This post is dedicated to the memory of Dick van der Lee (1962-2018). Take it away, Dick.
Ask any savvy medical researcher why they do what they do, and nine out of ten times the answer is “to help humanity” or some similarly grandiose statement. In reality, this is of course a far more complicated question, and this is different for everyone. The real reason may be as prosaic as “it pays the bills”. If you will indulge me, let me tell you my very personal story about why I do what I do.
My father is the bass player in a blues band, in which he has played since his school days. Since as long as I can remember, they have had the same lead guitarist, Dick van der Lee. Highly intelligent, well read, and a superb guitar player. Growing up, I guess I always realised Dick was a bit different. He never worked, for starters. As I grew older, I learned why. Dick was schizophrenic.
Schizophrenia presents differently in every patient. Many are able to lead fairly normal lives, and have jobs. This is not the place to go into detail, but suffice to say, Dick was badly affected by his schizophrenia. Medication helped keep things under control, but he wasn’t able to work. His music was everything to him, and every last spare penny was spent on guitars, pedals and other accessories.
As the time came to decide what I was going to study at university, I know it was going to be something medically related. As for many other researchers, attacking and dismantling a complex problem appealed to me, so I fairly quickly decided on a career in research. The combination of realising that we don’t really know anything about the brain yet, the excellent neuroscience teaching during my undergrad, and my personal experiences with Dick and others, made me determined to do neuroscience research.
The vagaries of academia being what they are, though I was able to work in disease relevant research most of the time, I had not worked on schizophrenia. For the last year or two, this has changed, and I am now working on the effects of genetic risk factors for the disease. You could say I’ve reached my goal.
Especially in complex, yet common, diseases such as schizophrenia, where we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s going on, research sometimes seems like a thankless task. Without trying to sound grandiose, I think I speak for many of us in saying that our personal experiences with these diseases, in family, friends, or indeed ourselves, help us to keep going. To keep chipping away at that surface slowly, in the hope of actually one day understanding, and yes, curing these diseases.
A few weeks ago, Dick passed away. Although he has now finally reached shelter from that never-ending storm in his head, this put things into perspective again. I firmly believe that, had Dick not been cursed through his genetics or development, he could have gone far with his music. This is why I do what I do. It is for Dick. It is for my other friends who have suffered with depression or anxiety, who will remain anonymous. It is for all those people suffering, often in silence, from psychiatric conditions for which we say we have ‘treatments’, which are really nothing better than sticking plasters. It is for them why I do what I do.