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Sacha van Hijum, PhD

Sacha van Hijum

"Even if we manage to integrate everything, the underlying biology will not simply present itself."

Bacterial Genomics group, CMBI, Radboud University Medical Centre
NIZO Food Research
TI Food and Nutrition
Group size: 14

1. What is the leading research theme in your group?
"Studying the interactions between bacteria and their host using bioinformatics tools. These interactions are interesting from different perspectives, which results in a broad scope of our group. For example relating to health. Our gut, skin and teeth and covered with numerous different bacterial species. Which ones can make us ill and which ones have a beneficial effect on our health? And those microbiota are usually stable. How is that stability maintained and what can cause a disruption? To answer these questions, integration of knowledge on individual bacteria and their surroundings is necessary to unravel the network of interactions between microbiota and their host. Another aspect is safety, which is relevant to food production. Can we predict spoilage or even pathogenicity based on the genetic characteristics of bacterial strains?"
2. With what type of groups or organisations do you collaborate most and why?
"We mostly collaborate with biology groups, both academic and industrial. Through our partnerships with NIZO, TIFN and the Kluyver Centre we perform research on bacterial species related to food and health . With academic groups we work on more basic questions relating to fermentation, microbe-host interactions or specific bacterial species. We also collaborate with medical groups, for example in clinical microbiology or paediatrics. To the latter, respiratory infections in young children are particularly relevant."

3. From your research perspective, what are the main challenges in bioinformatics right now?
"The main problem is communication on how a particular biological question can be solved from integrated analysis of a particular dataset. In the race towards generating more data, everyone is focused on finding computational methods to link and integrate all these data sources because that is expected to be the ultimate solution. Even if we manage to integrate everything, which I doubt, the underlying biology will not simply present itself. You still need thorough biological knowledge as well as knowledge of the data to set the constraints of what you can expect from an analysis. Advanced computational tools are not enough, you need a lot of experience and collaboration between biologists and bioinformaticians to find the optimal approach to each individual question."

4. What is the most important task of a group leader?
"To maintain overview, to bring the right people with the right expertise together and to educate young researchers on the importance of interdisciplinary communication. Support them in giving clear feedback and dealing with feedback on their own work.  Help them to be critical and clear, but always in a constructive manner."

5. How would you describe the atmosphere in your group?
"Friendly, professional and open, people here really have the feeling they can speak out. Research is taken very seriously and during group meetings, sharp questions will be asked, but as there is a genuine interest in each other's work, this is very much appreciated, also by guests."

Text by Esther Thole.