“Outside of work and science—well, maybe also inside of work—I’m very boring.”
Ewoud-Jan van Hoogdalem is a self-described nerd. The kind of guy who wants to understand why things are the way they are. It’s a personality trait that drove him through primary and secondary school, onto university where he earned his PhD in pharmacy. Some may say it was his calling—to Ewoud, it was the pragmatic choice.
“I went for pharmacy because I could get into that type of program with my grades. It also had the life sciences component that I liked a lot in contrast to chemistry.”
“In a way, that’s always remained my core. I like the interface between the in-depth material like what drugs are and what they do to the human body—the life part.”
According to Ewoud, science is only successful when it’s applied successfully by human beings. There’s always a human factor to it. He’s spent his life asking how he can make things work in collaboration with other people.
To call Ewoud curious might be an understatement. From an early age, he was drawn to science. In secondary school, he made his own DIY chemistry kit, filled with vinegars acting as acids and diluted housekeeping ammonia as the basic compounds. Extracts from plants served as color indicators for acidity and pH levels.
He was an avid reader, devouring science fiction and history books. Reading gave him the opportunity to push his mind elsewhere. Finding his primary school’s emphasis on history lacking, Ewoud started to read independently in hopes of better understanding the history he found so fascinating—the complex history of the Low Lands and the precolonial civilizations of North America and the Caribbean. Even today, his passion for history leads him to opportunities to learn something new. Inspired by his exploration into South American history, Ewoud teaches himself Spanish in his spare time.
Ewoud’s no stranger to asking questions that don’t have clear answers. As a kid reading science fiction books, he’d often wonder about the what ifs.
What if we could travel faster than time? What if we could travel faster than light? This curiosity would follow him as he grew older. Pondering life’s big questions was always more interesting to him than going out and drinking—although he did that too, on occasion.
It’s a skill he learned very young—and a muscle he still flexes every day. Ewoud has always been eager to learn.
“I must confess that my strengths ironically were always in the ‘softer disciplines,’ as we would call it in Dutch. I was interested in things like language and not really mathematics and chemistry which is, ironically, where I ended up,” Ewoud shares. “I learned to absorb and order information so I could better grasp it without drowning in the details.”
As Vice President of Scientific Affairs – Clinical Pharmacology, Ewoud’s job requires a good understanding of science, but it also relies upon intuition and courage. In a role like his, you can’t be intimidated by science. You have to be able to pick up new things and work well with others because, at the end of the day, the work Ewoud does is all about people.
“I had to learn many things over the years, but perhaps one of the most important was not to be driven by the idea that I need to be the smartest person in the room.”
“That’s how I was when I did my PhD. I wanted to be the smartest, brightest person. That is a very tired way of living” he says.
Over the years, Ewoud’s perspective has shifted from wanting to be the smartest person in the room to embracing his role as facilitator. He understands that he cannot run a department of 14 people by doing the work of 14 people. His team needs to do the work, and his job is to help them where he can and step back when he’s not needed. Knowing the difference between the two is not always easy. “I need to help my crew—the people on my team—to be the brightest, to steal the show, to impress the client,” Ewoud explains. His job is to make his teammates shine, and he does this by ensuring they feel comfortable and supported enough to take that extra step to get the job done the right way.
Of course, working with others doesn’t end in the lab. Often, the work that Ewoud and his team are doing pushes the boundaries of drug development. Their job is to help clients innovate—to do the things that have never been done before. With that innovation, sometimes comes friction.
“Sometimes we have to say no. Maybe we don’t know enough about how we want to test this drug in humans, so we have to take a break and learn more or sidestep to make sure we’re doing the right thing for our clients, our patients, and PRA,” explains Ewoud. “Sometimes, that’s not what our colleagues want to hear because they want to move forward. We cannot move forward if we’re not doing things the right way.”
Integrity and honesty have always been important to Ewoud. There’s a Dutch expression he references often: Fairness and honesty, they go a long way.
It has a double meaning. When you do the right thing and you are fair, there are long-lasting benefits. However, doing things honestly and fairly often takes a long time. You need to invest in doing the right thing. Often, it won’t pay off immediately. If you want something that pays off quickly, then lie and cheat and cut corners. Ewoud doesn’t believe in that, especially when it comes to his work.
“We have to do the right thing for the right reasons. We have to do the right study for our clients, not because regulators tell us to do so, or because ethical committees expect it. No—it is out of our own intrinsic value that we want to do the right thing.”
Ewoud believes that by always opting to do the right thing, you build real value. Doing the right thing benefits everyone, but that shouldn’t be the reason for doing it. The focus should always be first and foremost on the patient. When we approach drug development in that way, everything else will fall in line. It will be right for the patients, for the clients, and for PRA.
Because every study that’s done must be approved by an ethical committee, many pharma and biotech companies ask what can be done to ensure the committee will approve their study. Ewoud’s response is always the same. “When we do the right study with the right design, the ethical committee will approve it. It’s not the other way around. We aren’t designing a study to please an ethical committee. We’re designing and executing a study for a drug in order to build value for you—to learn about your drug. If we design a study in the right way, all the rest will follow. It will be approved. It will be a good study. There will be good data that comes out of it.”
It’s not always easy saying no or asking clients and colleagues to be patient, but it’s the only way to ensure patients are at the center of what we do.
Ewoud isn’t a stranger to making unpopular or unwelcome recommendations. It’s a skill he’s refined over the years. Science operates in an area where few things are black and white. Many times, things are shades of grey.
“When it’s black or white, it’s easy, right? When the light is green you go and when the light is red you stop. That’s easy. But very often, the light is amber. How do you work with that?” He says confidence is key. In his line of work, you must be confident in your knowledge of science, of the business, and of all the different stakeholders. Much like in life, sometimes the best interest for everyone is not the fastest solution. When it comes to science, it’s sometimes better to move a bit slower.
Of course, it’s twofold. Weighing which path to choose is rarely an easy decision—you never truly know. There’s no way to scientifically assess whether you’ve made the right decision. Science requires one to accept uncertainties. To accept that you don’t know everything. Ewoud and his team must make assumptions and sometimes guesses, and they need to be comfortable doing that. It’s a risk they must be willing to take.
“You can’t be afraid to take the next step in absence of 100 percent of the information. We never know 100 percent. We usually only know 80 percent—and sometimes we have no idea how much we don’t know,” says Ewoud. “But still, you need to do something. You cannot sit and freeze. You have to have confidence and be willing to take the responsibility for moving forward while not knowing everything.”
As much as there are unknowns in his line of work, Ewoud is excited by the prospect that every day, there’s something to be learned and something to be accomplished. Sometimes those things are very simple, other times they’re grand discoveries. But every day, there’s something to be done that inspires him.
“While on earth, I would like to make a positive difference, not a negative one,” he shares. “I would like to make a difference to a project and to the people I meet. I believe in doing the right thing—whether that’s compromising on a project, smiling at someone on the street, or being kind to others when I’m out running errands. That goes for my whole life. If I leave this world, let me try to leave it better than when I came into it.”
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