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Kim Bonger: "There is still much unknown about how exactly a cell works”

Interview with dr. Kim Bonger (Synthetic Organic Chemistry)

Kim Bonger is Assistant Professor in chemical biology in the Synthetic Organic Chemistry group, part of the Kim BongerInstitute of Molecules and Materials (IMM) of Radboud University. She conducts research at the interface of chemistry and biology and works closely with research groups in the Radboud Institute for Molecular Life Sciences. Her research group combines organic synthesis with molecular biology and biochemistry to answer questions about diseases related to (auto) immunology.

Research in the Bonger lab has two pillars. One goal is to design and synthesize molecular to understand and influence fundamental cellular processes. The other aim is to develop new therapeutic methods to deliver drugs specifically to the required location in the body.

Bonger studied at the VU University in Amsterdam where she trained as a synthetic organic chemist and obtained a PhD at the University of Leiden in medicinal and synthetic organic chemistry. After a few years of research work at Stanford University in California (USA), she started working at Radboud University in 2013. Bonger lives with her family in Nijmegen.

We interview her about her research field, her background and herself.

How did you end up in the field of chemical biology?

“I worked in the biology research field for the first time when I did my PhD in medicinal and synthetic organic chemistry. I was fascinated to know how a cell functions on a molecular level and how our cells work together to ultimately form life. I really like the combination of chemistry and biology because you are able to design and make molecules to understand and influence certain cellular processes in order to study the relationship to diseases. “I got my job at Radboud University through the Sector plans funding from the government. We moved from California to Nijmegen.

My main interest lies in understanding (auto) immunological diseases such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. I also focus on medicinal chemistry. We develop methods to bring medicines specifically to the part in the body where the disease is located. Therefore we can achieve the same effect but with a lower dose and fewer side effects and give patients a better quality of life.”

Why are you fascinated by science?

“My work is innovative; my studies have never been done by anyone else. Much is still unknown about the functioning of a cell and the development of certain diseases. What I do is useful. We can contribute and improve the patients’ quality of life. Also, I enjoy working with young people. Chemical biology is a relatively new field; it is students popular among students. They are involved in the early stages of drug development, which can ultimately cure patients. I like it when students become enthusiastic about my research project, because they are the researchers of tomorrow.”

Image of 60x magnified fibroblast cells recorded using a fluorescence microscope.

Image of 60x magnified fibroblast cells recorded using a fluorescence microscope.

It sounds great to be involved in research studies where you can make a difference. What has been the result so far?

“Our relatively young group focusses on developing and improving technology that can be used to understand and influence molecular cell processes. Besides this, we work on designing molecules that only work in a certain type of cell or in a specific enzyme. On average, it takes 10 to 15 years before a potential therapy is valorized and new medications are on the market.”

You appeal for more women in beta science. Why?

“Women are needed in our field. Less than ten percent of professors at the Faculty of Science are women. There is stereotyping going on. Actually, I plea for more diversity in science. I think people who differ in background, character and research field have different perspectives, which leads to better decision-making and better science. More women in our field is important, but more diversity is essential.”

You also connect with students outside your work. Tell us about it.

“I am a DJ duo together with a colleague researcher. We played several times for students at university parties, in Doornroosje and at the Beestfeest. We are amateurs, but the students are very enthusiastic and it is a lot of fun to do.”

Text: Miriam Heijmerink