EASO New Investigators United Spotlight: former NIU Board Member Gijs Goossens

Gijs GoossensGijs Goossens obtained his PhD on the metabolic and hemodynamic effects of the renin-angiotensin system in obesity in 2006 (Maastricht University, The Netherlands), and has worked as a visiting scientist at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of Oxford (UK). He is currently holding a position as an Associate Professor at the Department of Human Biology, NUTRIM School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism, Maastricht University. The overarching goal of his translational research is to provide an evidence base for future interventions to prevent and treat obesity-related chronic metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. His research line is focused on elucidating the role of adipose tissue dysfunction in the pathophysiology of obesity-related insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes in humans. In particular, the interplay between tissue oxygenation, inflammation and metabolism is studied by integrating innovative clinical in vivo methodology to phenotype humans in detail, and mechanistic human cell culture experiments to better understand underlying mechanisms. For his work, Dr. Goossens has received several prestigious awards, including the Young Investigator Award in Clinical Research from the European Association for the Study of Obesity (2011) and the Rising Star Award from the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes (2014). He has been a Board Member of EASO’s New Investigators United between 2010-2016, and has been President of the Netherlands Association for the Study of Obesity (NASO) since 2014.

Gijs, great to speak with you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood? I understand that there were some pivotal life events that led to your interest in science.

As a child at primary school, I spent most of my free time playing football with friends. Actually, I have played football at a competitive level for about 25 years, which has been great fun and has also contributed to developing “people skills”. I have also enjoyed running. At secondary school, I started to realize that human biology is exciting. It was already during these years that I became interested in health; my grandmother was suffering from type 2 diabetes and related complications, including diabetic retinopathy. In fact, this was also the topic of one of my biology projects, and a local ophthalmologist took the time to show me pictures and explain how this particular complication develops and is diagnosed, which was absolutely fascinating. Since I enjoyed sports and also had become really interested in general health and well being, I decided to study Health Sciences, with a specialization Movement Sciences, at Maastricht University in The Netherlands (1997-2001).

I have always been impressed by the huge amount of information obtained by scientists, but at the same time I became aware that even more questions remain to be answered. As a graduate student, I worked on a research project addressing the importance of intramyocellular lipids, measured using in vivo proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS), in glucose homeostasis in humans. Thereafter, I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a PhD. However, I decided to first acquire more experience with metabolic research abroad, and had the opportunity to work together with two excellent scientists, Profs. Keith Frayn and Fredrik Karpe, on adipose tissue physiology at the Oxford Centre for Diabetes and Metabolism (OCDEM), University of Oxford, in the United Kingdom (2001-2002). This really boosted my interest in adipose tissue biology in obesity. Thereafter, I started a PhD project at Maastricht University, and completed my thesis, entitled ‘The renin-angiotensin system in obesity: metabolic and hemodynamic effects’, under supervision of Profs. Ellen Blaak, Marleen van Baak and Wim Saris in 2006. As a post-doctoral fellow (2006-2011), I became even more fascinated in metabolic impairments in obesity, and the importance of adipose tissue dysfunction and the cross-talk with other key metabolic organs herein, and continued to perform human in vivo studies in this field. I worked as an Assistant Professor for about five years (2011-2016), combining research and teaching, and was appointed as an Associate Professor at the Department of Human Biology at Maastricht University earlier this year.

What are the most exciting recent developments in the field of adipose tissue biology?

The number of studies in the field of adipose tissue biology has increased exponentially over the last 15 years. This shift in research focus is primarily driven by the tremendous increase in the prevalence of obesity and related chronic diseases, and the importance of the adipose organ herein. Intriguingly, expansion of adipose tissue does not necessarily translate directly into increased metabolic and cardiovascular disease risk. A proportion of individuals with obesity seem to be relatively protected against worsening of metabolic health, suggesting that adipose tissue dysfunction rather than the absolute amount of fat mass determines cardiometabolic risk. Although adipose tissue dysfunction in obesity is currently recognized as a key factor in the pathophysiology of obesity-related chronic diseases, the trigger that instigates an impaired functioning of this tissue is not yet fully understood. Given its central role in cardiometabolic health, it is not surprising that adipose tissue, in addition to other key metabolic organs, has become an important therapeutic target. In our laboratory, we investigate the effects of different interventions (e.g. exercise, dietary and pharmacological interventions) to restore adipose tissue function and improve metabolic health in obese and prediabetic humans, with healthy ageing as the ultimate goal. To accomplish this, innovative human in vivo techniques, analyses of adipose and skeletal muscle biopsies, and mechanistic human cell culture experiments are integrated.

You have been a member of the NIU Board for six years. Please help us learn more about NIU and about your work on the board.

New Investigators United (NIU), which was founded in 2005, is part of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO), and is the communication platform for all new professionals working in this exciting field. NIU aims to facilitate the networking of new European scientists, provide an arena for the exchange of ideas and best practices between experts and experts-to-come, and improve opportunities for future collaborations. Every year, NIU Board members organize a scientific session, which is part of the official program of the annual European Congress on Obesity, followed by a social and networking get-together with drinks and hors d’ oeuvres. During the NIU session, there usually are two or three presentations by candidates for the NIU Best Thesis Award as well as two presentations by established scientists in the field of obesity. It is great to see that the number of people attending the NIU sessions have substantially increased during the last few years; now we see more than 150 people – both new and senior investigators – in the audience.

In addition to organizing the NIU session during ECOs, the NIU Board has to date organized two NIU Summer Schools, which took place in Portugal in 2015 and 2016. The aim of this intimate and selective training is development of knowledge and key skills in the field of obesity research. The program includes lectures from international experts on multiple aspects of obesity, practical trainings (e.g. assessment of food intake), 5-min pitches by delegates who present themselves and their research, and other interesting workshops (e.g. grant applications, career development). It has been a privilege and pleasure to serve as a Member of the NIU Board from 2010-2016, and I would like to thank the members of the NIU Board and EASO’s Executive Board for a great collaboration. I am confident that the new team will bring new energy and good ideas to continue the important work for EASO’s new investigators.

Aside from your professional interests, what are your hobbies and interests?

In my free time, I like to spend time with my family and friends. My wife and I have two beautiful daughters, Saar (almost 3 year old) and Fem (1 year old), and we obviously devote a lot of time to them. Both are very energetic – just like their father – and it is great to see how they develop while growing up. I very much enjoy running and cycling, since it gives me energy, makes me feel good and contributes to a positive mindset. Since I have limited spare time these days, I usually go for a 45-min high-intensity run or a longer-distance run a few times per week, which is more time-efficient than cycling. I am convinced that exercising regularly also helps you remain disciplined, which can be valuable in a demanding work environment. Although I am ambitious, I think it is important to put your work in perspective. I feel that focusing too much on your career may even interfere with long-term success, no matter how counterintuitive that might sound. Therefore, I try to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life, although this is not always easy. 

Please tell us about your future career plans:

I want to continue to grow as a scientist and further develop my own independent line of research, together with the great team of people working with me in Maastricht. Furthermore, I would like to collaborate more closely with leading scientists internationally, for example on EU projects. I hope to motivate and inspire young researchers, because I truly believe that one can make much more progress if you love what you are doing. Although we have learned an enormous amount in a relatively short time, the complexity of adipose tissue presents numerous challenges and at the same time provides the potential of ample therapeutic opportunities. There is much more to discover, and I will do my utmost best to contribute in a significant way to the development of more effective prevention and treatment strategies to fight obesity and its complications.