The art of balance

Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 15 February 2012 09:00

It is 1972. In the train from Amsterdam to Utrecht sits the 22-year-old student Herman Kingma, an expensive Japanese goldfish in a plastic bag by his side. The fish is sick. Kingma is responsible for hundreds of goldfish used in research at the University of Amsterdam. And since he was put in charge, far fewer fish have died. Now 61, Kingma is one of the world’s leading experts on the vestibular system, which contributes to our sense of balance. With his research, he is leading the charge in the development of the first artificial human vestibular system. Read on for a shaky study path that led to a top career in Maastricht.

He is not a medical doctor, but a vestibulologist. “I came up with the name myself 25 years ago. It refers to the vestibular system, which helps us maintain our balance. The study of the vestibular system is known as vestibulology.” Kingma treats patients with severe balance disorders at the ear, nose and throat (ENT) outpatient clinic of the Maastricht University Medical Centre (MUMC) +. He makes diagnoses, informs patients on the cause of their complaints and advises ENT doctors and surgeons on the best available treatment or medication. His is one of the top five departments in the world in the field of vestibular diagnostics. “The contact with patients motivates me enormously. Also, my background as a biophysicist provides the ideal basis for introducing sophisticated research equipment into the clinic.”

Artificial organ

Together with Maastricht’s Instrumental Development Engineering & Evaluation (IDEE) Department, Kingma developed a vibrating belt for people whose vestibular systems no longer function properly. “The belt has 12 vibration points around the body. If you’re leaning too far to the left, for example, the front of the belt will vibrate, allowing you to correct your stance.” Kingma and his colleagues are currently working on the world’s first artificial vestibular system. And thanks to strong partnerships with various hospital and scientific disciplines, Maastricht is one of the frontrunners in this effort. Yet his group is probably best known for its lectures both in the Netherlands and abroad on all aspects of the vestibular system. Kingma himself serves as something of a figurehead for Problem-Based Learning; by incorporating specific patient problems into his lectures, he manages to shed light on the material that even some doctors struggle with. “The physiology and disorders of the vestibular system are quite technical and multidisciplinary phenomena that few doctors know much about. As a result, some patients don’t find out what’s wrong with them until quite late – which is a very unpleasant and uncertain situation.”

In addition to this busy combination of patient care, research and education, Kingma has also been chair of the University Council since March 2010. “I find it hard to say no, plus I love bringing people together to help improve joint decision making. I also have a very strong sense of responsibility. That would have something to do with my Protestant background.”

Hypochondriac

A background that was certainly eventful, to say the least. It all started with his Frisian father: an accountant as well as a violinist, because music alone could not pay the bills. His first two wives both died shortly after childbirth. After the death of his second wife, her cousin came to help him with the two children. “One thing led to another, they got married and I was their second child together. My mother was and still is a remarkable woman. She was extremely devoted to my father and never once made us feel there was any difference between us children, despite having different mothers.” His father, however, never fully recovered from the loss of two wives, and was often sick. “I spent long hours at his ‘deathbed’ in the hospital: he was convinced he would die at any moment. In the end he lived to be 89.”

When Kingma was nine years old, his father took out a loan and bought him an oboe worth 1000 guilders. He was destined for the music academy. “I still think it’s the most beautiful instrument; a little melancholic. But I wasn’t technically skilled enough for the academy, which I realised just in time.” Disappointed, his father decided he should study medicine instead. “But after a few weeks I knew I didn’t fit in with the conservative Leiden students. I eventually decided to study art history in Paris.” He finished the programme, but couldn’t see himself working in a museum. So he made the pragmatic decision to follow the same programme as his best friend: biophysics (a combination of biology and physics) in Amsterdam. “My father had just got used to the idea of me entering the art history world, and then I threw him for another loop. It wasn’t really a well thought out career path, but then I never did have one of those”, he says with a shrug.

The truth

Kingma always strove to be the best. Spurred on, perhaps, by his father, for whom a 9 was never good enough. “I sometimes feel a sort of sadness about my childhood that I can’t quite put my finger on. But that’s part of life: you can’t have happiness without sadness.” His oldest (half) brother chose a very different path. “He is devoutly religious. He and his wife spent 35 years in Islamic Afghanistan as Protestant missionaries. He’ll sometimes send me cards that read ‘Herman, you’re searching for the truth in science, but the only real truth lies with God.’ This illustrates our differences, but I greatly respect his dedication and conviction.”

Back to science. During his biophysics degree, Kingma worked part time looking after goldfish in the animal-testing lab. “I didn’t know a thing about goldfish, but whenever one got sick I would take it in a little bag to the veterinary lab in Utrecht and they would tell me what to do. I remember spending one Christmas in the lab with my then girlfriend, injecting hundreds of goldfish with antibiotics.”

After graduating he was unable to stay on in the lab, so his professor called a colleague in Leiden – a quantum biophysicist. Kingma heard him say: “Herman is one of my best students, but also very special: since he’s been looking after the goldfish, not a single one has died.” Kingma went on to obtain his PhD in Leiden but, although he learned a great deal, never felt at home in quantum physics. “Again, it was because of the people. In art history and biology, the people are often open and warm and don’t shy away from their feelings. Physicists, and particularly quantum physicists, are a different breed altogether. Even a chat about your weekend has to be related to physics somehow. You can easily get a half-hour physics debate out of the water moving in your glass.” So it comes as no surprise that Kingma prefers the company of women to men at conferences and the like. “At least then you can talk about ‘normal’ things as well.”

Father

History repeats itself. When he first saw the vacancy for a physicist/biologist to launch a balance centre at the Maastricht academic hospital, Kingma was so excited he considered writing a second letter to supplement the first. “My supervisor said: ‘Don’t do it. I’ll write one for you.’ When I was invited for an interview with Professor Marres in Maastricht, he said: ‘You know why you’re here, don’t you? Your supervisor wrote such an impressive letter that we had no choice but to invite you.’ Then I was given the chance to present myself. And once you get me going …”

In 2001, Kingma was appointed professor of Vestibulology. His father attended the inauguration. “That was nice, yes; I was happy we were able to share that milestone.” Kingma himself is now a father of five. His oldest graduated with a PhD from UM this January, while his youngest, Anna, is now just three years old. “She brings me joy every day. She’s just Sweet with a capital ‘S’. So I don’t expect to be hanging around the university when I retire – I’ve got plenty to do at home.”

Herman Kingma (1950) is professor of Vestibulology at the UM Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, and a vestibulologist and head of vestibular diagnostics at the ENT Department of the MUMC+. He leads the research on vestibular disorders at UM’s ENT Department, and also chairs the University Council.

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