Birger Dieriks in Auckland – Belgian scientist living abroad

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Birger Dieriks lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He studied Bioengineering at Ghent University. After finishing his studies he started a PhD at the Department Molecular Biotechnology with Prof Van Oostveldt, which he finished in 2009. Around that time he decided together with his girlfriend Kristen, who was also doing a PhD, to live in a different country. They moved to New Zealand, a country with a good work-life balance, a nice climate and amazing outdoors. Birger performs research on Parkinson’s disease.

Birger Dieriks: “We immediately started the process of applying for residency, as we were told this could take up to two years or longer. Against our expectations the immigration process went smoothly and 8 months later our visas were approved. With the paperwork sorted, I started looking for a postdoctoral position. It soon became clear that most of the scientific work in New Zealand was done in Auckland. I applied for an Aotearoa fellowship together with Dr. Maurice Curtis, who started his own lab a few years before. Unfortunately I was not awarded that fellowship, but we managed to obtain alternative funding through a generous gift of the Neuro Research charitable trust.

The objective is to study the early non-motor effect of Parkinson’s disease and why they arise. One of the early effects of Parkinson’s disease is anosmia, or loss of smell. The reason why this is so interesting is because the loss of smell occurs about 5 to 10 years before the typical tremors start. Because of this, I am focusing my research on the olfactory bulbs. These are two small organs that are responsible for forwarding the smells that the olfactory neurons capture in the nose to the brain. All of my research is done on human tissue, which makes it a bit harder to perform functional analysis, but it has the advantage that the results we get are 100% relevant to understanding Parkinson’s disease in humans. The olfactory bulbs are collected as part of the Brain Bank program that has been running for several decennia. We receive brains that are generously donated by patients. At the moment we have over 1000 different brains in our brain bank. The research I do on Parkinson’s disease is my major focus, but I also collaborate with several colleagues on a range of other neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington and Alzheimer’s disease. We also started a research program where we study one of the most malignant brain cancers, Glioblastoma multiform.”

What’s so great about your job?

“I’m involved in a variety of projects that are all very demanding but super interesting. The lab that I work in has expertise in a variety of techniques and if we don’t have a solution in house, there will be someone nearby that knows how to tackle the problem.
Another aspect that I like a lot is the close relation we have with the patients and the patient’s family.”

Every so often we will have Huntington or Parkinson patients in the lab that talk about how the disease affected their life. This gives a boost to everyone; because it gives the work we’re doing all the more meaning.

How do you like New Zealand?

“We like the place where we live, but as with everything, living in New Zealand has it advantages and drawbacks. For example, the high prices and the house market going crazy are the major drawbacks.

The number one advantage is the weather. Auckland has a subtropical climate, which makes it warm, but the heat is bearable because the coast is never far away. On a rainy day you’ll almost always see the sun, and rainbows frequently appear. How I love rainbows! On the rare days that are cloudy from dawn to sunset, I think of Belgium.

My girlfriend and I drive to work together and we see the sea everyday. I like the fact that I live in Auckland. It is the biggest city in New Zealand but within 45 minutes we are in the outdoors doing our thing. We can be sailing one day, walking in the bush the next or skiing on a volcano if we want to. The New Zealand outdoors has definitely exceeded our expectations and the good thing is: it is safe. Nothing will eat or kill you on your trip.

Another thing that we love is the food. New Zealand food is not the best and mostly based on the English kitchen, but the range of Asian food is enormous. I don’t just mean Chinese, but Malaysian, Korean, Mongolian, etc. Sushi is found on every corner and is eaten a lot during lunch. We eat out so much more than we used to in Belgium, because of the variety and it is cheap and fast.

The fact that New Zealand is a young country made up of immigrants makes it a vibrant place. I’m not just talking about food, but all the international festivals and having friends and colleagues from around the world has changed my view of the world.”

What is the difference between working in NZ and working in Belgium?

“I don’t have too much experience to compare as I’ve only worked in two places: Ghent university and Auckland university. I can think of two main differences. One is the coffee culture that is embedded in the work ethos in New Zealand. Even if you are super busy, people manage to pop out and get a coffee at one of the cafés. This is a social event that happens every day and during which people discuss almost everything going from every day life all the way to research problems they are having.

The other difference is the result of New Zealand being so remote and being a small market for research companies. For most companies it is too small to open a branch in the country, so they will fly their tech personnel in from Australia or have local distributors market their products. This causes long delivery times, from a week up to 2 months. This is something that I had to get used to, especially after doing research in Belgium where we had next day delivery for a lot of items.”

What do you miss about Belgium?

“We miss our friends and family heaps. We talk to them once or twice a week. We are so happy that we can Facetime them and see them as if they were just next-door. Seeing them makes a big difference, but it still hard at times. This last year and a half has been especially tough as both our mothers have been sick. Only then you realize how far away you are and how helpless you feel. I’ve always said that if our friends and family would be here with us New Zealand, it would be perfect.

I also miss small things, like having fries during the weekend, getting a Belgian beer with friends or having eclairs on a Sunday afternoon. Some things I wouldn’t have predicted I would miss though. For example, we hardly ride our bikes here because Auckland is not built to ride them safely and that has been a big adjustment from our previous lives in Ghent.”

Another thing that I never appreciated until we started living here is the history and culture we have in Belgium. There is a special atmosphere living in the old city center of Ghent. Auckland is a very young city and that results in a different vibe.

How do you spend your time when you’re not at work?

“Weekdays are mostly packed with work. Any time that is left is spent at Crossfit. On the weekends, we take our camper out and explore the outdoors. Kayaking, scuba diving and enjoying the native birds in our backyard are some of our favorite activities. We also enjoy catching up with friends over a barbeque. Kiwis love their gas barbecue. Many people back home think it is cheating, but we are fully converted. I always tell them they haven’t tasted a beer can chicken made the right way.
We love being on the water, enjoying the breeze and the sea. It is amazing how many people in New Zealand have a boat, but once you’ve sailed the coast or caught your own fish you immediately understand why.”

Do you hope to return permanently to Belgium at some point?

“That is the million-dollar question, one that we get asked a lot by our family and friends. The answer is that we don’t know. We love it here, but we might go back to Belgium or even somewhere else. Being here I’ve learned the world is a small place and no place is too far. Every place has its own character, which is formed by the people that are there, the work you do and your daily interactions. I think it would be hard to replicate that same environment in Belgium.”

What dreams and future ambitions do you still have?

“I would like to make a difference in the lives of patients that are suffering from Parkinson’s disease with the research I’m doing. The interaction with the patients gives me extra motivation to do more. I recently finished a master’s degree at the Auckland Business School and that has given me a different perspective on how I conduct my research. I hope to use these insights and take my research all the way to the patients so I can help them directly.”