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Willem Velema’s passion for the combination of fundamental and applied science

Interview with dr. Willem Venema (Physical Organic Chemistry)

Last January Willem Velema started as Assistant Professor in the Physical Willem VelemaOrganic Chemistry group within the Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM) of Radboud University. Velema, born and raised in Groningen province, has started his own research group that focusses on the chemical biology of nucleic acids. He is especially interested in the role of nucleic acids in biological processes such as the development of drug resistance.. ‘I really enjoy working at the interface of fundamental and applied science’, Velema says.

We interviewed Willem Velema about his research background, his research focus within IMM and himself.

How has your career path been so far?

‘I was intrigued by how medicinal drugs work, therefore I decided to study pharmacy. Ultimately, I learned that my real passion is chemistry. I did my PhD research in Organic Chemistry, in the group of Professor Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Feringa's group focusses on molecular motors and switches, while my interests involved medicinal chemistry and drug design; therefore it was an obvious choice to merge these two research fields by designing switchable drug molecules. . My research projects focused on controlling drug activity with light. One potential application would be to minimize side-effects of medicines, which are often very difficult to manage. By projecting light at a certain target within the body, we could potentially activate drugs locally and exploit that to avoid side-effects in the rest of the body. Most of this is still very theoretical, but Feringa’s group is making great progress. I am very pleased that they are still working on this research line that I started a decade ago together with a postdoc, Wiktor Szymanski.’

After your PhD studies, you went to the USA to work as a Postdoctoral Fellow. How did you experience your time there?

‘At that point I had learned a lot about organic synthesis, but felt that my biological knowledge was lacking. Therefore, I decided to pursuit my postdoctoral studies in the field of nucleic acids in the lab of Eric Kool at Stanford University. To be more specific, I developed a new approach for visualizing genetic point mutations in cells and worked on convenient methods for modifying RNA molecules.'

‘Apart from work, living abroad was of course a great adventure for me: finding a home and building a new social network. I went to the USA by myself and I would certainly recommend it; it is a great way to learn about a culture and to get to know other people.'

What will you focus on in the VelemaLab?

‘My research group is part of the Physical Organic Chemistry group of Professor VelemalabWilhelm Huck, which studies the origin of life. The team is continuously looking for new methods to study how living systems work. My group will focus on the biological roles of nucleic acids. For example, we try to understand how drug resistance works at a molecular level and how RNA molecules are involved in this process. Ultimately we want to use this knowledge to develop new approaches for combating drug resistance. At the moment I am building my own research group. So far one PhD candidate and a master student have started and another PhD student will start soon. (Then smiling) Of course many more students are welcome.’

What is the societal relevance of your research?

‘Some of the research we do can be quite fundamental, but we do try to apply it to current problems. My pharmaceutical background makes me particularly interested in understanding pathological processes at a molecular level and trying to use that to solve problems in human health. Our interest in bacterial resistance for example, stems from being fascinated with some of the clever mechanisms bacteria have developed to outsmart humans and our antibiotic therapies. These mechanisms are driven by very fundamental chemical and biological phenomena but at the same time have a huge impact on human health and our society.'

Other things you want to add?

‘I currently live in Nijmegen, a nice and vibrant city. Nijmegen is similar to Groningen in size and student population, which I find appealing. So far, everybody is nice and helpful, I already feel at home in Nijmegen. What I like about IMM is the interdisciplinary nature of the institute. The manyIMM colloquia for example are exciting informal events to meet people from other disciplines and broaden your knowledge at the same time. It also encourages working together with other research groups. I am looking forward to fully getting to know the IMM.’

More information: velemalab.com

Text: Miriam Heijmerink