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Karolina Skraskova and Ron Heeren Karolina Skraskova and Ron Heeren Paul van der Veer

A scientific crush

Written by  Femke Kools Thursday, 12 May 2016 10:33

From the very first contact, the feeling was mutual: this is the kind of person I want to work with. After a six-month internship in Professor Ron Heeren’s group at the AMOLF institute, Karolina Skraskova knew she couldn’t return to the Czech Republic, where she had originally started her PhD. When Heeren offered her a new position, she gladly accepted. In her final year the entire research group moved from Amsterdam to Maastricht, and this is where, on 3 March 2016, she defended her PhD thesis.

Karolina: “I felt like an impostor during those first weeks in Ron’s lab: I shouldn’t be here, with all these super clever people striving for the Nobel Prize. But I was happy because I was learning new things.”
Ron: “She didn’t realise she was operating on a similar level. Even as an ‘intern’, she was collaborating on other people’s PhD research.”
Karolina: “It took me quite a while to realise that maybe I do belong here. When my internship came to an end, I knew I couldn’t go back to the Czech Republic. I was amazed by the science Ron’s group was doing and the opportunities to learn and to contribute in a much ‘bigger’ way.”
Ron: “Luckily we found NWO money, so I was able to offer her a PhD position here.”
Karolina: “My PhD consisted of different projects, most of them focused on the study of lipids in the brain tissue using mass spectrometry imaging. I liked the way Ron guided me: giving me space to explore and adjust the research accordingly. I could always lay my cards on the table and we would discuss everything. He’s very enthusiastic and open, and that inspired me a lot. It was a scientific crush.”
Ron: “I had the same feeling actually, just as I do with others in my group. That’s an important characteristic of a good team. Of course you need to be smart to do scientific research, but above all you need to be passionate about it and able to translate that drive to a bigger audience. That’s what I recognised immediately in Karolina. And with free spirits like her, you need to give them some space to explore. That results in the type of research that benefits our whole group.”

The move
Karolina: “I really enjoyed my PhD, but I had a hard time when our group moved from Amsterdam to Maastricht. I felt at home in Amsterdam and had a group of close friends there. The fact that I had to move was hard to accept in the beginning.”
Ron: “Nobody was really forced to move, but for the stage her research was in, it was much better to do so. And I think her research ultimately did reap the benefits of the transfer.”
Karolina: “I found the year I spent in Maastricht difficult mostly because Ron had more on his mind than usual. As a result, I felt he wasn’t managing the group as well as he used to before the relocation. I can see now that had I expressed those feelings more clearly, things could have worked out better for me. But my reaction was exactly the opposite: I isolated myself and focused on finishing my PhD within a year.”
Ron: “I blame myself for not seeing that she needed more attention than I gave her. We spoke about that in the end.”
Karolina: “And I left that meeting with peace of mind. The fact that Ron acknowledged that the last year of my PhD wasn’t an easy one was all I needed to hear from him.”

The PhD defence
Ron: "Originally there were two more projects that I would have loved Karolina to incorporate in her thesis.”
Karolina: “But I didn’t want to wait another six months to finally be able to live with my partner. So at some point I told Ron, ‘This is my thesis’, and I got the impression that he was disappointed.”
Ron: “I thought it was good enough, but I knew she could do better. I asked her, ‘Is good enough okay for you?’, and she said ‘Yes’. She’s a marathon runner, you know: very focused. When she sees the finish line, she accelerates; she wanted to finish. But if she had added that extra chapter, I’m certain it would have been a cum laude PhD.”
Karolina: “I really enjoyed the defence. I actually love giving presentations and talking about my passions, and I felt quite confident towards the big day.”
Ron: “She told her story well and handled the questions accordingly. There was the independent researcher she had become in the past three years. She’s an excellent communicator and that’s one of the keys to success.”
Karolina: “Ron is a very good speaker himself. I learned from him that it’s important to be able to advertise your work.”

The future
Karolina: “I’m a pharmacist and have always had a strong passion for medicinal plants. I’ve been dreaming of setting up a business around them for years now. But I also have a couple of research ideas. For example, I’m very enthusiastic about plant neurobiology – a relatively new field of study on how plants interact with their environment and with each other. It basically brings together brain research and plants, my two passions. I might apply for a postdoc at the university in Tasmania, but time will tell how everything comes together.”
Ron: “In my speech at her PhD defence I described Karolina as a born researcher, with a broad perspective and the knowledge and skills to take up any research topic. But you need to be passionate about it. If she’s most passionate about growing apples in Tasmania, that’s what she has to do. Whatever the choice, I’m convinced it will be a success. As long as she stays open about her feelings, that is. So I’m waiting for her first blog post from Downunder.”


Karolina Skraskova (1987) is a pharmacist and, on 3 March 2016, became the first to complete the PhD programme of the M4I institute founded in 2015. Her thesis was entitled ‘Mass spectrometry for multimodal imaging of lipids in brain tissue’. Her blog can be found at

Ron Heeren (1964) was appointed university professor in Maastricht in September 2014. He leads the Department of Imaging Mass Spectrometry at the Maastricht Multimodal Molecular Imaging institute (M4I). His group was part of the FOM Institute AMOLF in Amsterdam until September 2014.


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