Dr. Alie de Boer

Assistant Professor, Food Claims Centre Venlo, Maastricht University

"I’m on a mission to find good substantiated information to help people make better decisions about what they choose to eat.”

“There is so much fake information about food out there. I’m on a mission to find good substantiated information to help people make better decisions about what they choose to eat.”

 What is your personal story? 

I got interested in the field of health and nutrition when a Wageningen University student told me about it during a visiting lecture at my high school when I was 16. I’ve always been really curious and these subjects really appealed to me. After obtaining my Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition & Health at Wageningen University, I was looking for a more interdisciplinary study program and enrolled in the Master’s program of Health Food Innovation Management at Maastricht University. I liked that study because it taught me to look at nutrition from different disciplines. For example, I could work at the intersection of nutrition and food law by looking into health claims.

In 2015, I obtained my PhD on the ‘Interaction of food and medicine in effect and law’ at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Maastricht University. Since 2015, I’ve been active at the Campus Venlo of Maastricht University where I’m currently an Assistant Professor and the Founder of the Food Claims Centre Venlo. I study how we can best collect information on the safety, health and sustainability of foods, and effectively use it within the legal environment. For instance, how can we assess the safety of novel food products under this regulation. I teach and give guest lectures on a variety of nutrition, health and food information topics.

My mission

My mission is to find the truth. There is so much fake information about food on social media, in magazines and sometimes even in advertising. I hope that the work we do will give people accurate information, so they can make better decisions about the food they choose to eat, whatever their health goals are.

What are the top three questions you get?

  • Which supplements should I use?
  • Do you think my diet is healthy?
  • What’s the best diet to follow?

My answer to these is pretty boring. If you eat healthy and make sure you don’t eat too much or too little of anything, then you don’t need supplements or special diets. I’m not a dietitian, so I don’t advise anyone on their dietary intake. I just advise you to be aware of what you are eating.

Share the important challenges or breakthroughs in your career that led to where you are today

Most conflicts I’ve had have been with myself. I never saw myself as a researcher, however, when I was writing my Master’s thesis, I discovered I was curious to know more. My professors gave me the opportunity to do research, and I learned from that. Then after I finished my PhD, I was ready to work in industry, then the opportunity came to set up my own research line. I thought it would be lonely, but I got a blank sheet to create something from the ground up. I knew I might fail. Instead, it pushed me out of my comfort zone to do something I might otherwise not have done. And I had a great support network of friends and family.

Following my dream
I’m lucky to have really good mentors, both male and female, and they ask really tough questions like ‘what is your ultimate dream’. Five years ago, I would have said that becoming a professor in my research domain was my end goal. But now I really hope that through the work we do, my team and my students will grow personally. And I hope that we can make the world a better place with more accurate information and better ways to combat fake information on, for example, social media. Of course, I’d still like to become a professor, but it would be a shame if I didn’t enjoy the ride. Now I understand that the ride itself is really awesome.

Learning from behaviors that hold you back
In our interviews, we love to talk about ‘12 behaviors that hold you back’ – that were researched and published in the book ‘How Women Rise’ from Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. We asked Alie if she could identify with any of these 12 behaviors that hold women back from moving forward in their careers.

Reluctance to claim your achievements
As women we are very good at downplaying. I’m often the only young woman at the table in research meetings. People look at me and you can see them thinking, ‘How long have you been in research? Are you a student?’ They can be surprised when I say I got my PhD seven years ago. In my work, I just want to be respected for what I do and what I achieve.

I’ve had a few experiences with claiming achievements. I once had a meeting with some external colleagues, where one of them tried to explain my topic to me. I felt uncomfortable at the time, but didn’t act on it. I later told a male colleague who was there how I felt, and he said, ‘I didn’t realize it, but you are right.’ And he said he would support me in addressing it if it happened again.

I’ve noticed that many of my female students are uncomfortable being called an ‘expert’. I think it’s partly being a woman and party being in academia and research, because we are continually confronted with things we don’t know. That can make you feel insecure. When my female students get a mail, saying ‘I’m reaching out to you because you are an expert in the field.’, they sometimes feel uncomfortable. I try to discuss with them that you are an expert in this topic. You have done a lot of research on it, so you can own up to being an expert.

The disease to please
I like being liked by other people, but I learned something very valuable from a media training. We talked about the fact that on a new program or on social media, you are always being judged. And the trainer said, ‘If you want to tell your story, you run the risk of getting negative reactions. But for every one person that didn’t like your story, there are probably 99 others that did like your story. Try to let the negativity go. Ask yourself if you can learn something from the comment. If not, let it go.’ That was great advice for me that helped me put things in perspective.

Overvaluing expertise
I’m sometimes a bit reluctant to do things that I am afraid will address topics outside my expertise. But I’m trying to be more comfortable with that. In a training, I was told: ‘When you are being interviewed on topic A and they start asking you questions about A, B, C and D, you can always steer that discussion. Say that C & D are not my expertise, but I can talk about A & B.’

Letting your radar distract you
If I’m in a good place, I’m feeling ok and I’m in a good flow, my ‘radar’ is not usually a problem. But if I’m not, I have this inner critic that comes up. Then I really need to say to myself, ‘Wait, stop blackmailing yourself with your own thoughts.’

When you find yourself in a difficult situation, what is your go to skill?

I ask questions to try to understand what we’re actually talking about. I look at things from different perspectives to see if there is something I can influence in the situation. Otherwise, I just try to do something. Or decide not to do anything at all. One of my professors said, “There are situations, where you should just do nothing, but doing nothing is the hardest thing to do.”

What advice would you give to other professional women who want to shine in their career?

Look at what really makes you happy. You have so much potential, but in some cases you also have so many expectations of yourself. You have to identify what gives you energy and what you’re good at. And acknowledge the things you aren’t good at, because you can build a good team and find others who can help you there. You don’t have to do everything yourself.

 

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