fully focusses on data analysis, called chemometrics. This ranges from simple visualization of data to prediction of, for instance, concentrations or finding biologically interesting molecules in complex mixtures. He also takes part in the Consortium of Analytical Science and Technology (COAST). This community is based on sharing knowledge and instruments in analytical science and valorising fundamental analytical expertise to novel technologies and innovations.

Jansen lives in Nijmegen, together with his wife and three kids.

We interviewed Jeroen Jansen about his research background, his research focus within IMM and himself.

What is your (research) background and how did you end up at Radboud University?

“I studied Chemistry at the University of Amsterdam. Ronald Plasterk (a Dutch politician, entrepreneur and scientist red.) inspired me to learn more about biochemistry and DNA. However, working in a lab did not suit me as much as I thought. Then I studied chemical engineering at the same university, which is very much computer-oriented. There my passion for chemical analysis, and chemometrics, started. Through mathematical calculations I learned to understand how the chemistry of systems work. My PhD research was about metabolomics, an important technique to better understand the chemistry of living organisms. I have developed methods that currently are widely used in this field. After my PhD, I wanted to do other research than data analysis alone, and I started doing experimental research at the Dutch Institute of Ecology in Heteren. After growing a lot of plants and insects there and measuring their chemical composition, I found out that data analysis is my real passion. I then did a postdoc project at the Dutch Metabolomics Center and then I applied for my current position. In 2012 I started at IMM; in my research group I can combine medical, chemical and engineering studies.”

On your career path, you must have celebrated successes and encountered difficulties. Tell us about it.

“Starting out, it was very difficult for me to convince journal reviewers and grant referees that chemical data science, chemometrics, is a research field that can bring actual value to data. The need of researchers in my field to collaborate was seen as a necessary serviceability to the researchers that do the experiments and perform the chemical analyses. Luckily we could start a lot of collaborations with medical, industrial and governmental researchers that did see the potential value of data analysis methods that actually answer their experimental questions; our newly developed methods can thereby be immediately demonstrated in real-life case studies as real Pasteur research. For example, together with Agrifirm, a cooperative in the agricultural sector, we have developed a technique that can achieve at least 4% savings in the use of raw materials.”

What is currently your research focus and what is your passion for this?

“My group focuses on integrating biomedical and industrial concepts with multivariate data analysis to obtain more information-rich and dedicated chemometric models. With a broader view, including industrial spectroscopic and other ‘omics' data. I am a chemist, I understand that people know how systems work  but we most often certainly do not know everything about it. Chemometrics is using the available information of the data you have obtained from a chemical system, and seeks for patterns that you did not notice before. Basically, using your current knowledge to learn new things and improve predictions on how the system will work.

I really like that I am practicing my passion. The group of professor Lutgarde Buydens is one of the largest chemometrics groups in the world. In my early days at IMM, the community COAST was founded. It has brought great opportunities to promote analytical chemistry and to develop new measuring technologies. Moreover, COAST is a valuable network. To illustrate, we can combine UMC Utrecht's expertise in multi-coloured flow cytometry with our knowledge in order to develop new methods for achieving more and better data information.”

You are involved in various research projects: what have been the results so far?

“We have already achieved good results. We have developed a method for diseases, such as asthma and diabetes, allowing to have complete picture of all cells involved in immune system reactions. Moreover, we have developed a method for blood diseases that enables measuring the growth of specific tumour cells, not the good cells. As a result, it is possible to count the cells much faster and more precisely by algorithms. And, importantly, without the intervention of a doctor or a technologist. Our methods really are societal relevant. In other research studies we work together with the chemical industry to achieve profits in sustainability. We were able to predict when a catalyst in a very large factory needs to be replaced due to inactivation; this allows the company to really improve how the process is operated. By dealing with data in an innovative way, we can adapt processes in such a way that negative environmental effects are greatly reduced.”

What is the societal relevance of your research?

“We regularly collaborate with business and industry, and with societal organisations. Our aim is to create innovations in food safety, air and water quality. Through scientific innovations in data analysis, we are very useful to our society. Actually, it is a nice triangle between fundamental knowledge of data analysis, developers and people working in the application domain like doctors or industrial engineers. They can benefit from our work and at the same time they can contribute to these innovations.”

You also focus on citizen science. Connecting people to science must be exciting. Tell us about it.

“Quite interesting indeed! We develop new techniques with which measurements and predictions can be used not only by technological experts, but also by almost everyone at home. With so-called handheld spectroscopy, you can measure where you want and when you want. These systems have become more and more financially accessible. Even though less high-quality data than the data from the laboratory is provided, measurements can be done more often, at any location and multiple times. To illustrate, citizens are given the technological skills and tools to find out what is on the plate at dinner. Perhaps it is best to compare it to the introduction of the refrigerator. This technology has positively changed society. Similar to this, you can now measure fresh food in the supermarket at location without opening the package to determine if the chicken is indeed what is indicated on the package. Especially nice is that from this year on, we give a master course on this subject that we could develop through an educational innovation voucher.”

How do you experience IMM?

“I think IMM is a great institute, its research very broad and diverse. Furthermore, I get to know other science disciplines. I think it is great that we have a very wide range of analytical equipment at IMM, not only of international allure but also to observe revolutionary and challenging chemical systems. I am happy to have opportunities to work with other IMM researchers, such as with Jana Roithová in a collaborative project financed by an IMM voucher. IMM is organised quite horizontally, which I like. Students, scientists and staff meet a lot, are valued for their input, and are able to contribute.”

You take part in the Green Information Technology Center at Radboud University. What is your role?

“Green Information Technology is a very valuable theme in our Faculty. It is directly related to business and industry and aims for to collaboration with business and industrial partners. Several IMM groups are represented in this platform. I am a member of the steering group, together with Isabel Rijk from Radboud Innovation Science and Richard van Wezel, the faculty vice dean of Research. Together we look for opportunities to collaborate with stakeholders in the development of Green hard- or software and try to find ways to support the FNWI researchers to set up such collaborations. Just before I became a steering group member, our group was co-granted a Green IT voucher 2020 for the project GRIMES (Green Production via Model-based Reasoning), a perfect example of research in collaboration with industry and across disciplines (with Software Science). production units at semiconductor manufacturer Nexperia, headquartered in Nijmegen, require extensive cooling with air conditioning and water cooling; this is by necessity kept at the same level during plant uptime. Better alignment of production steps and maintenance may thereby greatly reduce energy consumption per product. In this use case towards Green IT we aim to understand the intricate interplay between the key production and sustainability features and develop predictive optimization approaches that minimize energy consumption while keeping the productivity high. For me, it is very inspiring to find out truly new methods for data analysis, that intrinsically bring such sustainable value to our society.”

Text: Miriam Heijmerink