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American Fulbright students about their work at the Máxima

Researchers and specialists from all over the world work at the Princess Máxima Center. There is also much collaboration with researchers abroad. Together, we achieve progress within the rare disease area of childhood cancer. A total of 40 different nationalities are represented in the Máxima. A number that continues to increase, for example through prestigious scholarships or the Butterfly program for foreign PhD students. Researchers Valerie Nguyen (22) and Daniel Zhang (23) are two of these internationals. They received a Fulbright Scholar Award in their home country the United States and are now working in the Van Heesch and Drost research groups for nine months.

Every year, 2,000 Fulbright Scholar Awards are given to promising, ambitious students. They can gain research and work experience abroad for nine months thanks to the scholarship. Valerie Nguyen and Daniel Zhang were awarded the scholarship and are now working at the Máxima. Valerie Nguyen, a recent graduate at University of North Carolina says, ‘For a few months now, I have been working in the Van Heesch group. I am not only gaining new knowledge, but also experiencing what it is like to work at a research institute outside America.'

Conscious choices

Nguyen's sister died of childhood cancer. This shaped her career choices. ‘My dream is to one day become a physician scientist leading my own research group and focus on finding a treatment for sarcomas, including osteosarcoma, the form of bone cancer from which my sister died. Thus far, I have intentionally made my study and career choices with this goal in mind, including the choice to work in Sebastiaan van Heesch's research group.’ Prior to joining the Van Heesch group, Nguyen worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looking at the tumor microenvironment. At the University of North Carolina, she started to focus on Ewing sarcoma.

Nguyen works in the Van Heesch group identifying novel 'microproteins' and its potential application within immunotherapy, a relatively new form of therapy that uses the child’s immune system, in Ewing sarcoma. 'First, I am visualizing the production of these microproteins by ribosomes using the ribosomal sequencing (Ribo-seq) technology. Ribo-seq is a specialty method of the Van Heesch lab that allows me to create a 'snapshot' of all ribosomes actively engaging in protein synthesis at a specific time point.

'This will provide the first-ever genome-wide landscape of microprotein translation in Ewing sarcoma. Then I will use data analysis methods to prioritize human-specific microproteins for further testing. Previously at the University of North Carolina, I gained knowledge of the unique chromatin signature of Ewing sarcoma. Thanks to my work at the Máxima, I am expanding my knowledge even more, and transferring my knowledge to my colleagues at the Máxima.'

Laboratory at home

Daniel Zhang, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, also has the ultimate goal of working as a physician scientist. ‘Ever since I was young, I've had a fascination for science. I first sparked an interest in science while conducting experiments in a make-shift laboratory I built in the basement of my house. After my aunt died of leukemia, I knew I wanted to focus on cancer research. In pursuit of this passion, he worked as a research intern at the University of California San Diego Biomedical Research Facility in high school and continued to work as an undergraduate researcher at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research during his time at MIT.

Zhang now works in the Drost group. This group focuses on unraveling childhood solid tumorigenesis, the formation of cancer, using organoids, a type of mini-tumor. The goal is to find new drugs for these types of childhood cancers. 'In my project, I work on addressing the question of how we can better model pediatric cancer, in particular through the development of co-culture systems between tumor organoids and immune cells. Through discussions with my colleagues at the Máxima, I became immediately fascinated by this topic. I’m so excited to be able to work on this every day and learn from experts in the field.'

Collaboration is central

'The Máxima is an inspiring environment to work in,' Zhang says. ‘There is an open atmosphere and we truly work together. Within the team, but also together with other departments. This is further enhanced by the fact that Máxima is a research hospital and we are reminded daily of who we are doing our research for.’

Besides the fact that both researchers are very enthusiastic about the Máxima, there are also differences in culture. Nguyen: 'The well-known Dutch directness took some time getting used to, but now I like the fact that I know immediately where I stand. There is also a big difference in the work-life balance and how team building is done. I really like how I am encouraged to find the right balance for myself. The word 'gezellig' that I learned during my Dutch lessons is therefore very valuable. At work, but also privately.'

With a hefty dose of acquired scientific knowledge, an intercontinental network and new work and life experiences, Daniel and Valerie will return to the United States in a few months. There, they will continue to study and work on their personal goal of treating children with cancer and finding better and new treatments.