To coordinate, analyse and study for a PhD

When I started at VITO 10 years ago, I was given the opportunity of collaborating on the European OBELIX (OBesogenic Endocrine disrupting chemicals: LInking prenatal eXposure to the development of obesity later in life) project. Within the context of this project, we researched the association between being exposed to contaminants during pregnancy and the later development of obesity. This most definitely aroused my interest because I was expecting our first son when the project was being completed.

I was responsible for the statistical processing of the data from our Flemish and 11 other European birth cohorts. We established an association between being exposed to PCBs in the umbilical cord blood and the lower birth weight of the baby (a risk factor for the later development of obesity). We published the results in a reputable journal where the international group unanimously put me forward as the first author. I was very proud of this recognition.

Flemish expertise, European projects

Thanks to our expertise in Flemish human biomonitoring projects, we lead in Europe and win European contracts. We have been working on a large European project, HBM4EU (an initiative to coordinate and advance Human BioMonitoring in Europe), since January of last year that will run over 5 years and in which 28 different European countries are participating. The crux is to harmonise human biomonitoring within Europe. This is what I am currently focusing on.

I am also responsible for the coordination of the work package around data management and analysis. We try to show all biomonitoring data within the consortium on one central platform in this work package so that policymakers can use this data to, for example, assess risks. It also gives us many new results and insights that we can further discuss and publish. Together with two other partners, I also calculate the European reference values for exposure to chemicals. The fact that we contribute towards curbing production and/or use of specific chemicals with this type of research is, for me, the higher goal.

Studying for a PhD and being published

Simultaneously – and I am very happy that VITO has given me this opportunity – I am working on a PhD at the University of Antwerp. I am studying the exposure to mixtures of different chemical pollutants and the effects thereof on health. I started in 2016 and I am hoping to submit my thesis at the start of 2019 to receive my PhD during the course of that same year. It is one of the ways in which VITO ensures I can further develop myself.

I must publish a number of articles for my PhD. Something that I like doing and from which I also learn a lot because of the close collaboration with co-authors and the contribution of reviewers. This is added value for your research. Being published also creates visibility, allows you to build up a network and is important to give VITO authority regarding European projects.

Hive of activity and companionship

I live in Zolder. It therefore takes me about 45 minutes to get to the VITO BIO building in Mol where our Environment and Health team is established. This is sometimes an experience in itself. This morning, for example, I had to stop for a herd of deer that wanted to cross the road. 'The BIO' is right in the middle of the forest!

The BIO building is a hive of activity but also enjoyable. There are about 60 VITO employees who work there. We all know each other well. And, as I already mentioned, we are surrounded by the forest. Perfect to take a stroll together in the afternoon.

This is also good for our condition, which is a bonus for me because I recently took up volleyball again: something I do in the evenings after work. I used to compete but now it is purely recreational. In addition, I play tennis more than I used to and I have become a committee member of our local tennis club. Yes, as the treasurer because, with my background as a statistician, I like nothing better than to work with figures.

Why I like working at VITO

VITO focuses on hugely interesting issues, modern topics that appeal to everybody. There is also much variety in my job because I am involved in all steps of the research process: from contributing with my thoughts when setting up a study to carrying out a study, collecting and processing the results, reporting, publishing and communicating on international forums. The fact that I can apply my background in biomedical sciences and biostatistics is ideal since it also means that I can further develop in these areas. That VITO is very flexible is an added bonus.