Luc van Loon and Jean Nyakayiru Luc van Loon and Jean Nyakayiru Philip Driessen

On beetroot juice and Brabant

In Body
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 05 October 2016 10:19

If you’re accustomed to approaching your professors with awe, it comes as something of a surprise when your PhD supervisor encourages you to use his first name, puts his feet up on the table as you brainstorm study designs together, and prefers you to just drop by rather than emailing in advance. Professor Luc van Loon’s style has grown on his PhD candidate Jean Nyakayiru, but it took some getting used to. “We did have to beat out of him that formal style of address”, Van Loon laughs. Nyakayiru hopes to defend his thesis in Maastricht next year.

The effect of nitrate supplements on the performance of amateur and top athletes – this was the broad theme Nyakayiru’s research proposal had to fit into when he applied for a PhD position with Van Loon in 2013. He was already familiar with the literature, having studied beetroot juice, which is rich in nitrate, as a research assistant in Nijmegen during the previous year. “So I was familiar with Luc’s work.” His proposal focused on the effect on footballers’ performance after one day and after six days of consuming highly concentrated beetroot juice.

“It was a good idea to study football,” Van Loon explains, “because until a few years ago beetroot juice had only been investigated in endurance sports such as cycling and running, where it has proven benefits. We saw the focus shifting towards sports involving brief, high-intensity bursts of activity. What’s more, Jean was very enthusiastic. You’re only going to land grants in the future if you’re genuinely interested in your topic. And besides, being from Brabant like myself, he’s also quite precocious”, laughs the professor. Nyakayiru: “I want to understand everything. So when I write a proposal I think is watertight and my supervisors shoot it down, I want to understand why I didn’t spot the same issues. What do I need to learn to reach their level? I’m starting to see it has to do with many years of experience, combined with intuition.”

Heated discussion
Fortunately, Van Loon and Lex Verdijk, the co-supervisor on the project proposal submitted to the STW Technology Foundation, are not ones to shy away from heated discussion. “Experience is not the same as intelligence”, Van Loon says. “When you spend four years collaborating as intensively as you do with a PhD candidate, a hierarchical approach just doesn’t work for me. I see it as my role to train critical, valuable, ethical researchers who will set up new research groups in the future. That means encouraging their creativity and independence, not prescribing what they should do. That might benefit the efficiency of the project, but not the learning experience. I’d rather help to shape the researchers of the future than a top publication.”

Better researcher
Nyakayiru now sees the advantages of the low-threshold Maastricht approach. “If I don’t understand something, I dare to speak up and say so. As a result, I learn more and that makes me a better researcher. When I go to conferences I really see the quality of our research group compared to others.” Such a group has many benefits for a PhD candidate, as Van Loon knows from experience. During his PhD, which he defended in Maastricht in 2001, there were fewer PhD candidates and fewer analysts than Nyakayiru now has around him. “My supervisor was a little more removed from me, but also so enthusiastic I had to put the brakes on whenever he wanted to give me yet another new question to look into. In a way it was the opposite of what I have with Jean. It was very educational, but hard to compare with Jean’s PhD programme now.”

Team Rwanda
Nyakayiru’s project started with a minor detour when he came into contact with four cyclists from the Rwandan national team, who were staying in Valkenburg. His mother is Rwandan and fled to the Netherlands with Jean and three nieces when he was six years old. “The performance and physical capabilities of these amateur cyclists seemed to be on par with those of professional Western cyclists”, Nyakayiru says. Because the performance of African cyclists had never before been studied, the research quickly made it into the prestigious British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The main lesson for the PhD candidate so far is “that we still know so little”, as Van Loon puts it. “Jean has often come to the conclusion that much less is known, in this case on the effects of diet and exercise on muscle metabolism, than he expected.” Nyakayiru concurs with a broad smile. He would love to continue with research, preferably in Maastricht. “Internationally it’s one of the largest labs where you can do this sort of research well. I love sports myself; I play football and work out and enjoy collaborating with athletes. I just want to know more about the influence of diet and exercise on our bodies.”

New family
A few years ago his mother returned to live and work in Rwanda. He understands that she feels at home there, especially among her extended family. But he has put down roots here, with his new ‘family’: his girlfriend, friends and colleagues. “In Rwanda there are no jobs right now that would suit my expertise and let me do what I want to do. The science just isn’t there yet. You never know how life will turn out, but for now I’d be happy to stay in Maastricht.”


Professor Luc van Loon (1971) obtained his PhD in Maastricht and has been professor of Exercise Physiology, specialising in the role of nutrition, since 2010. He leads the M3 (Muscle Metabolism Maastricht) research group in the Department of Human Movement Sciences.
Jean Nyakayiru (1987) trained as a physiotherapist then completed the Master of Biomedical Sciences at Radboud University Nijmegen. After a stint as a research assistant in Nijmegen, he started his PhD research in Maastricht in 2013. He is co-supervised by Luc van Loon and Dr Lex Verdijk.

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