Cisca Wijmenga is the Lodewijk Sandkuijl Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Groningen and the University Medical Centre, Groningen, The Netherlands. She will be giving the ESHG Award Lecture on Tuesday June 18 at 14.15 hrs. She talked to Mary Rice about her life and work.
“I have always been interested in diseases and what causes them, starting as a child when I used to read the medical encyclopaedia at home for fun,“ says Cisca Wijmenga. She wanted to become a medical doctor, but at the time entrance to medical school in The Netherlands was drawn by lot, and she missed her chance.
However, she is not someone who is easily discouraged. “For me it always has been important to go into new territories and try completely new things. At moments that is really scary, but it is also the only way forward to make progress.” Encouraged to continue by her parents, she turned to biology. “I was the first person in my family to go to university. My father in particular was very proud of that, as he always wanted to go to university but was not allowed to do so by his parents.”
She soon realised that biology might be an even better fit, as it focused more on disease mechanisms and molecular biology. “I loved molecular biology and biochemistry and eventually ended up in genetics.”
After her first degree at the University of Groningen, she acquired a PhD at Leiden University and then decided that she wanted to continue her career in the US. After several job offers, she decided on a post at the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH, working with Francis Collins. “He turned out to be the kind of leader I wanted to be myself: always available and enthusiastic about new talent.”
When her time in the States was up, she had to choose between two projects – one predictable and well mapped out in advance, and the other that was not yet in existence. Collins encouraged her to go for the latter, saying that the ability to jump in at the deep end was important in a scientific career. She took his advice and returned to The Netherlands to begin work on complex disease genetics at the University of Utrecht. “This was completely new territory for me.”
Persistence and willingness to take risks are important qualities in scientific research, says Wijmenga, but luck and instinct play a part too. “I simply had a hunch to send off a grant application to look at a genetic relation between autoimmune disease and gluten intolerance.” That hunch paid off, and in 2007 she was the first to show that coeliac disease is genetically very similar to other autoimmune disorders, a hypothesis that is now widely accepted.
A source of great pride is the fact that her Professorship is named after her scientific mentor and friend Lodewijk Sandkuijl, a statistical geneticist who died aged only 49. And she is enthusiastic about the continuing evolution of her work. “I am very happy about the different directions my research has taken. As a PhD student I started to unravel the genetics of a mendelian disorder (FSHD, a rare form of muscular dystrophy), and then moved into the field of complex disease genetics and am now working on the gut microbiome and making complex personalised disease models on tiny chips.”
Outside work, Wijmenga likes art and going to museums and art fairs. “I also like hiking, in particular in the mountains. I like bike rides in the beautiful surroundings of Groningen. I love to cook and enjoying reading a wide variety of books.”
In her prize lecture, she will take pleasure in describing the scientific adventure she took that led her from complex disease genetics with a focus on coeliac disease, to the gut microbiome and “the really cool work we just started on gut-on-a-chip to recreate coeliac disease on a chip. With that in place, in future we can study the interaction between host genome, epithelial barrier, immune system and the gut microbiome.”
Retirement? She hasn’t really thought about it yet, partly because she’s too young and partly, one suspects, because she sees a long and exciting scientific adventure still unfolding in front of her.