The first step in tackling snakebite related issues is to start talking about it. That is exactly why Maaike Romijn decided to host the Snakebite, From Science to Society Conference in the Netherlands in 2018.
What is your current job?
I am the Scientific Director at the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands, Naturalis Biodiversity Center. We have 120 scientists that make up our scientific staff and they work on many different topics focusing on biodiversity. Snakes is a small topic and I am supervising researchers working on them.
What work are you doing specifically with snakebite?
I currently only have one researcher working on snakebite. He is excellent, and he also happens to be quite famous in the Netherlands, Freek Vonk. He has his own TV shows, theatre shows, and he is very well-known among the youth in the Netherlands. I am working with him to make sure that everybody knows about snakes and snakebite through education and outreach. When I started working with him, I became more familiar with the problem of snakebite. It intrigued me because it is identified as a disease and we do have ‘antidotes’. It’s not like cancer where we are looking for a cure, yet so many people die every year. It sounds like a small problem but it is actually big and so I ask the question, what are we doing wrong?
I am not a biologist and I have very little knowledge about snakes, but I’m good at connecting people and bringing people together, building public-private partnerships and building multidisciplinary research projects. I wanted to see if we could connect more scientists to each other because there are many people working on snakebite research, but as a scientist you are not really responsible for solving the whole societal problem. I try to communicate multidisciplinary science knowledge to other scientists to create an integrated approach to solving the issue of snakebite. This includes connecting people from life sciences and medicine to data scientists. I am trying to gather as many scientists as I can from many different disciplines as possible. We are all working to promote biodiversity and reap the benefit of it, so we should all feel responsible in safeguarding biodiversity. At the same time, I’m trying to connect industry and societal organizations to these scientists to boost the impact.
In 2018, our museum had a big exhibition on poison and venom, and it was the first time that we had live animals and museum collections. We had frogs, spiders and snakes and it was great to educate everybody about venoms and poisons, and their benefits to creating new medicine and having other applications.
What are some of the daily tasks that you do?
One of my big tasks is forming those big partnerships to assist with funding possibilities for snakebite research. I have to gather scientists from various organisations, individuals from different industries or NGOs and engage with them to fund scientific projects. In 2018, we organised a big conference ‘Snakebite: From science to society’ and I would like that to continue. I feel responsible for the scientific program on snakebite and I want to promote it at a national and international level in Europe and attract additional funding for snakebite. I am working together with some scientists on a big national crowd funding campaign which will be implemented in 2020. We will be working with an NGO and various media platforms to raise money and create awareness about snakebite. The fun part about having a celebrity and a scientist in one person, is being able to raise awareness and create impact on a far greater level, because he can make TV shows about this specific topic.
What is your education background and how did you end up working as the science director at a museum?
I have a Master’s qualification in history, but I have worked in science and science management for many years. I have worked at research councils and over the years I have really enjoyed working with scientists and getting the most out of them. This is largely because of the variety in skill sets that they have, and this developed my mentoring and my expertise in management in science, public private partnerships, strategic positioning of science and getting connected in the world.
Are there many women working in similar positions as you or with snakebite work in the Netherlands?
No, there are very few women in this line of work and in science in general. Even in the Netherlands, we still have very few women in professorships and (science) management. Our Science and Society conference in 2018 really indicated this, as most of the scientists and individuals involved were mostly men. I really did my best to find that gender balance and specifically searched for women working on the topic of snakebite or closely related to it.
How do you think we can get more women involved and within your personal capacity, if you were to appeal to women to join this line of work, how would you go about doing it?
Within my capacity, I actively try to link as many people together as possible and create connections between different disciplines. The snakebite field is largely male dominated with limited growth even though the work that has been done is great. The motivation behind the snakebite conference in 2018 was to bring groups of core scientists and people who have been working in snakebite almost all their life, and connect them to new talent and new ideas. It’s time to appeal to younger people to get involved in this science and use lessons from the past to move forward and create new ways of creating awareness. I was very happy to see many students at the conference from various disciplines.
Do you think many young people don’t realise that they can contribute to the field of snakebite?
Currently the people involved in snakebite work are all very dedicated individuals that work full time and they are core scientists. The future lies in attracting people from different fields that can contribute in some way without the expectations of staying long-term. We need the high-level experts from various disciplines such as data science, engineering and technology as well as medicine. However, you can’t expect them to commit themselves for the rest of their lives. They should be willing to contribute to funding applications and creating innovative solutions because they want to. The problem of snakebite and opportunity to make an impact appeals to many scientists.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced working in snakebite?
Being the ‘new kid on the block’ has its challenges. We were questioned about why Naturalis was hosting a snakebite conference, but after it was such a success, everyone was satisfied and impressed with it. People attending the conference were also very surprised that I was a woman and I organised everything. I had been in communications with various people over email and they did not realise I was a woman until they met me.
What have been some of your highlights working in the snakebite field?
Connecting people and seeing how eager everyone is to contribute to snakebite is very exciting and I love that about my job. There’s lots of enthusiasm and once you start connecting people, there is a common struggle among them because this is such a global issue. People from India and Africa become connected with others and they get acknowledged for their contributions. Priyanka Kadam from India is making a difference in the local community. Another woman in Africa is an AMREF community health worker and she works in remote villages, interacts with the community and consults them on health issues. This is where the focus should be. You can make as many antidotes as you want but if they don’t reach the people that require it, then it is of no use. Most of the time it is also women that are doing the community education and outreach and they should be put in the spotlight to showcase the reality of snakebite.
In your opinion, how do you think we can increase awareness about snakebite and the challenges around it?
We need to do things differently than we used to. It was really good to have a movie about snakebite and understand its impact. It was broadcasted at the conference in 2018 and we still share it. In order to reach out to a lot of people, you need to also be on social media and make sure that influencer’s are sharing the information you want about a cause. It’s not about presentations and conferences anymore, because social media has become such a powerful communication tool. Having celebrities and ambassadors can increase that outreach so much more and that’s why connecting with people is important.
Check out the After movie of the Snakebite, From Science to Society conference below!