Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the honorary doctorates were presented online. So, helped by his wife, Karl Deisseroth, Professor of Bioengineering, and Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University donned his cape in his home in California in the presence of his family. The other honorary doctor Trisha Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, was closer, in the United Kingdom. The cape and certificate which had been sent earlier were presented by a colleague.

‘Brilliant scientist’

In his laudatio praising the honorary doctor, promotor Chris de Zeeuw (Professor of Neurosciences, Erasmus MC) called Deisseroth a ‘brilliant scientist’. Deisseroth is responsible for ground-breaking research in optogenetics. With this technology, individual brain cells can be identified and targeted when treating illnesses. “Karl has thus solved the problem whereby medicines used to affect all the cells, not just the diseased cells,” says De Zeeuw. In the future, it will be possible to improve the treatment of illnesses like epilepsy, Parkinson’s and ALS.

In particular, De Zeeuw also mentioned the fact that Deisseroth does not restrict his work to the lab. As a psychiatrist, he also works with patients with autism and depression every week.

Behaviour of a plant

After the ceremony, Deisseroth gave a short lecture about his findings. Indirectly, this was an appeal for fundamental science. His invention to control brain cells with light is based on research by the nineteenth-century botanist Andrei Famintsyn who discovered that certain single-cell algae move towards the light. “This shows you what science can produce. This plant behaviour ultimately resulted in optogenetics,” says Deisseroth.

‘I’m a rebel’

Dies Natalis 2021 honorary doctorate Greenhalgh
Trisha Greenhalgh received her honorary doctorate in her homecountry the UK. Image credit: Arie Kers

The second doctorate, from Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management (ESHPM), was for Trisha Greenhalgh. She received an honorary doctorate for her research into complex innovations in healthcare. Besides her work as a doctor and researcher, Greenhalgh is a member of various medical advisory boards in the United Kingdom and in the World Health Organisation.

Greenhalgh is delighted to receive the honorary doctorate from a university bearing the name of Erasmus. “He was a bit of a rebel who fought against the prevailing dogmas, which is how I see myself too. I love being associated with a young university, when you think that my own Oxford university is 920 years old.”

Telling stories

Greenhalgh received the insignia digitally from promotor Roland Bal (Professor of Healthcare Governance, ESHPM). “There have never been so many discussions about healthcare and technology as in the recent period,” Bal began his laudatio for Greenhalgh. As a scientist, she has made an important contribution to this (even just in terms of her 150,000 Twitter followers). “Greenhalgh has bridged the gap between the medical and social sciences, and created a framework that will hopefully lead to fewer failed innovations in healthcare,” says Bal.

‘There are no nice linear lives’

Trisha Greenhalgh

Greenhalgh gives a nice example of how a medical innovation, in this case a home glucose meter, must also withstand situations in daily life, like a dog picking it up in his mouth. “That is the complexity we live with. There are no nice linear lives.”

She explains that difficult problems are also difficult to solve, because those involved have different visions about the definition of the success or failure of a project. It is therefore useless to work towards consensus, but it is useful to continue talking and listening to each other. Greenhalgh refers to Aristoteles who said that ‘we must tell each other stories’ to tackle complex problems.