Starting from 2017 the Dutch Society for Immunology (N.V.V.I.) has introduced the ‘DSI honorary member’. Members that qualify for this status have made an extraordinary contribution to the field of immunology in the Netherlands in the broadest sense, the award that goes with this honorary status is called the ‘Jon van Rood medal’. Recently Marjolein van Egmond, professor in Oncology and Inflammation, has been granted the 2022 DSI honorary member status and received the Jon van Rood medal. In the light of her achievement we asked her some in-depth questions about the award, her field of research, the greatest challenges she faces, and her recommendations for young researchers.

Public education about the Corona virus

The decision to award this medal to Marjolein is primarily based on her extraordinary contribution to COVID-19 education for the general public. But when we discuss this win with Marjolein, she indicates that we have to go back even further in time to fully understand the decision. "A few years ago, Reina Mebius (director of AII) was chairperson of NVVI. At the time, Reina knew that Marjolein was interested in providing education to the general public. The NVVI was interested in creating a website for the general public about the immune system, and Reina got Marjolein involved. Marjolein eventually wrote the educational information for this website ("

According to Marjolein, this is where it all started, because from this moment on, she was known to the NVVI as an educator for the general public. In 2020, COVID-19 broke out and they were looking for an immunologist to act as spokesperson. Marjolein was approached for this and was immediately enthusiastic. “But important to note is that my expertise is antibodies, not necessarily vaccines or viruses, this made for a nice addition to the virologists who had their say.” Marjolein's knowledge and presentation skills were much appreciated and she was seen and heard as an expert multiple times. This was greatly appreciated by the NVVI, which is why Marjolein was awarded the Jon van Rood medal last spring, for transferring immunology knowledge to a national audience.

When asked whether Marjolein is still providing information to the general public, she laughed. "When I get a call, it's always bad news.” She says that when monkey pox came to the Netherlands, her phone was immediately ringing off the hook. “Until COVID-19, infections were not such a big problem in the Netherlands, little attention was paid to them since Q fever (2007-2010). Now you notice that there is suddenly more focus on infectious diseases; as soon as something happens they call me". You can read the most recent interview with Marjolein about the Corona virus here.

Long-covid, the greatest challenge in immunology

The biggest challenge in Marjolein's field is that many things are not yet understood. "Look at long-covid, we don't really understand that yet. It's not so surprising that people who have been seriously ill and have been on the Intensive Care for a long time have to go through rehabilitation. That is not COVID specific, that is related to the Intensive Care treatment. But the fact that one can have hardly any symptoms of COVID and still develop long-covid, we simply don't understand what’s happening there."

According to Marjolein, this raises the question of vaccination: should we continue to vaccinate indefinitely? "It seems that vaccinations protect well against serious illness and hospitalisation. However, they protect less well against infection and the development of mild symptoms. If people with mild symptoms do get post-covid, then we have a problem".

At the moment, Marjolein is not yet conducting research on long-covid. She is, however, working on her research ideas for a grant application and would like to do research on long-covid, but these plans are still in their early stages. However, with Marjolein's ambition, we will certainly hear about it in the future.

Do not plan in detail but seize opportunities

When Marjolein is asked what her advice would be for young researchers who aspire to become professors, she is very clear in her answer: take chances. "I notice that many young researchers in my research group are busy planning. They have thought out the future in small steps. I think it is good to have a rough idea in your head of what you like and what you want to achieve. But it is certainly not necessary to think out all the steps. Things almost always go differently than planned and that can lead to disappointment." Marjolein cites her own Corona public education role as an example: "I let someone know that I really liked public education and eventually it came my way and I grabbed the opportunity. But if I had thought: is this really the next step in my roadmap? I might not have done it at all. If you had asked me a few years ago: do you expect to be on TV one day? I would probably have laughed at you. You just can't plan for this, it's all about seeing opportunities and seizing them!"

In addition, Marjolein indicates that young researchers should set clear priorities. Not just focusing on what they think will yield the most result, but prioritising what you like. "I always think: I like it so I'm going to do it. In addition, I sometimes take into account that it will not lead anywhere. It's certainly not like everything I've tried has been a success. But if you set priorities, do things you like and keep going, I think that's a formula for success."

If Marjolein were to give a few final words of advice, she would say that young researchers should network well, look for connections with others and clearly indicate what they would like to do. Don't be afraid to ask others how they would go about it. And don't give up. "Becoming a professor is a long process, you will certainly encounter setbacks and you have to be able to deal with them. "

Perspective on the future: using antibodies to fight cancer

Marjolein's research focuses on the role of antibodies in autoimmunity and cancer. There are several sides to this. First of all, the immune system as you would like it to be, which responds to infectious diseases such as covid. However, sometimes things go completely wrong and people develop autoimmunity. In this case, the immune system attacks parts of their own body. Of course, you want to inhibit this in these people because it can cause a lot of damage. However, what's interesting about autoimmunity, according to Marjolein, is that it's something that would be great to achieve for cancer. What if you could use antibodies to fight cancer because the body itself starts attacking the cancer cells? "There is still a world to be discovered here and this is an incredibly interesting area of research," says Marjolein.

Text: Esmée Vesseur