Part II of article series on PhD

Judith Lubrecht studied medicine at UM and is currently doing her PhD, combining clinical work with research within the Centre of Overweight Adolescents and Children’s Healthcare (COACH). The interview with Judith was conducted in three parts – the present, past, and future. In the first part, the present, we discuss her motivation to do research, research within COACH, and her tips on how to choose a research topic.

Eva: I thought I would break down the interview into three parts – one about the present, so what you’re working on now, one about the past, and one about your future plans. Let’s just start with the present. You’re working on your PhD within COACH. Can you tell us something more about how you started to be involved in research?

Judith: Yes, of course. I have finished my medical studies. Before doing medicine, I also did one year of biomedical sciences, since I didn’t get through the selection the first time. And that is where my affection for research started. I initially didn’t think I would like research that much.

Afterward, during the non-clinical part of my Master’s internship in the scientific departments, we had a three month internship in which you could conduct research. I did my research here with the COACH team, at the MUMC. There I rediscovered my love for research, noticed how much I actually like doing it and what the clinical relevance of research is.

Eva: Could you explain what is unique about how research is done within COACH?

Judith: With COACH we are doing research in a clinical setting. Although I don’t think I am really scientifically schooled as perhaps some other researchers – in the sense that we studied statistics within the medical studies, but not really in detail. So now I work as a medical doctor and I conduct research in the area of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in overweight children. We treat our patients and they are simultaneously the study population. And that allows me to add anything I find clinically relevant to my research, as we work directly with our participants. At the same time, if I find something during my research that might be relevant for my patient, I can implement it really easily. I think this is really rewarding for us as a team.

Eva: Is this also the case for other projects within NUTRIM (School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism)?

Judith: I believe there are three research lines within NUTRIM. I’m part of the first research line, which is obesity and health promotion in general. And then there’s also a second research direction that focuses more on hepatic research. I am not familiar with the third one, because I don’t have any affiliation with it. Generally, NUTRIM is mostly focused on basic translational research, which is mainly lab-based, with cells and molecules, and applications to animal studies with mice. There are also studies which we conduct with patients, who we see at the University Hospital. But I don’t think it’s that way for all of the NUTRIM research.

Eva: So, within COACH, you mainly do clinical research with your patients. How about the biological aspects, do you also look into that?

Judith: Yes, I do some biological blood studies, we do that with external partners. And we have done some more basic translational studies too, but most of our research is clinical. In the sense that we follow patients and can use the data we collect there. That includes data from questionnaires, but also data, like lab results, their BMI, and different predictive actors.

Eva: I think it’s really interesting to be able to immediately put your results to practice! How did you decide to be a part of COACH in the first place, is that you always have had an eye on that or was it more by chance?

Judith: As mentioned, I came across it for my scientific internship. There’s a big list of projects you can participate in and COACH was one of them. But this was not the first time I heard of it, because I already did my internship at the Department of Paediatrics at MUMC. I was familiar with the concept of research here, and when I saw them on the list, I decided that I would like to do research in their group. There was an application process for them to see if you are a good fit for the group. That internship was on the correlation between sex hormones and the prevalence of NAFLD in children. Once I was done with my studies, I was offered a job here as a PhD student. It is often the case that PhD places are offered via internships, if the collaboration is good. But I also know that a couple of my colleagues got their job in a different way.

Eva: Your main topic of research is NAFLD. Is this also broad enough to be the only topic of your research at the moment, or are you also looking into other areas?

Judith: Within NAFLD I do a lot of research, ranging from basic research, meaning understanding why some children develop NAFLD and some don’t, since this is something we don’t really know yet. Basically, the whole spectrum from diagnosing to treating children with NAFLD, because treatment is another unanswered question. We do know that you can provide them with lifestyle intervention, and that a better lifestyle and healthier weight provide a good basis for treatment. However, this is the only current treatment we have. My initial plan was to be in the department, but due to COVID we recently did a very large national study regarding COVID and the impact of COVID on lifestyle. You may have seen us in the news too. So I think that due to COVID, this big project is also part of my research now, which is more of a happy accident than something I really planned out. I think that a lot of times that’s actually the way it goes in the research world. You start with a basic plan, but along the way, there are new discoveries that prompt new studies. You have to be flexible and to say “okay, how can I combine it with what I did previously?” It’s not smart to say at the beginning of four years “Okay, I’m only going to do this the entire time.” If you do that, you leave out many opportunities to do great research besides the original subject you are studying.

Eva: But you probably still have to keep some focus within the years, on a general topic?

Judith: Indeed, it’s also a good thing to keep your focus and not make it super broad. Because, at the end of the four years you’re expected to deliver your thesis, and it should be kind of comprehensive and not all over the place. So it’s a balance between taking opportunities as they come but also staying in focus.

Eva: And how did you decide for NAFLD specifically? Was it a difficult decision for you?

Judith: It was already the topic of my internship. And back then, I discussed it with my internship provider, who was also the doctor and co-founder of COACH. Before I started, we discussed what kinds of subjects I was interested in and what kind of research I wanted to do. I was offered the possibility to do quantitative research or qualitative research in different areas. I’ve been more interested in the more biological side of diseases and medicine as a whole. Also, I was not so much into qualitative research. That would entail something that is based on the questionnaires and interviews. When I explained my interest to them, they said, we have these topics, which do you think are interesting? I read some literature on the five options, which they provided me with. It was quite a lot for me as a student back then. I was like: “wow, I can do so much research. Where do I start, what do I pick?”

But I luckily find this topic really, really interesting. And the more I got into it during my internship, the more I became enthusiastic about it, and thought: “okay, I think I can really do or keep doing research in this area.” It’s such a rapidly expanding topic, because there’s a lot of research that’s being done right now in the area of NAFLD and children, so there was more than enough research to be conducted. And I was sure that I could do a PhD out of it.

Eva: Do you have any tips for students who are searching for a topic for their research? 

Judith: I think it’s really important to find a topic that you find really interesting. Also, internally, you have to like it, because research does not always lead to fabulous results in a short period of time. You have to be aware that it is sometimes really slow. You have to be prepared that you will have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, with the ethics commission that approves your research, but also journals that can be very specific about what they want, and expecting you to deliver exactly that, which can sometimes be a struggle. Think about why you would like to do a PhD, or research in general. “Do I like the idea that results might be meaningful, or is it more like means of getting to another place?” For example, to get into one of the programs that allow you to be a specialist in a few years. Because those are different goals. And I think both are fine because I have lots of colleagues who use their PhD as a step up for their CV, so that later they can become specialists. If that is your goal, you can tailor your PhD a bit more towards that. And there are also possibilities to, for example, combine the three year PhD with one year of clinical work. This is the case for one of my colleagues. She works as a resident in the department choice, which is much more fulfilling for her because while she likes to do research, but is more focused on the goal of becoming a surgeon. And that’s possible because she mentioned it beforehand to her promoter they approved it. But for me, I really like doing research. And I know I’m in a very privileged position that for me the clinical practice is a part of my daily work.

Once that is clear, think about what kind of research you want to do. Translational, lab, clinical?  Are you comfortable with conducting research on animals or on live materials? It could be that you have ethical barriers that might make you uncomfortable doing some kinds of research.

I think all of those topics are important to consider before starting any kind of research. Then you can change the content of your PhD accordingly, or at least try to. In that way, you will also be a lot more motivated. 

Then, think of what kind of topic you would not mind being working on extra hours on the weekend or extra hours in the evening? It can sound like a nine to five job, which it usually is, as we have very good working hours. However, if there’s a deadline is a deadline, you work weekends, and you work evenings. And I think that’s only nice if you find the topic interesting. 

In the next part of the series PhD: Perspectives & helpful Directions you can read about what Judith has planned for the future, what her experience of doing a part of her studies abroad has been like, and more.

Link to the last part of this series!

This could also be interesting!