Heleen Nelissen awarded doctorate after successful PhD defense

On Thursday, April 30, 2020, Heleen Nelissen defended her PhD in a very unconventional setting. Rather than presenting her work in front of a room full of professors, family, friends, and onlookers, Heleen sat in a room with Emilie Berkhout and Marjan Molemans in front of a screen in her home. Due to the current pandemic, all in-person PhD defenses have moved online. Heleen presented her PhD thesis to the Doctorate Committee, her promoter Constance Schultsz and co-promoter Anja van’t Hoog. The presentation was streamed online for others to watch. Heleen successfully responded to the questions asked by the members of the Doctorate Committee, which included professors and a doctor from different universities.

Prior to this momentous and memorable moment, Heleen worked for many years in preparation for this event. She received her masters from the VU University and worked as a student assistant and junior researcher at the AIGHD since 2011. It wasn’t until Heleen worked on a project at AIGHD focused on cardiovascular disease prevention care in rural Nigeria that she found her true interest and the subject matter of her PhD. Heleen became interested in learning more about the problems of NCDs in Africa. “When I started my career at AIGHD I was surprised to learn about the large burden of NCDs which made me want to better understand it and contribute to this research.” Additionally, she worked on projects evaluating health insurance program’s in Kenya and Tanzania. What Heleen liked best in her research was meeting people from different cultures, and the collaboration between the partners: “I found it very exciting to collaborate with different partners, not only in the Netherlands, but also abroad. I worked with experienced, kind, and hospitable people who were all dedicated on achieving the same goal—to improve health care.”

Heleen’s PhD thesis is titled Improving cardiovascular disease prevention care in urban and rural Nigeria”. The initial three papers in her PhD looked at visibility of implementing hypertension care in pharmacies using mhealth in Lagos. If patients with hypertension lived far from a hospital, they could monitor their blood pressure at their local pharmacy. Pharmacists in five pharmacies in Lagos received training on health symptoms and mhealth procedures so they could enter data from their patients into an app that could be seen by the patient’s doctor. Pharmacies were more easily accessible to patients in Lagos and they perceived the services at pharmacies to be better than at hospitals.

Since 2014, Heleen has published numerous papers and collaborated with researchers around the world. Because her PhD was under supervision at AIGHD, she was able to conduct interdisciplinary research through collaborations with economists and anthropologists. “I was grateful to collaborate with people from different fields. The research skills that I gained at AIGHD will help me in future research endeavors.”

And these skills will come in handy right away. Heleen is now working as a project manager and researcher at the OLGV hospital in Amsterdam where she is looking at more efficiently using medical equipment. We wish Heleen the best in her future and a big congratulations from the AIGHD team.