The IBRO-Kemali Foundation is pleased to announce that Dr. Casper Hoogenraad, Professor and Chair of Cell Biology at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, has been awarded the 10th International IBRO-Kemali Prize for his “outstanding work on cytoskeleton dynamics and intracellular transport in neural development and synaptic plasticity.” The Prize will be awarded to Dr. Hoogenraad at the 10th FENS Forum of Neuroscience (July 2-6, 2016) in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he will also give the prestigious IBRO-Kemali lecture.
IBRO recently spoke with Dr. Hoogenraad who was kind enough to spend time answering a few questions about his career and work.
Why did you first join the field of neuroscience and why did you stay?
I actually didn’t start out in Neuroscience. I got my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at the School for Applied Sciences in Rotterdam and my MSc in Molecular Biology at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. It wasn’t until my PhD that I really started to focus on Molecular Neuroscience. I was encouraged and inspired by the advancements being made in culturing nerve cells that made, for the first time, living neurons immediately accessible to observation and manipulation. Before that, scientists couldn’t investigate the subcellular localization and trafficking of neuronal proteins.
Advances in fluorescence imaging and the development of new methods for manipulating DNA expression in living neurons opened up whole new lines of research in the field of neuroscience, encouraging me to stay in the field.
What was one or some of your most fulfilling moments in neuroscience so far?
My most fulfilling moments are the daily scientific discoveries of my PhD students and postdocs - as small or simple as they might be. Currently, I am involved in teaching, I supervise my own research group of ~20 scientists and, as Division Chair, I also oversee several other independent research groups. I really enjoy dividing my time between the ‘triathlon’ of managing, teaching and research these days. However, when a student comes to see me to say he or she has discovered something new – a new molecule involved in cargo trafficking or a new way of organizing the underlying cytoskeleton for example – these are the most satisfying and fulfilling moments for me. Also, I can clearly remember my initial experiences of being able to visualize the dynamics of subcellular processes in living nerve cells. It was so exciting for me and those memories still inspire me to this day.
Your efforts to increase public awareness of brain research in The Netherlands are impressive. There are so many pressing issues competing for public attention right now, why do you think neuroscience should be a major media priority?
Neuroscience is already a major media priority right now. I don’t really have to convince people that neuroscience or brain research is an important issue when I give public talks or engage in public discussions. Everyone knows someone who is suffering from a brain disease. They live with the pain of seeing loved ones suffer everyday and want to do all they can to help. It’s very important for all neuroscientists to engage in public awareness activities to help inform people of the progress being made, but to also explain how research works and what current research can tell them – to give them realistic expectations for curing brain diseases. The biggest challenge for basic neuroscientists is not being able to provide patients with the immediate solutions. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Dementia are long-term, very difficult conditions to live with and treat. We first need to understand what are the molecular building blocks of the brain, how do the building blocks work together in a healthy person, and what mechanisms cause brain disease. Basic neuroscientists, like me, are already working on the future and conduct research into building ‘smart medicines’ for the patients of tomorrow.
Other scientists have said your research on microtubules in axon outgrowth and regeneration has highlighted microtubules as a promising target for therapy of spinal cord injury and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system. Do you also see this as a future possibility?
Yes, this is an important step forward. Research on microtubules is suggesting that we might be able to go beyond therapies for regeneration that only treat symptoms. Microtubule stabilizing drugs have been shown to promote axon regeneration and improved motor function after spinal cord injury in rodents. Microtubules are dynamic polymers made of tubulin proteins and they help make up the neuronal cytoskeleton that shapes and gives support to nerve cells. Finding out how microtubule stabilization contributes to nerve outgrowth and regeneration, adds to the basic research we need to understand what is happening in degenerative diseases at the cellular level. Moreover, although great advancements are being made through treatments such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) in Parkinson’s patients, they only offer symptomatic relief and we still don’t know exactly why it works. Basic research continues to be crucial.
The IBRO-Kemali Prize is one of many awards that you have received. Others include the national VIDI and VICI Grants, European Young Investigator (EURYI) Award and a European Research Consolidator (ERC) Grant. How have your prizes and awards helped you in research, recognition and/or your career?
I’d say they have been essential to my research and career. Besides the financial support, the recognition and dissemination of basic neuroscience research have led to important networking activities and collaborations that probably would not have occurred otherwise. I have people in completely different scientific disciplines coming up to me at talks or conferences who want to discuss possible interdisciplinary implications and projects. The awards have not only helped me but also have helped in attracting more attention and support for the field of Neuroscience in general.
Finally, do you have any words of advice or encouragement for young neuroscience students and researchers at the beginning of their programs/careers?
If you have an innate curiosity and intrinsic drive to study the brain, take risks and go for a scientific career. If you don’t find the support you need in your own country, then try to get out and go to another one. I was fortunate enough to have excellent and supportive mentors in my own experience and I think it’s one of the necessary ingredients for any successful research career. There are several funding and research opportunities now to break out of limiting circumstances and environments so I urge young students and researchers to take full advantage of them. If they are already in a supportive environment, then great and stick with it!
Learn more about the IBRO-Kemali Foundation here!