Peter Sterk: the scientist’s perspective
Peter Sterk is a clinical physiologist with a life-long interest in respiratory health and disease. He has professorship at the Department of Respiratory Medicine in the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) of the University of Amsterdam, where he is steering and supervising translational research projects in chronic airways diseases. He is also vice-dean of Graduate Studies, coordinating postgraduate education and training of PhD-fellows in AMC. He became MD at Leiden University in 1976, after which he decided to pursue an entirely scientific rather than a clinical career. He joined the Laboratory of Physiology in Leiden and graduated as PhD in 1981 on studies examining small airways function in asthma and COPD.
His research interests include mechanisms and interventions for allergen- and virus-induced exacerbations and on sub-phenotyping asthma and COPD by using clinical, functional and cellular characteristics. In 2005 he delivered the ERS Sadoul Lecture on the usage of complex biomarker signatures in asthma and COPD.
He received the opportunity of switching academic environment in 2007 by moving to the Department of Respiratory Medicine at the Academic Medical Centre of the University of Amsterdam. This promoted his research on integrating biomarkers in clinical diagnostics, phenotyping and management, by using a so-called ‘systems medicine’ approach. This approach was embedded in a public-private grant U-BIOPRED (2009-2015) by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) of which Peter was the coordinator.
An exciting part of bio-clinical phenotyping in respiratory health and disease is breathomics: the metabolomics of exhaled air. Peter’s group is validating this approach in the diagnosis and phenotyping of e.g. asthma, COPD, respiratory infections and lung cancer.
Peter Sterk: I am sure I am not the only one experiencing episodic excitement in science. We are not just robots, shifting protocols and papers, based on entirely predictable grants, experiments and data. Science is not a stable machine. Politicians tend to believe that and are expecting predictable scientific outcomes based on pre-defined (financial) input. They cannot appreciate or even envisage the scientific arena as an unstable field by definition, in which the unexpected is the grace! Scientists need to get inspired by colleagues, experimental failure, a bit of success and particularly the unexpected. To put it scientifically: politicians are trying to govern the world linearly, whereas scientists are accepting the world as being essentially non-linear. Hence, let us embrace the dynamics of our field, our minds, our hypotheses and our output.
Are we sharing a frustration?
I guess we are all encountering circumstances, at which we are facing difficulties to get the priority of respiratory research across. Of course, within ERS we all agree, as outlined in the European Respiratory Roadmap. But how about the rest of the world? No matter how motivated and committed we are, is the need for respiratory research sufficiently appreciated at professional levels within the government and industry? And perhaps even more importantly, at the societal level by the public and in the traditional and modern media?