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Prof. dr. Astrid Groot

Prof. dr. Astrid Groot did a MSc at UvA (graduated in 1994), followed by a PhD at WUR from 1995 – 2000 and a postdoc at North Carolina State University (NCSU), where after 3 years she became research assistant professor and received my first personal grant. Then in 2007 she became group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, and in 2011 she was one of the first 3 hires at UvA on a MacGillavry fellowship (as associate professor) (and/but combined this with her group leader position at MPICE until 2017). In 2017 she became full professor of Population & Evolutionary Biology and in 2018 department head in IBED.

Evolution of sexual communication signals and responses

Mate choice directly affects the level of gene flow between individuals within and between populations. Therefore, the evolution of sexual communication systems is likely an important determinant in the speciation process. Sexual signals and responses evolve through sexual selection and species interactions at multiple levels. Sexual selection forces may come from female as well as male choice and intrasexual competition in one or both sexes. Closely related species with similar mating signals may cause communication interference, secondary metabolites of host plants may cause stress, and pathogens and parasites may directly or indirectly affect sexual signals and responses. 

Sexual signals in insects can be chemical, visual, acoustic or a combination of these different modalities. Moths are classical models for studying the evolution of sexual attraction through sex pheromones. Females produce a species-specific pheromone blend that attracts males from a distance, after which close-range courtship occurs which includes female choice (1,2). Through a combination of genetic analyses and behavioral lab and field experiments, we investigate the genetic changes underlying sexual interactions that lead to population divergence, including QTL and transcriptomic analyses and CRISPR/cas9 experiments (3-6) and field studies on the biological relevance of this variation (7,8). We also measure the natural selection forces affecting sexual attraction, including parasites and pathogens (9,10), and try to extrapolate micro-evolutionary processes to macro-evolutionary biodiversity patterns (11,12).

1) Zweerus et al. 2021, Anim Behav 179; 2) Zweerus et al. 2022, Ecol Evol 12; 3) Lassance et al. 2010, Nature 4661; 4) Groot et al. 2014, Proc B 281; 5) Koutroumpa et al. 2016, PNAS 1133; 6) Unbehend et al. 2021, Nat Comm 12; 7) Groot et al. 2006, PNAS 103; 8) Van Wijk et al. 2017, Sci Rep 7; 9) Barthel et al. 2015, BMC Evol Biol 15; 10) Gao et al. 2019, J Invert Pathol 170; 11) Groot et al. 2016, Annu Rev Entomol 61; 12) De Pasqual et al. 2021, TREE 36.

Dr. Saskia van Asten

Dr. Saskia van Asten studied bio-pharmaceutical sciences at Leiden University. She did her PhD under supervision of Dr. Spaapen and Prof. Dr. van Ham at Sanquin in Amsterdam where she used high-throughput screening to identify additional mechanisms of intercellular immunological communication. She did a postdoc on the systemic immune system in glioblastoma in the group of Dr. Garcia-Vallejo at the VUmc. Saskia is currently working as a data scientist in translational research at Genmab.

Communication in immune responses: insights for immunotherapy

Communication is a vital component of a properly functioning immune system. This system is tasked with the detection and clearance of different pathogens and aberrant cells. Unique receptors, expressed by both immune and non-immune cells, and soluble proteins, such as antibodies and the complement system, can identify different types of threats. Receptor ligation results in the activation of signaling cascades that determine which effector mechanisms should become activated. Each immune response is uniquely adapted to the threat at hand, as for example clearance of a bacterium requires a different approach compared to clearance of a tumor. Tight regulation is in place to prevent unwanted activation.

Unfortunately, the immune system does not always function properly. Both inappropriate suppression and overactivation result in disease: viruses can escape detection, tumors suppress immune cells, while an overreactive immune response can cause allergy, autoimmunity or sepsis. Immunotherapy aims to overcome these issues. For example, vaccination educates immune cells to recognize pathogens, TIL-therapy activates immune cells ex vivo, while antibodies may aid the anti-tumor response or inhibit pro-inflammatory signaling in rheumatoid arthritis. In conclusion, the coordination of immune responses forms the source of inspiration for immunotherapy.

Dr. Suzanne Dikker

Suzanne Dikker’s work merges cognitive neuroscience, performance art and education. She uses a ‘crowdsourcing’ neuroscience approach to bring human brain and behavior research out of the lab, into real-world, everyday situations, with the goal to characterize the brain basis of dynamic human social communication. As a senior research scientist at the Max Planck — NYU Center for Language, Music and Emotion (CLaME), affiliate associate professor at the Department of Clinical Psychology at VU Amsterdam, and member of the art/science collective OOSTRIK + DIKKER, Suzanne leads various research projects, including MindHive, a citizen science platform that supports community-based initiatives and student-teacher-scientist partnerships for human brain and behavior research.

Harmonic Dissonance: Bridging art, science, and education to study the neural basis of human social communication

How do we build common ground with the people around us in our daily lives? Does human interaction mediated by technological interfaces help or hamper communication? Do students learn better when they ‘click’ with their teachers? To answer these questions, I bring human neuroscience research out of the lab, into real-world social contexts such as classrooms and museums. Across projects, we use biofeedback to embody the elusive notion of ‘being on the same wavelength’ with another person through visualizing and sonifying the interpersonal (de)synchronization of brainwaves and movements in real time. Together, we hope to advance the scientific understanding of the brain basis of human social interaction, while at the same time enabling researchers to engage the general public in citizen neuroscience efforts and neuroscience outreach.