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Renée van Amerongen coordinates the Frontiers in Medical Biology I course in the third year of the Bachelor's in Biomedical Sciences, as well as the Master’s course Current Issues in Developmental Biology. In addition, she gives lectures on stem cell biology across all the academic years. Her own line of research focuses on the link between stem cells and the development of breast cancer.

Renée van Amerongen. Photos: Liesbeth Dingemans

From mouse to molecule

‘These aren't my own words,’ says Renée van Amerongen, ‘but the fact that you are being paid to satisfy your curiosity on a daily basis is a wonderful thing.’ Shortly before this interview, Van Amerongen attended a microscopy lecture herself, to learn about new techniques she might be able to use in her own research. 

‘It was about the possibilities for measuring the level and speed of individual protein molecules inside living cells. I sometimes describe my research pipeline as ‘from mouse to molecule’. We are trying to understand how the Wnt signal transduction pathway, which plays an important role in the development of breast cancer, is regulated at the level of a threedimensional tissue, but also at the DNA and protein level. By looking at multiple levels, we ultimately hope to be able to understand the complexity and dynamics found in a normal organ.’   

The boundaries of what is known

In the third-year course Frontiers in Medical Biology I, students get a taste of how this works in practice. A mix of teaching methods, including wet labs and computer lab sessions, allows them to study how complex processes are organised in the body at different levels and from multiple perspectives. The study material lies at the boundaries of what is known. Van Amerongen: ‘These are third-year students who are about to start their Bachelor's research project, and it is here that we really make the transition from text book to scientific practice, with all the uncertainty involved.’

Having the courage to ask questions

For Van Amerongen, learning how to deal with this uncertainty is an important element of academic education. She is impressed by the quantity of information that students can often process in a short time, but also likes to see them take things one step further and to dig deeper. ‘It's so important to have the courage to say that something isn't clear yet. This is how science progresses.’ 

In the Current Issues in Developmental Biology course, a journal club for Master's students, she and colleague Frank Jacobs serve as role models. ‘It helps them to see that Frank and I will just admit it when we don't understand a figure, or that we sometimes think very differently about things. He may think something is a lousy experiment, while coming from my field I might think it's actually quite good. When you try to see it from two sides, then you're really having a scientific discussion.’

Discovering strengths

As part of Frontiers I (and its follow-up course Frontiers II), students have to write a business plan and create a web video in which they explain a fundamental scientific subject to a wide audience. ‘First of all, I think this is important because all scientists need to be able to communicate scientific results and concepts. But it also shows you where students’ strengths lie. Someone might not get a perfect mark for their exam, for example, but might shine in a pitch or web video. That's really great to see.’

When asked what she would like to pass on to students, Van Amerongen ponders the question for a while. ‘For them to think like scientists, no matter what they end up doing,’ she says, finally.