Monday 21 march 2022
Timon: 'I saw you studied in Maastricht. That's quite far from here, but then again, Enschede is also in a remote corner of the Netherlands… What brings you to Twente?'
Renske: ‘I got the chance to do a really nice PhD research here. I’ve conducted research into the effect of helmet treatment on infants with skull deformation.'
Timon: 'I saw that PhD research has gained worldwide attention.’
Renske: ‘Yes, that's right. The British Medical Journal, in which I published my results, had a press release about it. Then it was picked up everywhere. It has been on the front page of the New York Times. I got to present at a conference of helmet manufacturers in America. The questioning there was more intimidating than my final promotion. You’re in the lion's den...’
Timon: ‘What was so unique about your research?’
Renske: 'Some infants develop a skull deformity. People hoped that this could be corrected more quickly by putting the infant in a so-called redression helmet. But my research found that it made no difference. Remarkable, because helmets were already a standard treatment that was reimbursed by health insurers at the time. And then you suddenly say: it doesn’t add much to the natural bone regeneration. Studies with negative results are published less often – publication bias. But in this case, it was the negative outcome that made it groundbreaking.’
Timon: 'After so much success, it would be logical to delve into the research world even further. But you didn't.’
Renske: ‘True. I didn’t really aspire to a career in academics. I do things because they're fun and challenging, not because they happen to look good on my resume. And I later found that challenge in my work in the field of knowledge valorisation, at the TechMed Center of UT. I look at how we can involve the right parties at the right time in our research.'
Timon: ‘Why is that worthwhile?’
Renske: 'If we allow researchers to collaborate with patients, medical professionals, and the business community at an early stage, we can better ensure that innovations are in line with practice. It's a shame if you spend years working on something new, only to find out at the end of the day that the product isn’t exactly what the user needs. Nowadays, I’m a project manager at the TOPFIT CitizenLab. There, everything revolves around citizen science – the question of how we as a university can collaborate more with society – in the prevention of disease and disease burden.'
Timon: ‘Yes, I saw that term on your profile. To be honest, I had never heard of citizen science before. If I understand correctly, it’s about having citizens participate in science?'
Renske: 'Yes, and vice versa: citizens who set up their own research and invite scientists to participate. What matters, is that you research something that’s useful and relevant, and that you work together on an equal footing.'
Timon: ‘Can you give an example?’
Renske: 'One of our studies is about informal carers with a job in healthcare. They deal with a high workload. Besides, precisely because of their job, they are disproportionately asked for informal care tasks. This leads to an even heavier workload and more sick leave.
Researchers wanted to develop a smart technology that monitors a person's workload capacity. But when they sat down with the carers, the problem turned out to be something else. It wasn’t so much in the accumulation of tasks, but rather in the distorted image that employers had of employees. There were misconceptions on both sides. That means you need a different solution, which is what they’re currently working on.'
Timon: 'You also co-wrote Shaping2030, right? What do you want to achieve in the field of citizen science?'
Renske: 'Doing citizen science isn’t a goal in itself, but as a university we do strive for growing societal impact and connection. We want to know what scientific research means for society. We also want to be able to effectively respond to societal questions and find answers to these – preferably together with the people who are posing them. Citizen science can be a very good tool for that.
That’s why our aim is to “strengthen” citizen science in various areas. We do that, for example, by introducing more employees to this method. We exchange knowledge between projects and determine what support people need. Besides, we make sure that we join the right networks. So that we position ourselves well in the domain of citizen science.’
Timon: ‘We’re two years in now. How is it going?'
Renske: ‘All institutes are, in some way, doing something with citizen science. Citizens are getting an increasingly bigger role in our research. I like that! Of course, some of us are further ahead than others. But UT often takes the lead in citizen science projects and networks. And citizen science is also being incorporated in education more often.
Buy hey, Timon, I'm curious: in an interview with you I read that you also find it important to involve societal questions in science. The students of today are the scientists of the future. In your opinion, should citizen science also play a role in education?'
Timon: ‘Maybe, yes. Many students are concerned with the question of whether their research is socially relevant. But actually involving society in your work, that’s taking it to the next level.'
Renske: ‘Exactly. On paper, scientific knowledge makes so much sense. But reality is often more complicated than the situation in the lab. Here, I can use my PhD research as an example again. Why can infant heads flatten? Because we advise to let them sleep on their backs. That prevents cot death. As a researcher, I said: of course you lay your infant on their back, even if that increases the risk of a flattened head. But once I became a mother myself, I noticed that after the umpteenth sleepless night, you start to have doubts about that. As researchers, we need to pay more attention to those dynamics.'
Timon: ‘I'll keep that in mind. Hey, if a reader of this interview wants to get started with citizen science, who can he or she turn to?’
Renske: 'You can turn to me, if you want to find out more about citizen science related to health. Otherwise, DesignLab is the place to be.’