Interview by Megan Foo
Dr. Elke Krekels is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences at Uppsala University, Sweden, where she is conducting research that focuses on item response theory and analyzing data from clinical trials on schizophrenia. Passionate about sciences, research and education, Dr. Krekels has provided funding for a host of grassroots education projects on Givology, an online giving marketplace that directly connects donors to students and projects around the world. She has supported nonprofit organizations including Starfish One by One in Guatemala, Shining Hope for Communities in Kenya, AMCAV in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. A fervent believer in the power of girls’ education, Dr. Krekels hopes to empower girls all over the world and enable them to, like her, get educated and take control of their own futures.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
I grew up in the East of the Netherlands. I have always been very curious and enjoyed learning. In school I could get really excited about all the things we learned in different science classes. I went to high school in the city I lived in, but I also spent one year as a foreign exchange student in the US. After high school, I decided to study biopharmaceutical sciences at Leiden University in the Netherlands. This program prepares students for a scientific career in drug research and development. For the Master’s degree of this program I completed two research internships: one at the university, and another at a large pharmaceutical company in Sweden. During these internships I really developed a taste for doing research, so I enrolled in a PhD program at Leiden University in close collaboration with the Sophia Children’s Hospital of the Erasmus University Hospital in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. During my PhD fellowship I also spent a few months working at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in the US. Currently I work as a Post Doctoral Researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Women LEAD: You are a Post Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Pharmaceutical Biosciences at Uppsala University, Sweden, where you are part of a team that is currently pioneering research on item response theory and analyzing data from clinical trials on schizophrenia. Can you tell us a bit about this research project?
My general field of research is called pharmacometrics. This research field aims to improve our understanding of how medicines work and of why different people have different responses to the same medicine. This is done by developing computer models that can describe and predict the effects of medicines in individual patients. The models that are being developed can be used for multiple purposes.
In my PhD research I developed models that were used to improve the dosing of medicines. Precise knowledge of what factors influence an individual’s response to medication will help doctors to prescribe the correct medicine and the correct dose for their patients. I have shown for instance that newborns generally receive too much morphine for pain treatment after surgery, while older infants generally receive too little. Morphine prescription in young children can now be optimized based on these results.
The computer models can be also used to improve drug development. It is very expensive and time consuming to develop new medicines. Improving this process would mean that less resources are wasted, so that more and better medicine is available for patients faster. Development of medicines for schizophrenia is notoriously challenging, because it is difficult to measure exactly how ill somebody is and therefore it is also difficult to establish whether and how much better patients get on medication, preventing many new drugs from reaching the market. My current research at Uppsala University is focused on developing new methods that will allow us to better distinguish between truly ineffective medicine for schizophrenia and medicine that may have the potential to treat patients successfully.
Women LEAD: What are some education projects that you have supported? Can you tell us about them?
I grew up in a time and place where I had access to a good education and where my gender has not limited my possibilities in life. When I got my PhD degree I realized that there are many people, especially girls and women, who have not been as fortunate. Therefore, instead of gifts, I asked the guests to my party for money, which I used to support students and projects featured on the Givology website. Givology is a P2P online giving marketplace that directly connects donors to students and grassroots education projects around the world. What I like about the Givology website is that you can read bios from individual students or project proposals from schools with a clear description on what the money that is being raised will be spent on. Also, you can support a student or project with any amount you want; even if you do not have much to spend, all donations combined will go a long way to educate children all over the world.
From the money I got for my PhD defense, I support individual girls and projects that aim to promote girls’ education or empower and inspire girls, projects that help them reach their full potential. Later I also started supporting boys and more general educational projects. In some areas, access to an education is hard to obtain for girls and boys alike and everybody that wants to work on improving their chances in life deserves to get that possibility, just like I did. I recently won an award for my thesis and I also intend to spend the money from that on the Givology website as well.
Women LEAD: Why is girls’ education important to you?
My parents never pressured me to be the best, but they strongly encouraged me to be the best I can be. We cannot all be world leaders or rocket scientists, but we can all positively contribute to our communities, based on our unique set of virtues and skills. However, how good we can be and whether we reach our full potential strongly depends on our access to basic necessities; a good education definitely being one of them. The amount of opportunities available to us is related to our level of education. With a good education we become more independent, making us less reliant on aid from others and less vulnerable to exploitation by others, thereby allowing us to take control of our lives and responsibility for our future.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world woman are especially vulnerable to oppression and exploitation. Educating them is in my opinion one of the best and most effective ways to give them a voice and a future of safety and freedom. Moreover, the benefits of education spread. Educating individuals within a community advances the entire community. This is especially true for girls and women, since they generally tent to invest more in their children, families, and communities, thereby raising the quality of life not only for themselves but also for those around them.
Women LEAD: Why is it important that we encourage more women to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?
People easily forget that science and research are creative processes. Every question can be approached from various angles and different ideas will lead to original solutions. In order to be creative we need to expose ourselves to various ideas, views, and opinions. It’s only by having others question your ideas and listening to theirs, that you can develop a new and unique perspective.
Women make up about half of the world’s population; it is a huge loss of potential not to tap into their thoughts and ideas. Moreover, it is well known that men have different ways of doing things than women. Men for instance raise children differently than women, they manage employees differently, they learn differently, and they solve problems differently. Hardly ever is one way better than the other, they are just different. In fields that have long been dominated by men, women may offer fresh perspectives. Having an equal representation of men and women (but also having a wide spread in other demographics like age or cultural and scientific backgrounds), will allow for the best cross-fertilization between ideas, which will in turn lead to creative solutions. Ultimately it’s diversity that will make us thrive in any field.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
There are and have been many strong, successful, and kindhearted female role models both in my personal and in my professional life, but it’s hard to single out one of them. I think that at different points in our lives we are faced with different questions and challenges. Other people also have or had to deal with various issues, some similar to ours, some completely unalike. Yet, if you talk to them, read their stories in books or other media, or witness their lives in movies or TV documentaries, you will find insight, answers, help and inspiration for every situation you have to face and more. Moving around the world, I have enjoyed meeting all kinds of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Learning from each and every one of them has made me the person and scientist that I am today.