Pernette Verschure conducts research in the field of epigenetics, and teaches on this subject in the Biomedical Sciences Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes. She also teaches epigenetics as part of the Forensic Science Master’s programme and coordinates the research honours track for the Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences. She is initiator of 'Epipredict', a EU Horizon 2020 research programme.
‘We try to understand cell behaviour by studying the epigenetic layer, which determines the unique functioning of different cell types in our body. Epigenetic regulation is determined during embryonic development, but can also be adapted, for example as we age. Changes in the epigenetic pattern enable cells to conform to altered environmental conditions,’ Pernette Verschure explains. What is of greatest interest to her as a biomedical scientist is understanding why cells change and how this leads to disruption, for example when cells derail and cease to respond to a certain therapy, leading patients to become non-responsive to treatment. ‘This is for example what happens with the type of breast cancer that we’re focusing on in the 'Epipredict' project. We study the role of epigenetics in the development of resistance for hormonal treatment of breast tumors.’
For this EU project, Verschure coordinates a training network for 11 PhD students, encompassing 15 different institutions in eight countries. ‘Everyone is working on one piece of the puzzle, and then all those PhD students get together to share what they’ve discovered.’ This way of working suits Verschure: ‘I like reaching out to different groups of people. I find it challenging to find answers. Every answers poses a new question. The more I know, the more I want to ask questions from complementary disciplines.’
Verschure is keen to stay on top of the latest developments. ‘As a student, I never had a clearly mapped-out career trajectory to what I wanted to achieve in science. Usually, the direction I choose involves circumstantial events – a topic that I heard when visiting a conference, a meeting with a scientists, sometimes it is just coincidence...’
For example, Verschure started to focus on forensic science when students in the Forensic Science Master’s programme wanted to find out, as part of their research project, whether it is achievable to use epigenetic information to determine someone’s age. ‘My fellow lecturers and I found this so interesting that we teamed up with the Netherlands Forensic Institute and launched a research project. We are now able to predict age within a window of approximately four-years using DNA from blood of individuals,’ she says. She has also become Chair of the Examinations Board for the Forensic Science Master’s programme, and is an advisor to the Co van Ledden-Hulsebosch Centre for Forensic Science. ‘It’s a good example of how teaching and research can go hand in hand.’
Novel research techniques open up many new possibilities. ‘Very exciting,’ according to Verschure, who believes that rapid progress is around the corner. Techniques such as CRISPR/Cas editing, single molecule imaging and deep genome sequencing techniques, along with developments in modelling and bio-informatics make it possible to solve the most complicated questions. There is another side to the medal, however: ‘It’s not easy to be an expert in all these research areas. You can’t do everything on your own – collaboration is essential. Personally I find it very inspiring to work with researchers from other disciplines. I think it’s important for students to realise that you do need to understand those different disciplines to get ahead.’
And of course, that is also a challenge for lecturers: ‘The question is what you should be teaching students. After all, you’d want them to build up expertise in a specific area, rather than just knowing a little bit about everything. As lecturers we have to guide students to give them the right picture in the wider context.’
‘Either way, if I were a student, I would choose to to gain as much knowledge as I possibly could, for as long as I possibly could,’ Verschure concludes. ‘It’s important to understand insights from other fields, and what challenges they are facing. Ultimately that’s how we achieve breakthroughs – by looking beyond the boundaries of our own discipline.’