Speakers Science Night

During this Science Night, four scientists will elaborate on the subjects of happiness, sleep, nutrition, and longevity and will guide us through the recent advancements in these research topics!

Meike Bartels (1973) is University Research Chair Professor in Genetics and Well-being at the department for Biological Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She graduated as a biological psychologist in 1998 and immediately started her PhD trajectory at the Dutch Twin Registry (Nederlands Tweelingen Register). While finishing her dissertation on behavioral problems in children, she realized that a small part of the population develops problems but that a large part of the population is doing very well. From that point onwards she started to focus on the causes of differences in happiness. In 2014 she was appointed as Full Professor in the University Research Chair program of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is the president of the International Positive Psychology Association and the Past-President of the Behavior Genetics Associations. In her research she has shown that differences in happiness are due to a complex interplay of genes and environment. Her team also mapped out the first genetic variants for feelings of happiness and meaning in life. She combines her research activities with teaching bachelor and master courses, and she is the Director of the Research Master Genes in Behaviour and Health.

One rates his or her life with an 8, while others rate their life with a 5 or a 6. One almost always feels happy, the other only occasionally. Where do these differences in happiness come from? Using the valuable data of twins and their relatives of the Netherlands Twin Register, Meike Bartels shows that differences in happiness are partly due to genetic differences between people. But environmental factors also explain differences in happiness. How could people become happier? In her lecture, Meike will tell you more about twins research, happiness research and she will explain whether or not you should follow a happiness training.

Merijn van de Laar (1979) studied Biological psychology at the University of Maastricht and received his PhD for his thesis about personality traits and sleep and treatment of insomnia. For several years he worked at Kempenhaege, a center for sleep medicine where he treated people with insomnia, and shifted sleep-wake patterns, and for sleepwalking. He currently works at Maastricht University where he teaches about diagnostics and treatment for sleep problems as part of the general practitioners training programme. Together with his colleague dr. Ingrid Verbeek, he wrote a handbook for psychologists for the treatment of insomnia. In 2016 he treated patients with sleep problems in the dutch TV-show “Bizarre slapers”. In 2021, Merijn also wrote the book: “Slapen als een oermens” –  sleeping like a caveman. In which he answers questions like why do we sleep? Why we sleep poorly? And what can we learn from our ancestors? Written from the perspective of a sleep scientist and a personal expert. Additionally, he is owner of the organisation “Zorg voor slaap”- care for sleep – where he organises workshops and trainings for education about and prevention of sleep problems.

In his lecture Merijn will tell us all about how we can sleep healthier to become healthier!

Renger Witkamp is full professor of Nutritional Biology at Wageningen University. He studied biology and pharmacy and has a PhD in pharmacology. In his work he focusses on the interplay between diet – food, energy and nutrients – and functional health: optimal physical and mental performance under different conditions. Important points of attention are principles of physiological resilience and adaptive response of the body to exercise, ageing or chronic diseases, and the role of these factors in functional health. Besides his work as professor, Renger is also chair of the advisory board of the “Voeding Leeft” foundation, a board member of the European Nutrition Leadership Platform, member of the Nutrition Alliance between Wageningen University and the Gelderse Valei Hospital in Ede, and the Institue for Medicinal Cannabis Netherlands.

If we are to believe some, food is both an elixir of life and a panacea. Indeed, there is no doubt that what we eat during our life is a major determinant of our (healthy) life expectancy. However, it is also clear that it is certainly not the only determinant, and apparently, a lot of discussion remains about what a healthy diet should look like. In addition, what and when we eat is by no means the result of conscious and considered choices; numerous biological, psycho-social and economic factors are crucial in this. In our part of the world, certainly not everywhere, the perspective on food has shifted from nourishment and survival to enjoyment and health. The latter is partly at odds with each other because unhealthy diets significantly contribute to chronic disease. Our complicated relationship with food is also a breeding ground for the rise and fall of the many gurus and food prophets. Where should our food go? An update on nutrition for dummies – sorry, we are all specialists of course – of only 25 minutes will be far too short but I’ll give it a try.

Michel Poulain was originally skilled in astrophysics at University of Liège (ULg) he received a PhD in demography at Université catholique de Louvain (UCL). As demographer, he is specialized in Longevity studies. Currently emeritus professor at UCL, he is also Senior Researcher at the Estonian Institute for Population Studies at Tallinn University (Estonia). He validated the age of several supercentenarians including Antonio Todde, Johan Riudavets and Emma Moreno, each of them holding the Guinness record of longevity. He introduced the concept of Blue Zone when identifying an exceptional longevity area in the mountainous part of Sardinia. The original term Blue Zone was related to the blue pen that he used to shape the longevity area on the map of Sardinia. In two Sardinian villages, Villagrande and Seulo, he demonstrated with colleagues an exceptional situation where men live as long as women do, a unique situation in our modern societies. Thereafter in cooperation with Dan Buettner, he identified other Blue Zones in Okinawa, the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica) and Ikaria (Greece).

Researchers try to understand why in more developed populations, so many deaths occur between the ages of 60 and 80 while in the Blue Zone, many people live above 90 years? The lessons learned from the Blue Zone populations could give an answer. The oldest people living therein are examples of healthy ageing, and the information gathered from the Blue Zone populations can be adapted and transferred to nowadays’ societies to contribute living longer but healthier. The lessons gathered from the Blue Zones populations are summarized in 7 principles and might be transferred to our advanced and post-industrial societies in order to contribute improving health and well-being. The characteristics of these people living in the Blue Zones, their lifestyle and environment, both physical and human, might be guidelines without being obliged to go and live as shepherd in a remote mountainous area. Today the size of the elderly is increasing but the tendency to exclude old people from the society is growing. Health and loneliness are major problems in our societies. Accordingly, what we observed in the Blue Zones can help to keep the seniors involved in the society and to help all of us to live better and longer.

Jeroen Schuitenmaker studied medicine at the University of Groningen and started in 2018 as PhD candidate at Amsterdam UMC, location AMC at the department of Gastroenerology and Hepatology. His research focuses on novel treatment strategies for gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Jeroen is one of the members of the working group “Ontregel het Onderzoek”: aiming to reduce (futile) regulatory and administrative burden when conducting medical (clinical) research.

During the Science Night Jeroen will manage the discussion with the speakers. Furthermore, he might make this evening a more magical experience…