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Maike Hansen’s fascination to understand why extremely complex cells function accurately

Interview with dr. Maike Hansen (Biophysical Chemistry)

Maike HansenMaike Hansen, Assistant Professor in the group of Biophysical Chemistry within the Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM), started working at IMM in January 2020. She is the new Tenure Track employee and is starting her own group. Her research focusses on gene expression dynamics by employing techniques at the interface of computational modeling, cell-free biochemistry, and quantitative single-cell biology. ‘I am really looking forward to building up my own group and carrying out my passion to learn why extremely complex systems like cells function so reliably and accurately’, Hansen says.

We interview Maike Hansen about her research, her research goals and herself.

What is your (research) background?

‘I got my Bachelor and Master in Chemical Biology at the University of Warwick in the UK. After which, I did my PhD in the Physical Organic Chemistry group of professor Huck. This research group studies the construction of life and aims to understand how living systems work and how life can emerge out of non-life. During my PhD research I looked at how proteins are formed in a synthetic cell. After graduation, I started working as a postdoc at Gladstone Institutes, which is affiliated with University California San Francisco (UCSF). There I was in the virology department. I studied protein production in viruses, and specifically in HIV. What I find very interesting is to understand how two identical cells can behave and develop differently. Since I just started at IMM in January 2020, I am still learning to find my way here and get to know my colleagues better.’

How did you experience your time as PhD student at IMM?

‘I really enjoyed my time as a PhD student here. During this time I received a lot of support from my colleagues in the group, which I thought was great. IMM does a lot to stimulate collaboration and I think this is very positive. PhD candidates sometimes experience moments of uncertainty, when I learned that other PhD students experience the same struggle, I felt relieved. When you can share your highs and lows with colleagues, the obstacles in science can become easier to tackle.’

What about your post-doc time in USA?

‘There were a lot of things I really enjoyed about my time in San Francisco, it was a unique experience. Again, I was very lucky to have some amazing colleagues, we always discussed a lot about all sorts of things in addition to work related topics, for example the philosophy of science or the science behind various daily observations. During my PhD research I was mainly working on my research project, it felt rather technical, I think I grew a lot as a scientist thanks to my post-doc. ’

What will be your research topic at IMM and what is your passion for this?

'My passion is the fundamental aspects of gene expression and studying gene expression to understand why cells, though immensely complex, can still Time-lapse video of HIV infected T-cells expressing GFP and mCherry tagged viral proteinsfunction accurately the way they do. In my group we will use a variety of techniques such as, cell-free biochemistry, single-cell biology and maths, to try to get to the bottom of this. Our goal is to identify key factors that allow for robust outcomes in noisy crowded systems. I also find it interesting to think and understand when very complex systems need to work reliably and accurately, and when they don’t. Another way of phrasing this is, in which situations do reactions within a cell become unreliable? Which factors can influence this process and which cannot?’

How can your research be applied in our society?

‘Most applications of our fundamental research lie in the field of medicine. The knowledge we obtain, could be applied to treatment of diseases. For example, we know that identical cells can be very similar and reliable. If cells are less similar, perhaps they become more unreliable. In certain situations, e.g. with the HIV virus or when bacterial cells become antibiotic resistant, this unreliability is used. This could ask for different responses and treatments.’

What are your plans for 2020?

‘In the beginning I am going to start to build my own group. My first PhD student just started, a second will hopefully start soon too, and we have a first master student starting in March. But, we hope that more bachelor and master students will be interested in doing internships with us. I am really looking forward to working at IMM, meeting new people and working together. I am also looking for my own place in Nijmegen as I like the city, but I am experiencing first-hand how difficult the housing hunt is in Nijmegen. So, if you hear of anything please let me know.’

What else is nice to know about you?

‘I am a sporty person, I like playing squash, hiking, and snowboarding. I did a lot of hiking in California, where I also got into nature photography. I think taking pictures has taught me something that can be true in life: If you look at something carefully, you can find something beautiful in it, it’s only a matter of perspective.’

Time-lapse video of HIV infected T-cells expressing GFP and mCherry tagged viral proteins.

More information: https://www.thehansenlab.com/

Text: Miriam Heijmerink