Heidy den Besten appointed as personal professor of Ecology of Food Pathogens

Published on
January 31, 2023

Heidy den Besten has been appointed as personal professor of Ecology of Food Pathogens, part of the Food Microbiology chair group. Her research group focuses on understanding and predicting the behavior of foodborne pathogens in ecosystems. In her work she integrates the fields of microbiology and mathematics to quantify behaviour from molecular to management level.

'In my research I combine my passion for tasty and healthy food with my two favorite disciplines: microbiology and mathematics. By integrating these two disciplines, we can predict microbial behavior based on knowledge of the microorganism to continue producing and developing new and safe products in the future.’

Importance of research on pathogens in food

‘There are many micro-organisms in and on products. Most micro-organisms are harmless, but a small fraction - so-called foodborne pathogens - can make us sick. Considering that we eat at least three times a day, this often is problem free. Still, 1 in 10 people per year become ill due to foodborne pathogens. The expectation is that this number will increase. We are getting older (therefore more vulnerable) and the current climate changes and new circular food systems increase the risk of contamination of products. Predicting and controlling food safety risks is therefore very important.'

Predicting behavior of pathogens

‘To predict the behavior of pathogens, I integrate information from DNA level to behavior in complex ecosystems. This provides fundamental insight into microbial behavior and also leads to practical knowledge on how the behavior of pathogens can be controlled. This approach - from molecule to management - ensures that we can translate acquired knowledge into relevant social issues. As a scientist, I therefore participate in various working groups on food safety guidelines and innovative methods of the future.'

Collaboration with partners

‘Food safety is a shared interest and cooperation is essential. WUR positions itself strongly as an independent partner that seeks cooperation, and the projects I initiate often involve several partners. This ensures that pre-competitive, new knowledge can actually be followed-up by relevant partners. By working together with companies, governments and societal organizations we fulfill an important societal role, but it is also essential for conducting relevant research and providing good education.'

Importance of education

Den Besten gets a lot of energy from teaching. ‘The best week of the year is the first week of September when I am involved in the start-up of two major courses. The fresh energy and interest of students from very diverse backgrounds give me great pleasure in my work. I actively seek the connection between research and education. BSc and MSc students therefore conduct research within projects of PhD students from my group. The societal transition to eating more plant-based products and making our food chain more circular, presents new challenges in terms of food safety. We have to train our students for this and I enjoy doing that.'