Back

PhD ceremony in sneakers - Gijsje Snijders

Actually, she would obtain her PhD on March 20, 2020 in the beautiful Utrecht University Building. But the COVID-19 restrictions threw a wrench in the works. Eventually, she became the first PhD student at the Brain Center to obtain her PhD during an online ceremony on April 21st. Five questions to Dr. Gijsje Snijders. 

What was your PhD research about?

An activated immune system, as you also see during an inflammatory response, may be the driving force behind the development of mood disorders. Genetic, epidemiological, and laboratory studies show a relationship between mood disorders and the immune system. Inflammatory substances in the blood may cross the blood-brain barrier and influence important signaling factors in the brain. But the exact involvement of the immune system in mood disordershas yet to be clarified. That is why I studied three things in my doctoral research:

  • Key immune markers in the blood of patients with an increased risk of developing mood pathology 
  • Various antibodies in the blood of patients with bipolar disorder or post-partum psychosis 
  • Immune cells of the brain (microglia) in post-mortem brain tissue of patients with bipolar and depressive disorder 

Based on these findings, I explained in the discussion how the observed immune changes in the blood are related to (immune) abnormalities in the brain and could possibly explain mood pathology. 

What did you think when all the strict measures relating to the coronavirus came into effect?

It was a stressful period. I currently live and work in New York as a postdoc. On the day that my flight was planned to the Netherlands for my PhD, President Trump announced a travel ban, which meant that I would not be able to return to the United States after defending my thesis in Utrecht. At that time it was still uncertain whether my PhD ceremony would be held in the Netherlands. Eventually I decided not to travel to the Netherlands and to explore whether it would be possible to obtain my PhD electronically on that day. I had to cancel the reception, dinner and party. Two days later it turned out that everything in the Netherlands was put “on hold” as well, so luckily I had made a good choice.

How did it go, that digital ceremony?

Utrecht University made a big effort for the digital PhD ceremony to be as similar as possible to the “normal” PhD ceremony. For example, there was a “virtual sweatbox” where I as a PhD student, together with my paranymphs and the beadle, discussed the ceremony, after which I was led to the “virtual senate room.” The ceremony was opened by the chair and after 45 minutes of questions from the opponents, the beadle rang a bell and “Hora Est’’ was announced. The opponents, supervisors and co-supervisors left for a “virtual consultation room.” Then the verdict was given and I was allowed to take the oath. The laudatio was pronounced by my supervisor, and the opponents were given the opportunity to address me briefly. The congratulations from the opponents were very personal, something I have not noticed before during “normal” PhD ceremonies. Perhaps this was because of the intimate setting created by the “digital environment.” Family, friends and colleagues watched via a video connection that had been established. As a PhD student, I had no idea who “digitally attended” my PhD ceremony. Afterwards I had a quick digital drink with colleagues and family. An advantage of a PhD ceremony through a video connection is that only the upper part of your body is visible and needs to be formally dressed. I was still in doubt about wearing a pair of sweat pants in addition to sneakers…

Are you going to catch up with the party later?

I hope to be able to throw a big party in the Netherlands in November for colleagues, family and friends. I’m having a baby in August, so this can be celebrated at the same time. The advantage is that I can have a drink again then. 

What does your future look like? What is the next step in your career?

I will stay in the United States to continue my work as a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. L. de Witte (psychiatry) and Dr. T. Raj (neurogenetics), affiliated with the Icahn School of Medicine Mount Sinai Hospital. Then I will return to the Netherlands to complete my training as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. In the future I hope to combine my clinical work as a psychiatrist with research in biological psychiatry.