Influencer Professor Dr. Ashley Duits

Interview March 2019
Could you share with me some information of your family life?
My name is Ashley Duits. I was born in Curaçao, I have one sister and one brother and I am happily married.

We have come to know you over the years as a very passionate person and scholar in the health sector. You are now a professor from the University of Groningen, the director of the Red Cross Blood Bank foundation and you are the director of the department of Immunology of Curaçao. You were also the chairman of the Raad voor de Volksgezondheid till 2010 when it existed and during different moments represented the interests of SEHOS in talks and negotiations with the government. What other functions do you hold?
I am also an advisor to PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), as a professor I guide PhD students in their research projects and I am the educational coordinator of NASKHO.

What is your opinion on the info-biotech revolution that is underway in science?
Because of our ever enhancing capacity to analyze big data, we are improving our ability to recognize certain patterns out of more extensive data, like for instance thousands of birds flying in flocks, their flights can be predicted based on the data patterns that can be derived from how they fly individually. This is fascinating, and achieving such knowledge is one of the most beautiful things there is in science. And I love it.

How does science deal with the way the media is now being used to at times sell fake stories?
In one of our seminars “Weerleggen van de grenzen” of last year, we dedicated some attention to this phenomena. You can use these same media and two or three well followed internet figures (influencers) as tools, to sell the true story that is based on scientific truth, like for example the need for vaccination of children. We are now living in a totally new era compared to the 50-ies and as scientist we should leave our ivory towers and educate the people with tools and a language that they can relate to, as part of our social responsibility as scientists.

I was passionate at a young age about science and as I got more involved this passion only grew, also in the sense that as a scientist I am now also interested in the bigger picture specifically the philosophical part. Like Immunology that is my specialisation area and also my hobby. I do a lot of reading and researching in that area, but I am also interested in how a Theoretical Physicist perceives reality and I also keep track of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) endeavours , that is awesome. This is really also what I enjoy nowadays.

Did they ask you to become a professor or was this something that because of your interest in academia and science it naturally resulted from being a scientist and educator?
I was asked to become a Professor. It is not something that had never happened before, but it is rather unique to be a professor in another country while living on a Caribbean island.

You are also very much involved in NASKHO, what are the goals of NASKHO and what role do you play in enabling continuous education and learning of health care professionals?
SEHOS is an affiliate teaching hospital and it is one of the 8 affiliate teaching hospitals of the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). So students in their second year of their masters for becoming medical doctors need for a whole year to continue their clinical rotations by going to work in an affiliate hospital.
SEHOS offers this opportunity and it is unique because it is the only affiliate hospital from the UMCG (and also from the Netherlands medical educational program), that is outside of Holland and I as the educational coordinator am ultimately responsible for this program in Curaçao.
I firmly believe that there is a link between education and quality improvement in healthcare, because it contributes to the improvement of processes being used and therefore structurally improves the quality of our healthcare. NASKHO is (and has been for more than 50 years) a partner with UMCG and SEHOS to maintain this link between education and quality improvement. The NASKHO goals are clearly defined as helping in assuring the clinical rotations, supporting continuous medical education and stimulating relevant medical science on the island.

Does CMC help to improve the quality of the health care?
The construction of a building doesn’t automatically mean that there is an improvement in the care, the people working in this new building are the crucial elements in this.
CMC can provide a framework for and also an opportunity to level up, if …this process is well managed and the professionals are respectfully involved and taken along.

How are you trying also to keep up with your skills? Do you like reading books, publish articles, follow courses, invest in networks and people that might help you further your knowledge and skills level?
Yes, I continuously do this.

As a scholar and scientist you still are very much into research and with lots of zest, where does this drive come from? Did you know that you wanted to become a scientist?
I have this drive because I experience it as so much fun to do. Two weeks ago, I was in Dominica for an audit and I had an opportunity to experience how people there deal with problems they have. I preferred walking every day for 20 minutes to the venue where I was supposed to be for my visit, just to get a look and feel on how life is in Dominica. That is awesome, and that fuels my drive and my joy for life.

How important are lifestyle changes to prevent and lower the number of people getting chronic diseases?
Lifestyle changes are very important, but complex and difficult, because there are no quick fixes. Just simply advocating lifestyle changes via folders and stuff like that, isn’t sufficient. We have to start simply by really talking to people, know their culture, know their problems and understand how they think and based on that educate them to manage themselves. To effectively deal with cardiovascular diseases will require decades and decades, but it will still require that we start investing right away in things that will not give short term success and results. It requires being there for the long haul and better tuning in into a frequency, that you can effectively communicate with people, understanding them and knowing what works in their context.

Apart from regular exercises, healthy eating habits, self-care (enough sleep) how important is the mastering of a person’s mind exercises, like mindfulness and meditation exercises, for the overall health of people?
I believe that the two extremes in science are meeting one another. In the past, mindfulness and meditation was called esoteric, but of late its importance has increased. But also ethical issues like limits of treatment of patients based on their quality of life. Ethical discussions questions like when to stop the treatment of patients based on their projected quality of life are becoming more relevant nowadays.

What is your BIG WHY or driving motivation to be as passionate as you are?
To learn and by doing that to be able to make things better.

What are your other strengths?

I am also a good listener and a reasonable good communicator. I respect people and I use these skills in my work as a scientist. There has always been a movement in science for searching for the beauty of life. Life is fantastic. I can read an article on Statistical Thermodynamics and appreciate its beauty. Like the Nobel Prize Winner Frank Wilczek, an American theoretical physicist. He wrote a book titled: ”A beautiful question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design” and this book so perfectly describes my own views on life. Or the author Rudyard Kipling whose moving (alas now very actual again) story “the White Seal” that begins with an opening poem “The Seal Lullaby”, put to music by the famous Eric Whitacre choire, all as part of an effort aimed at understanding the beauty of life. Or Eric Satie a French pianist, his music like the 4 minute “Gymnopedie” is so simple yet so powerful, because of its simplicity. As long as we as scientists and humans remain humble and not complicated, you can achieve so much. That is the way to achieve results, that is how one can inspire people instead of an aggressive “in your face”- mentality. As long as you accept what you know and not know, you can inspire people. Funny thing is, you can get inspired by science in many different ways. Like by a study on why zebra have a striped skin (to confuse mosquito’s) or that by studies that show that we as Homo Sapiens have genes from another extinct human species Neanderthals and that we survived compared to Neanderthals because we had better communication skills as a group. The Neanderthal couldn’t communicate so well because of their poorly developed vocal cords. So, emotional intelligence is so much more important than only IQ. It is better to be invited to sit at the table than just go and sit first, meaning being respectful and valuing others.

We interviewed Gwendeline Lanoy-Leuteria this last week and she has worked with young men at the Sociale Vormingsplicht, drop outs and they lack self reflection skills and EQ. What is your opinion on this?
We are clearly missing something that we had in the past and that is: We are missing a value system and mental framework that ignites self reflection and value education. As religion has lost ground in the modern times, these elements weren’t replaced in the education systems that are offered nowadays. I believe that every society needs these elements. The Greeks used philosophy as a valuable tool in this matter, whereas nowadays lots of people are only getting an overkill of external stimuli in their lives, becoming victims of streams of (mis)information.

In Health Care though, the preparation and education of future physicians, as part of their so- called professional education, has changed in the sense it isn’t about having exclusively the right professional knowlegde nowadays, but also the need to have the right competencies. CanMEDS for example is an educational framework, that describes the abilities (soft skills) physicians require to effectively meet the health care needs of the people they serve.

Do you have hobbies or interests that you are passionate about?
I adore reading, I love movies and music. As a sport , I run and jog, I just came in from Bonaire this morning and I woke up at 3 am to run/jog, because it’s “Me-time” for me, it gives me time to think about things.

You are also chairperson of the roman Catholic school board, what drives you to be involved in such an institution?
Because I see the importance that such an educational institution can have for our society and especially our children, as I value the education of every human being. RKCS has 60 % of all the schoolchildren attending some form of education, so…

If you meet a stranger in the bus (let say in Groningen-Holland or the US) and they would ask you to introduce yourself, what would you answer?


How would you describe Ashley in one word or one sentence?
Always in search of the beauty of life and in the human being.

Whom are the persons that have inspired you the most in your career?
There wasn’t only one single person. I had several people that inspired me, not necessarily one person. As I believe that everybody is unique, this means being inspired by a role model doesn’t mean emulating this role model. I was inspired by things that people have achieved from f.i. Nelson Mandela and so also Frank Wilczek, but locally for example Rob Rojer because of his incredible knowledge and humbleness. I am so grateful that I have met so many inspiring people in my life, that I have learned bits and parts from and also learned from others how “not to do”- certain things.

What are some of the challenges, lessons learned, that you have encountered in your life when you ultimately discovered your talents and strengths?
A disbelief that it wouldn’t be possible to reach what I have reached up to now, meaning to produce and give input and a contribution to science through peer reviewed channels on a wordly scale, while not coming out of a more western centered culture and geographical area. I am from Curaçao and we are located in the Caribbean Basin.

What was a defining moment in your life, a setback that later turned out to be a great blessing?
 It wasn’t one moment, but different fragments of moments and I had the luck to bump into knowledgable and good people, whom made it possible for me to continue to grow.

Where do you want to be 10 to 15 years from now with your career?

I would like to be in a situation where because of my input, we have created frameworks or systems where there is sufficient guarantee of sustainability of scientific quality, education and health, that are not only dependent on individual effort.

What would you want your Loved Ones, family, friends and others to say about you let’s say 20 years from now?
That we are very happy, that we can celebrate life in the broadest sense of the word with you. That we have reached beauty together and that we are at a beautiful place in our relationships.
I would like to refer also to two quotes I used in my dissertation, one was from Miles Davies:

“I will play it first and tell you what it is later.” A perfect science metaphor by a master Jazz trumpet player.

The other one is from Kahlil Gibran:

“ It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding.”

That is true understanding at a much broader and deeper level. That is the beauty in science.

What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao?
Because it is all about human beings. If we can educate our people and understand them better, we are going to succeed, just like that.

One of the 250 Community Influencers
As the core group of Share2Uplift, we love and deeply respect Professor Dr. Ashley Duits, whom as a Professor and educational coordinator of NASKHO is structurally helping to improve the quality of our health care for years now. His energy and drive is far beyond average and being a Professor of the University of Groningen living in Curaçao and as an advisor for PAHO has achieved quite a feat also internationally. We definitely consider him one of the 250 ethical leaders of our Island, that continuously works at influencing people’s mindsets for the better in our society.

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