A Personal Touch of Sacha van Hijum


Please learn more about colleagues in our "Personal Touch" series setting employees in the spotlight. A light-hearted manner to learn about the colleagues you know and those you don't!.

This week: Sacha van Hijum






1. Name, nationality, current function, department & theme?
My name is Sacha van Hijum. I am Dutch and appointed for 0.5 FTE as associate professor bioinformatics (jPI) & group leader of the bacterial (meta)genomics group, Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Informatics (CMBI) part of the RIMLS. My research theme is Infectious diseases and global health. The CMBI is part of the Radboudumc bioinformatics technology center. I am part of the UMC Raad from September 2016 onwards.
In my other 0.5 FTE I am appointed as principal scientist at the contract research company NIZO food research (Ede). NIZO is an SME where we perform bilateral projects as well as public-private partnerships with industry in the food and health sectors.

2. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up? Can you tell us something about your childhood years. 
As a kid I really liked to watch nature documentaries and to play with LEGO. From a combination of LEGO parts from different ‘boxes’ I created working gear-boxes, vaults with combinatorial locks, and other technical contraptions. As a youngster I started programming on the ancient computers in the eighties. I was and still am also slightly filosophical and always had the will to help other people. However, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do later.

3. What was your previous academic training, where did you study and why did you choose that study/those studies? 
I went to the VWO in Groningen and next was faced with the choice of what study to do. Still I didn’t have a clear view of what I wanted. After going to several information days I chose for the study biology due to my inherent interest in what drives nature. I studied biology at the University of Groningen (RUG), obtained my PhD also at the RUG on molecular biology of Gram-positive bacteria and found myself wondering what to do next. The molecular biology of bacteria as a work-field always drew me, but I could not satisfy my computational needs and needs for a broader view in biology. In 2002 I started working as a Post-Doc at the laboratory of Prof. Kuipers (RUG) in the early days of microarrays and bioinformatics. The amazing speed at which the high-throughput experimental biology and bioinformatics develop and the unprecedented view on microbial metabolism and regulation soon drew my attention and firmly hold me in their grip ever since. 
After Post-Docs at the RUG and the University of Greifswald (Germany) I started my jobs the Radboudumc and at NIZO food research in 2008.

4. The RIMLS motto is ‘to understand molecular mechanisms of disease’. What does this mean for you?
As a bioinformatician, both at Radboudumc and NIZO food research, I work a lot in multi-disciplinary teams studying the relation between microbe and health (microbiomics), where many aspects that I find important in my work are present: effective use of expertise, interest in other people’s problems, problem solving (both on the biology / bioinformatics as well as the ‘soft’ skills), and working together towards a larger goal. 
In my view bioinformatics is about generating leads from large and complex datasets that generally need laboratory follow-up to go towards mechanistic underpinning of a biological phenomenon. Therefore, I view bioinformatics as an indispensible part in answering many biological questions. I am particularly interested in collaborations where the ultimate goal is to prove findings in at least in vitro or even in vivo models. Next, based on follow up experiments in these models, mechanistic understanding of e.g. disease can be generated.

5. Which international scientist inspires/inspired you the most? Please give a motivation why.
One scientist that comes to my mind is Prof. Michiel Kleerebezem from Wageningen University who works on microbe-host interactomics. He is scientifically quite brilliant, very aware of the societal value of his work, and has an impressive academic and industrial network.

6. Which research discovery that you have made has made you most proud?
There are two:
(i) in order to understand the microbial players involved in any disease, we need to know exactly what microbe is causal. Due to the vast microbial diversity this is a non-trivial task. We now have unique bioinformatics and next generation sequencing based methods to accurately pinpoint potentially causal microbes.
(ii) already from 2004 onwards I’m working on computational methods for associating microbial genes with their phenotypes (gene-trait matching). We do this using a particularly powerful multi-variate machine learning technique termed random forest. During the years we have made a suite of random forest based tools and approaches that allow to pinpoint tiny but significant signals in typically large ~omics datasets generated for relatively small cohorts that would have been missed by many other sophisticated data analysis methods. This suite is generic and has been applied to datasets from metagenomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, high-throughput phenotyping, patient questionnaires, etc.

7. Given unlimited finance what experiment would you perform?
To setup (new) validated in vitro model systems to study the causal relation of microbes in health. For example, for respiratory disease and skin disease I’ve written multi-disciplinary proposals that include selection of a cohort, microbial profiling of subject material, selection of relevant in vivo host-response readouts in response to e.g. microbial infection and validation of these readouts in in vitro models where microbes are applied to.

8. What does your working area (desk, office) look like and what does it say about you (or your research)? 
A few papers, snippets and books around which I can find my way, but generally quite clean.

9. Nominate a colleague to be in the spotlight and what would you like to ask him or her? 
Marien de Jonge (laboratory of pediatric infectious diseases).
Question: how does your previous industrial experience benefit your work at Radboudumc?

10. What type of person are you, quick insights:
a) Mac or  PC:
b) Theater or Cinema:
c) Dine out or dine in: 
Dine in
d) Ferrari or Fiat:
e) Schopaholic or chocoholic:
f) Culture or Nature:

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke/TIFN.


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