Getting perspectives from European researchers: An interview with ERC grantee and research group leader Monika Wolkers

Getting perspectives from European researchers: An interview with ERC grantee and research group leader Monika Wolkers

Getting perspectives from European researchers: An interview with ERC grantee and research group leader Monika Wolkers


03 Jun 2020

by: Katharina Flicker, TU Wien

Researchers are at the very heart of the EOSC: So what do researchers really need to do outstanding research, and produce high-impact research results? Moreover, how do they think the EOSC could support them in their research endeavors? Let’s see what medical biologist Monika Wolkers has to say.

Interview with: Monika Wolkers, Research Group Leader at Sanquin, Netherlands

For further information on Monika Wolkers, please visit this link.

Move science forward by getting rid of excessive data protectionism

KF: What does your work currently focus on?

MW: I am primarily interested in how the immune system works and how it responds to infections and cancer cells. I work primarily on T cells and study how T cells respond to tumors and infections, as well as how these responses are maintained and how we can exploit immune responses for treatments.

KF: What data sets are you working with?

MW: We use different types of data sets. We work with different RNA-Seq data types and with mass spectronomy data, which we also combine to determine the protein output from a given mRNA. We also work a lot with flow cytometry data, which is pretty much like mass data as well. Imaging is not in our portfolio yet, but we are planning to use it in the near future. Overall, we generate our own data but we also re-use published datasets from other scientists.

KF: Is it easy to access other people’s data in your field?

MW: It works, but it could be better. It is good that funding agencies and journals now require access to raw data. However, not all data are reusable, for instance because the data acquisition is not well described or because they are not well annotated.

KF: How could you improve that?

MW: It is crucial to raise awareness of how data should be annotated so that they are reusable for other researchers. Researchers need to be aware of the necessity to do so. In addition, a culture change would help a lot. We should get rid of excessive data protectionism. Is it not fantastic when other people make use of our data, and that they can answer questions that you have not even thought of? Besides that, we scientists are all in the same boat and we want to move science forward. I think we would achieve much more if we saw ourselves as a community rather than as competitors. Don’t get me wrong. Some competition is important, because it keeps us moving, but the emphasis on it is too strong.

Monika Wolkers - Researcher

KF: Ok. So what would ideal (future) research environments look like?

MW: I am working in two different fields of research. The RNA biology field is definitely competitive, but it is primarily knowledge- and curiosity-driven. The immunology field is much closer to the clinics and to patient treatment, so other interests are at stake. And that attracts different types of people. Collaborations with pharmaceutical companies are common. There is nothing wrong with it. But we also need our independence in doing our research. Dependence on money can kill free thought and open discussion. I think if research funding was more independent from industry and more driven by governmental funding, it would already help a lot. In addition, all scientists should embrace the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) principles.

KF: Are there any other challenges that you are facing in your current research environments?

MW: Communication between researchers and experts that are setting up infrastructures and / or services is sometimes suboptimal. You may get services that you do not need or cannot work with because no one bothered asking about the pipelines you are using. Then again, we scientists may not even be aware of what is possible in terms of infrastructures and services. Therefore, good communication between researchers and experts is key to get the appropriate infrastructure.

In my institute we are still working on the infrastructure for big data. We are not there yet, but people are working hard on it, which I really appreciate. Moreover, having better access to robotics, for instance screening of genetic modifications, would be great.

KF: So having said all that, what would you want the EOSC to be, or to offer you so that it would really be helpful to you as a researcher?

MW: Perhaps getting good guidelines would help quite a bit. Ensuring that people know what type of data are out there that they can actually use. Also to emphasize what it takes to do open or FAIR science, and emphasize its value to the scientific community and the society. Perhaps EOSC could also play a role in highlighting research results that come from interdisciplinary approaches. This could inspire and encourage scientists to take new paths in their research and to strike out in new directions.

KF: Thank you.

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