Today we’d like to introduce you to Julia Haarhuis.
Julia, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
My journey started off in the Netherlands, where I was born. From there, I received the opportunity to study abroad. This was a chance I did not want to miss since I was excited to experience other places and cultures, not just as a visitor, but as a resident. The journey that was laying ahead of me would not only teach me about a new city and culture but also about my true passion.
In the Netherlands, I study at Wageningen University, which is especially focused on healthy food and living environment. There, I was surrounded by inspiring people who helped me further along my journey. I made friends with passions for building and maintaining communities like our student union SSR-W, or discovering how to generate electricity from algae, for example. I loved this environment, but my fascination for neuroscience had reached a point that required a different, specialized university. Wageningen University supported my exchange to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), one of the world’s top universities in the field of neuroscience. That was last year, in 2019.
I love to study and work at the same time, so I currently work at one of UCLA’s laboratories for neuroscience as a trainee, while pursuing my master’s degree in Nutritional Epidemiology and Public Health. During the last year, I have gained both academic and professional experience in Los Angeles. I learned about the scientific field of the human microbiome, which has become a passion I want to study further. The microbiome is the term that encompasses all the microorganisms living in the human body. Everyone seems to have a personal microbiome and research starts to uncover that our personal microbiomes might predict weight, the diseases we develop during our lives, how we respond to drugs and therapies… And at the moment, many more microbiome-related discoveries are on the horizon.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Life brings us many challenges, but that also fuels our willpower to overcome them. Moving to another country is not easy and brings many practical issues, such as getting your visa, housing, insurance, you name it. But, the biggest challenge has been the distance between me and the people I love. Sometimes I miss home very much, but the time difference and distance make it difficult to be as close to family and friends as before.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
My passion for epidemiology started when I was sixteen years old. At that age, I learned about noncommunicable diseases from my direct environment. Did you know that noncommunicable diseases are accountable for about 41 million deaths each year, worldwide? To give you an impression, in 2018 that was about 70% of all deaths globally. Even though the numbers are high and rapidly increasing, many of these diseases don’t have a cure yet. So, when I first learned about this, it fascinated me. I started to realize that it is the complex development of those diseases that makes it difficult to develop a cure, so I wondered if our lifestyle and nutrition play a role in their onset.
With this in mind, I studied the influence of nutrition on Alzheimer’s disease during my bachelor thesis. What I found in the literature was beyond my expectations. Nutrition appears to be involved in its development indeed, and the microorganisms living in and on our bodies seem to play a crucial role. There are approximately 100 trillion bacteria that live in our gut (not even taking into account all the bacteria on our other body areas). They are affected by the food we consume and they have an effect on the diseases we develop. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the omega-3 fatty acids that are present in foods like salmon, nuts, olive oil or eggs, could affect our microbiota in a preventive way for Alzheimer’s disease development. This is just the beginning, there is much more to discover about the role of nutrition and the microbiome in noncommunicable disease development.
After my thesis, I delved further into this topic. I received the opportunity to present my thesis at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden, which I did via a robot since I was in Los Angeles (you can see a picture of this at the end of the interview). Besides that, I did my academic training via UCLA as a Digital Health Writer, where we especially focused on the oral microbiome. I am still learning, and I always will. Soon, I hope to pursue my master’s degree in Nutritional Epidemiology and Public Health, getting a step closer to contribute to research that benefits the health of our society.
What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to or planning for – any big changes?
As part of my master’s, I will go to New Zealand next year to perform four months of my academic career at the Victoria University of Wellington. There, I hope to learn more about microbiology to improve my understanding of the microorganisms that live in, on and around us. The experience in New Zealand, in addition to my professional and academic experiences in the Netherlands and the United States, will contribute to my preparation for a PhD in this emerging field in health science: the human microbiome. I am ready to face this new challenge abroad to keep fueling my passion and desire to contribute to the science of tomorrow.
Paul C. Barranco