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Interview with Jeanette Mostert, Radboud University Medical Center

Jeanette Mostert (PhD) is science dissemination manager at the department of genetics of the Radboud University Hospital Medical Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She spoke at the Festival of Genomics 2020, her presentation slides can be found here.

FLG: Can you give us an introduction of yourself and the work that you do?

I am Jeanette Mostert, I am a postdoctoral researcher at Radboud University in the Department of Genetics, and a lot of my work is on science dissemination. I try to translate the research that we do to a broad audience.
I do this for two Horizon 2020 projects, one is called CoCA which is on the comorbid conditions of ADHD and the other is Eat2beNICE which is about the association between food and mental health.

As a dissemination manager, I work with researchers to think about ways in which we can translate knowledge.

We are in an age where people are saying that science is just an opinion, so I think it is important to make people aware of what research is going on, why it is so slow, and why it is important to do it well.

FLG: So, what audiences do you look to engage with? Non-scientists, clinicians?

Both. A lot of our research is on people with ADHD or related mental health conditions, so we try to engage those people and their families, which are non-scientists, by collaborating with patient organisations.

But we also target clinicians. For example, with the CoCA project we spoke to clinicians who don’t know much about adult ADHD, so we inform clinicians of what we know.

I think it is also important to engage with policymakers of what we find, for example, how providing a healthy diet might reduce mental health problems.

FLG: What challenges have you faced while trying to disseminate information?

I think one of the challenges is to help researchers make their science accessible. Scientists use a lot of jargon and even I sometimes find it difficult to understand them, despite my research background. For example, the word significance means something vastly different to a scientist than to a non-scientist. So, that is the first challenge – to make it understandable to different audiences.

Also, given the field that we are in with food and mental health, it is very difficult to make strong claims without exaggerating the truth. There is a really fine balance that we have to be careful with, that something “might help” this, it “could” be beneficial for this. We cannot make any strong claims because we are still doing the research, but people want to hear strong claims.
For example, if I said “eating vegetables reduces your risk for ADHD” that would become a headline, but headlines in terms of science are almost always overstatements.

We are working towards making a real effort to influence people, not make headline claims, because science is generally too slow for news stories.

FLG: So, do you directly reach out to patients and the people you are trying to reach or do you go via media channels?

We have a website for dissemination of our research, We picked a name that people will find when they google brain and nutrition. We write blogs and create videos on there, for example, we collaborate with German celebrity chef Sebastian Lege to create cooking videos where we translate science into healthy eating advice. For example, the Mediterranean diet is known for its health benefits, so we ask the chef to cook something nice with an ingredient such as virgin olive oil and explain that it is healthy and has substances that promote brain health.

It is actionable because we have this cookbook that you can download and find out a bit more about the science behind it.

So we reach them on different levels: we encourage people to eat healthy because it is good for you,  but also provide the science for those who want to understand why, and if you want to read in even more detail we provide the publications.

I have also given a presentation for biology teachers in the Netherlands so they can teach their students, and we work with patient organisations so they can inform patients. That is another way in which we try to reach people.

Lastly, we share our updates, blogs and other news on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). And we create webinars that we post on YouTube. These are for people that want to learn more about the research itself. Of course, we also present our research in scientific articles and conferences.

FLG: Can you tell us a bit more about the Eat2beNICE study and your findings so far?

The Eat2beNICE study has been funded by the European Union. The study works on many different levels but we are looking at the effect of diet and lifestyle on mental health and specifically, compulsivity, impulsivity and externalising behaviours such as aggression. These symptoms are quite central to ADHD.

We mainly focus on individuals with high impulsivity, compulsivity and/or aggression. To test the effects of diet on mental health we are doing four clinical trials that are still ongoing: 1) an energy-resticted Mediterranean diet in a large group of elderly people, 2) an elimination diet in a large group of children with ADHD, 3) a probiotic supplement for highly impulsive adults with ADHD and/or Borderline Personality Disorder, and 4) a broadband vitamin-mineral supplement in a large group of highly impulsive and irritable children and adolescents. We don’t have the results yet as these trials are still ongoing.

In addition, we are also doing epidemiological research on large Scandinavian registries. The first results are coming out where we can see whether ADHD symptoms were related to an unhealthy or high sugar diet, and there are correlations there. One of the studies is a twin study, where we found that about half of the phenotypic variation is explained by genetic factors.
So, there’s a genetic component, an environmental component, and an interaction but we don’t know the direction of the effects e.g. if having ADHD makes you more prone to eating unhealthy, or eating unhealthy makes you more prone to developing ADHD.

There have been exploratory studies but we are the first to be doing these bigger trials with hundreds of participants.

Large-scale research is currently limited, especially in mental health.

 FLG: Who do you think has the biggest role to ensure healthy eating in countries, is it the government, the food industry, healthcare or individuals themselves?

I think it is a combination. Of course, individuals can change their behaviour and it is important that they eat healthy but you cannot put all the burden on the individual. They have to be educated and aware as well, and that comes from the government and scientists – I think scientists have an important role to play here too and share their knowledge.

But also, it’s still the case that eating unhealthy is cheaper than eating healthy. Vegetables are more expensive than fries and if we could change that it could be really helpful. Our brains are wired to want fats and sugar, and if it’s also accessible, it is easy to buy all the unhealthy foods.
We are encouraging people to sit behind their desks all day, so it is also down to society to encourage people to exercise, be healthy, eat vegetables and whole grains.

Things are changing, who knows when the world has all quit smoking and reduced their alcohol then the next thing will be that everyone is eating healthy.

It is a welfare issue – wealthy people can afford to live healthily and that is bad as it means the more money you have, the more accessible this is and the better your mental health and life expectancy.

Hopefully, we can contribute to the challenge of this!

 FLG: What motivated you to get involved with the Festival?

We were invited by DNA Genotek, they provide a lot of the kits that we use to collect samples, for example, stool samples, and because we have so many different European sites that are collecting samples it must be done properly. This is a co-ordinational challenge to get the samples in one place and get them sequenced.

It is quite interesting because even the sequencing of the gut microbiome is just genetics – you sequence the genetics of the bacteria. It may not be human genetics, but it is still genetics and the sequencing is the same.

This festival is interesting because there are a lot of talks about the human genetics but not so much about the microbiome genetics which is an upcoming field, so it is nice to let people know about what we are doing on that.