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Interview: Yearning to see the bigger picture

This is a first interview with the PhD students of the Complex Systems & Metagenomics projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.


Interview with Warner van Kersen, PhD student of the project ‘Metagenomic analysis of animal, environmental and human microbiomes in the context of excess pneumonia risk around livestock production farms in the Netherlands: effects in humans’.

‘I have a stutter. Because of this, I’ve always had a curiosity for disease-related topics and how they develop. In order to avoid speaking situations, I hid in the lab as a medical microbiology technician. But analysing materials of individual patients left me yearning to see the bigger picture. After all, why were these people getting sick in the first place and what can we do about it? I completed my masters in evolutionary biology, with a thesis on disease in invasive parakeets, got control of my stutter and landed my dream job as a PhD student.’

‘Looking back it’s no surprise that I’m working on a PhD project titled: “The epidemiological analysis of pneumonia and COPD around livestock farms.” Chronic obstructed pulmonary disease (COPD) is a devastating lung disease and my main focus is on analysing the tremendous amount of data gathered for the Livestock Farming and Neighbouring Residents’ Health study (in Dutch: Veehouderij en Gezondheid Omwonenden or VGO). The dataset I’m currently working on contains the diaries kept by COPD patients living in a livestock-dense area. We already know that COPD patients have a higher risk of pneumonia and other health consequences near livestock farms. With this three-month snapshot from the lives of 82 patients, we have a powerful tool to clarify the mechanisms behind these risks.

The dynamic work environment is what I like most. Whether I’m figuring out how to adjust my models for correlation between subjects or trying to wrap my head around the complexity of microbiome analyses, there is always a new challenge to keep me on my toes. Although I’m only four months into my project the preliminary results look promising. Here’s to hoping I’m still this cheerful when I am submitting my first paper by the end of October.’

PhD project: Metagenomic analysis of animal, environmental and human microbiomes in the context of excess pneumonia risk around livestock production farms in the Netherlands: effects in humans.

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