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Start Butterfly PhD students

All 28 Butterfly PhD students have now started their training program. Researchers from all over the world applied for a position in this EU-funded program. After a blind selection procedure, the students from 19 different countries are now working at the Princess Máxima Center. The ultimate goal of the Butterfly program is to advance the pediatric oncology research field by building an international multidisciplinary network of scientists trained to become future leaders in this field. Three students share their first experiences.

Influencing the tumor immune microenvironment

For Akshaya Krishnamoorthy from India, it was immediately clear that she wanted to pursue a PhD track after studying biomedical sciences in Leuven, Belgium. She joined the Van Vuurden group, thanks in part to the support of the Semmy Foundation. 'In the coming years, I am going to focus on the so-called tumor immune microenvironment of the as yet incurable brain tumor diffuse midline glioma (DMG). Among other things, I want to find out which immune cells are present in and around the tumor. Once we know that, we will investigate how we can adjust these immune cells using nanotherapeutics and activate them against the tumor. Part of the research will also focus on how we can get these therapeutics to the right place. I love taking on challenges and diving into something to find out why certain mechanisms work and others don't. This project fits perfectly!’

Within Krishnamoorthy's PhD research, she will draw on the expertise of various specialists within pediatric oncology. 'Like within the Butterfly program, The Van Vuurden group is quite diverse ranging from fundamental researches such as immunologist as well as more technical people such as a physicist and technical physicians. All their knowledge and my own can be applied to hopefully  getting one step closer to a solution to high-grade brain tumors such as DMG.’

New research methods in neuro-psychology

Jessica Beamish has moved from Melbourne, Australia to Utrecht to further specialize in neuro-psychology. This is the field that focuses on studying the relationship between brain functions and behavior. 'After working in the clinic for several years, I now want to contribute to the further development of this field through my research. My first impression of the Máxima is that everyone works from a shared mission and looks at what possibilities there are to get there. This creates a very positive work environment and encourages me to think big.’

Beamish follows the Butterfly program in the Partanen group. 'The cognitive development, including thinking and perception, of children with cancer who are under the age of five is very fragile. These children often spend long periods of time in a hospital and this together with their cancer diagnosis and treatment make them more likely to have developmental delays. I am investigating whether there are new methods, for example machine learning, with which we can better predict the risk of such a delay and enable timely intervention.' Beamish' position was made possible in part thanks to KiKa.

Insensitivity to immunotherapy

From Ghent, Belgium, biomedical scientist Céline Debou moved to Utrecht. Bringing together researchers with different education and backgrounds was an important reason for her to apply for a position in the Butterfly program. Debou: ‘I like the whole research process. From setting up an experiment to working out the results. The fact that I can now do this within an international program makes the PhD track even more fun and educational for me. In addition, I am also building a good network for the future.’

In the Den Boer group, Debou is investigating the role of the bone marrow’s tumor microenvironment in the response to immunotherapy in children with leukemia. 'I think the beauty of this research is the clinical relevance. If we find explanations why immunotherapy not always works by delving into the biology of the disease, we may be able to make an immediate difference for the children affected. The convergence of research and treatment at Máxima makes this research and this workplace very inspiring.'

Life in the Netherlands

When the three PhD students are asked to share their first experiences in the Netherlands, the word ‘gezelligheid’ quickly comes up. Beamish: 'There is much more attention to the balance between work and life outside work than in Australia. Fun social activities are also organized. That's how I'm getting to know more and more people.' Debou agrees: 'The open attitude and informal way we interact as colleagues makes it easier to make new contacts. And also to learn more about what colleagues from other groups are involved in.' Krishnamoorthy also speaks highly of the work-life balance: ’A PhD track is not a nine-to-five job. That appeals to me a lot, but that is precisely why that balance is important. It’s very nice that we can also pay attention to that through personal development projects.' ‘Even though the fact that the weather in the Netherlands is colder and wetter than in Australia, I absolutely love the cycling culture here!’ Beamish concludes.

Máxima Butterfly program

The Máxima Butterfly program, which is made possible thanks to an EU-funded Marie Sklodowska-Curie COFUND grant, will focus and stimulate international education and multi-disciplinary exchange of expertise in pediatric oncology. The 28 PhD students will receive training from a broad group of pediatric oncology experts at the Princess Máxima Center in close collaboration with partner organizations in industry, academia and patient advocacy groups from around the world.