Does the timing of drug administration affect its effectiveness? How do you demonstrate the entanglement of large numbers of quantum particles? What effect does the growing power of algorithms have on human autonomy? How can you optimize communication between doctor and patient? The winners of the Heineken Young Scientists Awards 2022 ponder these provocative questions every day. These prizes are awarded every two years to four talented young Dutch researchers. With their work, they make an important contribution to our collective knowledge and are an example for other young researchers. Meet the winners of 2022.
Laura Kervezee (1989)
Leiden University Medical Center
Heineken Young Scientists Award in (bio)medical sciences
Our internal clockwork ensures that all kinds of body processes take place at the right time. Not only our sleep, but also processes around our digestion, endocrine system, metabolism and our immune system. Laura Kervezee, chronobiologist at Leiden University Medical Center, studies how this biological clock affects our health. Kervezee was fascinated by this subject early in his studies. She wondered why she always woke up before eight, no matter how late she went to bed, while her classmates could sleep until 8. She delved into that question for a study assignment. ‘Since then, the fire has never gone out,’ says Kervezee.
Food education from space
One of the questions she investigated is what the consequences are of a disrupted biological clock. ‘We studied night shift workers for this,’ she says. ‘We were able to measure at the molecular level in the blood how disrupted that clock is and whether it adapts well to night shifts or not. We see this, for example, in hormones such as melatonin and cortisol, but also in RNA in blood cells. From this we can deduce when genes involved in the biological clock are read out to produce proteins.’
She is currently researching how she can make the biological clock of patients in the intensive care unit stronger, and thus make the patients healthier. You can influence the biological clock with light, but also, for example, with a certain diet. “ICU patients usually receive continuous gastric feeding,” says Kervezee. “It takes place 24 hours a day. We, and also doctors and nurses, wonder if it is the best diet. After all, no one usually eats while they sleep. We therefore investigate how such a diet affects the patients’ biological clock, sleep and health. We will compare patients who are fed continuously with patients who are only fed during the day. In total, they get the same amount of food.’
According to Kervezee, there is still a world to gain in the administration of medicine. She focused on this during her PhD research. “We already know that the effect of medicine depends on the time of day. If we find out exactly how the time of administration affects the effect of drugs, it can be very profitable. It also varies greatly from person to person. It would be great if we could predict the optimal moments so we could take that into account.’
Jordi Tura in Brugues (1987)
University of Leiden
Heineken Young Scientists Award in natural sciences
Quantum computers calculate in a completely different way than ordinary computers. As a result, the potential is huge, but you also need to manage them in a completely different way. Mathematician Jordi Tura i Brugués, associated with Leiden University, develops algorithms to perform calculations on quantum computers. Applications of his quantum algorithms include complex optimization problems, machine learning, and unraveling and predicting the precise course of chemical reactions.
“Chemical reactions are themselves governed by the laws of quantum dynamics,” says Tura i Brugués. ‘We don’t yet understand many of the details of these reactions because they are incredibly complex systems with large numbers of electrons all interacting with each other. Simulating these systems costs far too much computing power for a regular computer. But because a quantum computer works according to the same laws of quantum dynamics, it is eminently suitable for mapping such complex chemical reactions.’
One of the quantum properties that makes a quantum computer so incredibly powerful is entanglement. This means that if you do something to one particle, it has an immediate effect on the particles entangled with it, no matter how far apart they are. “Entanglement is a necessary ingredient to unleash the full potential of a quantum computer,” says Tura i Brugués. He has taken important steps to measure the entanglement of large amounts of particles in the laboratory. This makes it possible to determine the computing power of the quantum computers that are under development.
“Mathematically, this is a very complex problem,” says Tura i Brugués. “That’s because with every extra particle you add, the complexity of the equations you have to solve at least doubles.” Using clever approximations, he simplified the problem. For example, he made Bell’s theorem, which is used to demonstrate the entanglement of two particles, suitable for large numbers of particles. Thanks to his theoretical work, it became possible for the first time to demonstrate the entanglement of half a million rubidium atoms.
In addition, Tura i Brugués is developing methods to verify whether a quantum computer is really a quantum computer and not a classical computer that mimics the properties of a quantum computer. ‘I develop interactive protocols where I let the computer solve various problems. It is quite difficult to find the right kind of problems for this. They must be hard enough that a classical computer cannot solve them, but easy enough that a rudimentary quantum computer can.’
Liesbeth van Vliet (1985)
University of Leiden
Heineken Young Scientists Award in Social Sciences
When someone has a serious illness such as metastatic cancer, it is not only important that the doctor is medically competent. How a doctor communicates with this patient is also crucial. Liesbeth van Vliet, a health psychologist associated with Leiden University, studies how doctors can organize their communication in such a way that patients experience less stress and remember information better, e.g. She also finds out what the doctors shouldn’t say. “For example, patients have indicated that they don’t want a doctor to say they look good,” says Van Vliet. ‘It makes it harder to say that they really feel bad. They also found it annoying when a doctor said: ‘I’ll call you tomorrow’. This can lead to them waiting by the phone all day. If possible, it may help to specify a time frame in which you will call.’
By studying videos of consultations and combining them with questionnaires, Van Vliet discovered that patients do not remember all the information from conversations. For example, women with incurable breast cancer remembered only 40 percent of information about side effects after outcome interviews. We know from such studies that it is important to repeat information in several conversations, and to ask someone at the end of a conversation: what do you take home from this conversation?’
Empathy also plays a role here. People were found to remember 8 percent more information when a doctor is empathetic. Patients also feel better after an empathic conversation. Van Vliet saw this reflected in recordings of conversations between patients and doctors, but also in an experiment where she showed test subjects videos with and without empathic elements.’
At the same time, empathy is a rather abstract concept. ‘That’s why we try to specify which behavior can help create a connection with a patient,’ says Van Vliet. “One patient reported that her doctor once stopped mid-sentence and said to her husband, ‘Do you have a new tattoo?’ It’s a very small thing, but the patient felt seen. It often turns out that small things can make a big difference, which is good news because it means that empathy doesn’t always take a lot of time. When you’re seriously ill, empathic behavior means a lot. Then you need someone who not only sees your tumor, but who sees and supports you as a person.’
Fleur Jongepier (1986)
Heineken Young Scientists Award in the humanities
Both public authorities and commercial companies are increasingly dependent on algorithms. The tax authorities and the police use algorithms to decide who to carry out extra checks. Netflix and Spotify increasingly pay attention to what you want to watch or listen to, and voters predict which party you will vote for. Philosopher Fleur Jongepier received the Heineken Young Scientists Award for her research into how the growing power of algorithms affects our autonomy and self-awareness. In this research, which she did at Radboud University Nijmegen, she investigated whether it is a bad thing that we listen to algorithms more often than ourselves, and if so why. She also mapped out in which cases it might actually be better to listen to algorithms.
The growing influence of algorithms is initiating changes that are not always very visible. That is precisely why Jongepier thinks it is important that we think carefully about the consequences, and she actively participates in the social debate. Not only about digitization problems. It also brings other issues to the surface that society would otherwise ignore. She publishes articles in i.a NRC and Fidelity, and currently writes columns for de Volkskrant. She also co-founded the philosophy blog Upon closer inspection and is a regular guest on talk shows to interpret social issues from a philosophical point of view.
Fleur Jongepier has recently decided to leave science and will continue her public philosophical work outside of it. She is currently working on the book Mountain philosophy where she will show how the mountains can help us think more clearly about themes such as physicality, identity, climate, work and digital calm.
Every two years, five renowned international scientists and one artist are awarded the Heineken Prizes. In addition, there are Heineken Young Scientists Awards for four young, promising researchers in the Netherlands. In 1964, Alfred Heineken called Dr. The HP Heineken Prize for Lifetime Biochemistry and Biophysics in honor of his father. This was later followed by the Heineken Prizes for Art, Medicine, Environmental Science, History and Cognitive Science. The Heineken Young Scientists Awards have been awarded since 2010 and since 2018 in the four domains of (Bio)medical science, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) is responsible for the nomination and selection process.
This article was written in collaboration with the Alfred Heineken Foundation.