From Dante´s circles of hell to academic freedom
The focus of Hindrik Mulder’s research is on the metabolism of insulin-producing beta cells. The question he studies is what goes wrong in type 2 diabetes: why do the insulin-producing beta cells fail? Why are they no longer able to release as much insulin as is needed to keep blood sugar levels under control?
“The cells’ powerhouses – mitochondria – play a key role in this. The mitochondria give the cells energy and control their metabolism. However, if their workings are disturbed, the beta cells are not able to respond with sufficient insulin release when blood sugar levels rise, and this results in diabetes”, says Hindrik Mulder.
A good example of his research, as well as of the important collaboration between different research groups at Lund University Diabetes Centre, is an article published in 2011 in the distinguished journal Cell Metabolism.
From molecule to disease risk
“We were able to map the entire route from a genetic risk variant for diabetes in the population to the exact molecular mechanism behind it. We were able to show what causes the reduced insulin release (see link below).
“This was the first time anyone had been able to do this”, says Hindrik Mulder, going on: “A lot of skills and resources are needed for such a survey, and we get that when different teams collaborate. To say that we cover the whole process from start to finish is almost an understatement – from molecule to disease risk is more accurate.”
The survey pointed out a possible area for a future treatment for type 2 diabetes, and that is important.
“The ultimate goal, even if it may be distant, is for what we do as researchers to benefit patients.”
Medical career a foregone conclusion
It was always a foregone conclusion that Hindrik Mulder would become a doctor. Not, however, because his father was a doctor and researcher.
“No, not at all. There was no family pressure”, says Hindrik Mulder, maintaining that it would have been perfectly acceptable if he had wanted to become a jazz musician.
In 1962, his parents moved to Sweden from Holland and Hindrik Mulder was born the same year.
“In the 1960s, Sweden was an amazing country, known for its culture, liberalism and radical politics, with Ingemar Bergman, Olof Palme and many others. The economy was good, and the landscape was beautiful and accessible – things that were not automatic in a densely populated and partially war-torn Europe.”
Modern progressive rock
He never became a jazz musician, but he got involved in music nevertheless. Hindrik Mulder was young in the punk era and played in the band Haricots Verts.
“I was the only one who couldn’t play an instrument, so I had to be on drums. It didn’t sound great”, he says.
Music is still important to him today.
“I listen to a lot of music and have very broad tastes. I like 60s and 70s rock, or modern progressive rock with influences from both classical music and jazz.”
Hierarchical and old-fashioned
After Haricots Verts and during his studies in medicine, Hindrik Mulder began doing research at the Endocrinology Clinic in Malmö. His first stint there was not a success.
“Not at all. The clinic was like Dante’s circles of hell. If you were in the wrong circle – which you were as a young undergraduate – it wasn’t a nice place to be. It was hierarchical and old-fashioned”, observes Hindrik Mulder, recalling the time he received a reprimand for not standing up when the professor entered the lab.
“At that point I decided I’d had enough and quit.”
It’s understandable. This was not 100 years ago but in the late 1970s.
Two years in Dallas
Instead, Hindrik Mulder ended up at the hospital in Ystad, where the working climate was more modern. There he met doctors who were interested in research.
“I was attracted to the possibility of doing research and in 1992 I started as a doctoral student under Professor Frank Sundler in Lund.
“He was interested in hormones, so that became my specialisation.”
Hindrik Mulder also came into contact early on with Bo Ahrén, whose main interest is diabetes.
“I also went into diabetes. Frank Sundler and Bo Ahrén were a perfect combination”, says Hindrik Mulder.
In 1997 his thesis was complete. It comprised 11 published research articles, which is an unusually high number. The thesis received an award as the best at the Faculty of Medicine that year.
“I had good luck. My work went really well.” After his PhD, Hindrik Mulder spent almost two years as a postdoc in Dallas, where he worked on the fat metabolism in the insulin-producing beta cells.
“That was the most enjoyable period in my research career. The attitude was that anything was possible.”
Understanding what we see
Since 2009, he has been a Professor of Molecular Metabolism and has a research group of 11 people.
“My entire research is based on understanding the metabolism of the beta cells. It’s decisive for the function of the cells”, he says, and it is clear that the subject fascinates him.
“The challenge for us is to understand the huge quantities of data we gather using new technology; to understand what it is we see”, says Hindrik Mulder.
In his bones
Now he’s back at the Endocrinology Clinic in Malmö again. He sees patients there one morning a week.
“Being a doctor is in my bones.”
The working climate is good there now, but if he had to choose between being a doctor or a researcher he would choose researcher every time.
“You can do a lot of good as a doctor, but you can do more for more people if you do research. Moreover, you have freedom as a researcher; you can influence your situation. When I started in research, our children were young, and flexible working hours are particularly important then”, says Hindrik Mulder, adding:
“Although that freedom is on the condition that the research goes well. You have to publish good results so that you can get funding to finance your research.”
Dreams of a major discovery
The working week is often long, but he doesn’t like to talk about it in numbers of hours.
“This is my life. It isn’t important to me to have a clear dividing line between work and leisure. I don’t have a problem with working evenings; I don’t feel that I’m sacrificing anything. Inside, I’m probably still a little boy who dreams of making that really big discovery – the one that makes a difference.”
He does find time for something other than work. For example, he exercises a lot.
“I have got into cycling. A ride can last two to three hours, and sometimes five or six.”
We can presume that he also cycles fairly fast on his trips, thus covering long distances.
“I exercise in order to grow old, not to try and stay young.”
Text: Tord Ajanki/Hanna Mellors
Photography: Kennet Rouna (portrait photo)