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VAGABOND innovates with personal development for ESRs to deliver the new generation of scientists to society

13 December 2021

VAGABOND (Validation of Actionable Genomic ABerrations in a pediatric Oncology Network for Doctorate students) is a European Training and Research project. Fifteen potential top scientists will translate biology to clinical studies in pediatric oncology. The PhD candidates (ESRs) started their journey last year. To unleash the potential of each individual, ESRs of the VAGABOND consortium will participate in a personal development program. They will develop human-skills, increase their self-awareness, and boost their emotional intelligence and professional influence under the guidance of Ingrid Valks. Ingrid is the initiator of the power of time off and mastermind and facilitator of the personal development program BeyondU. In this article, we will get to know more about the first experiences of VAGABOND ESRs with the program, about Ingrid herself and about BeyondU.



‘I know from my own experience the power of taking time off. It helps to lead yourself and others, to revitalize and to grow’. 

Ingrid Valks has been living and working in Amsterdam for almost her whole lifetime. From the first day she started working, she took time off regularly. Ten minutes every day, one hour every week, one week every year and one year every seven years. During her last sabbatical after selling her company to an international group in 2017, she decided to embark on an inner journey for one full year. Afterwards, she shaped the initiative the power of time off, which refers to Ingrid Valks’ belief that life is a journey, always in motion, inviting you to go with the flow and to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. When you take time off regularly, you make time to rebalance your inner- and outer world.  This empowers to take leadership of your personal and professional life and to live and work from your heart. ‘The power of time off is an initiative to upskill people, teams and organizations, based on my passion to humanize business and society.’


Humanity and Vitality in 21st-century

There is a global movement towards the need for new skills: human skills. Already in 2016, the World Economic Forum published an extensive report called The Future of Jobs in which one of the report’s main findings is that human skills will be in higher demand across industries. Human skills are personal attributes that require a mind-body-heart connection and describe a wide range of characteristics relevant to work effectively and harmoniously in teams, thinking critically and being self-aware. Transforming competition, comparison and complaining into consciousness, compassion and connection with ourselves and the people around us. A solution for the top three challenges of the 21st-century; 1. People lack a sense of fulfilment and wholeness 2. Constant distractions, changes and new crises 3. Role of humans with the rise of technology. ‘Dare to make the difference. In addition to training of technical skills, also focus on guiding leaders towards resilient and confident human beings by training human-skills as well as well-being as foundation tools.’ As soon as you and your team embrace uniting human skills with technical skills, your organization will be able to attract and retain top talents and thrive in our rapidly changing economy. In 2018, Ingrid designed the BeyondU program, a personal growth program fully committed to develop human skills and practice well-being as foundation tools. The European Union evaluated the program as ‘outstanding and innovative’.


Figure 1. Humanity and Vitality Wheel by Ingrid Valks in the BeyondU personal development program for VAGABOND. Six pillars to develop personal competences and four online courses to practice well-being as foundation skills.


Innovative BeyondU program for future-proof-scientists in pediatric cancer

According to Celina Szanto (Project Manager ITN VAGABOND at Princess Maxima Centre for Pediatric Oncology), personal development and well-being are often overlooked during a PhD project while humanizing the scientific work environment is of great importance. In fact, as reported by the Nature PhD survey in 2019, 76% of the PhD candidates worked more than 40 hours per week. The survey revealed that only a third of the ESRs suffering from anxiety and depression sought help for their feelings. This outcome was an important reason to integrate focus on self-care and self-awareness in the VAGABOND program, as this can be helpful to tackle stress, mental health, and improve work-life balance. Additionally, it will boost self-awareness, confidence, and professional influence. Celina revealed that VAGABOND discovered BeyondU when they were looking for an innovative program that is different from daily science and offers another way of thinking’. Initially, VAGABOND planned to create a single day course or workshop. However, Celina realized that this would be insufficient wherefore they extended the program. With the knowledge and expertise of Ingrid the development of personal growth and self-care was integrated in the training program for ESRs. The European Union also acknowledges the importance of incorporating BeyondU in their ITNs to improve employability, innovation, and competitiveness. This resulted in both being granted financial funds for VAGABOND and a successful partnership between VAGABOND and Ingrid Valks.

With the BeyondU program, a plan is in place to train ESRs in self-care,  self-awareness and self-confidence. Top talents from around the world were attracted by the innovative training program launched by VAGABOND. The ESRs were asked about their motivation to join this consortium. Alice Vitali said, ‘I want to develop both as a person and in my career as a scientist’. Veveeyan Suresh shared ‘VAGABOND offers me the opportunity to develop both personally and professionally’. ‘I think it is really fulfilling to be able to collaborate and grow together’ Joaquin Maqueda declared. The BeyondU training program for 15 ESRs of VAGABOND kicked off with a full day live masterclass, followed by five weeks of online interactions centered around purpose in life and well-being.


Fit for Purpose

At the core of the personal development program are vitality and well-being courses. VAGABOND understands the impact of challenges ESRs will meet over the years. ESRs must be physically, emotionally and mentally fit to overcome challenges on their way.

During the masterclass it was the first time for many of the ESRs to be silent and listen to the language of their bodies. An enormous power, energy and togetherness filled the room. Generally, it can be more powerful to be silent to create that connection with yourself and the people around you. ESRs learned how to master their mind before it masters their life. Charlotte Butterworth said ‘I was impressed with the openness of the whole group and how quickly we got to know and better understand each other. The masterclass laid excellent foundations for successful future collaborations within the consortium.’ They also learned how to relief stress and learned a deep relaxation technique. Later in the program they will also experience the impact of nature and nutrition on their well-being. To continue practicing, the ESRs received the online signature meditation of the power of time off. In this way, the ESRs can continue practicing at home. ‘While doing the power-meditation, everything is put in perspective and relevant aspects seem to become clearer. It helps me structuring and prioritizing things.’ said Jakob Wurth. Additionally, they received online learning assignments.

ESRs also have the possibility to join the 21-days virtual live-streamed course, available to train the brain and find inner-peace inside, which is needed during a PhD journey where ESRs experience stress and anxiety and sometimes even loneliness. The virtual course is live, as following the program live together with others is easier, more fun, and most important more impactful. ‘After this module I decided to take better care of myself, and I realized my mental health is important.’, said Veveeyan Suresh.


Purpose in Life

The personal development program BeyondU for VAGABOND aims to deliver the next generation of scientists who are well-rounded individuals, humans at work and role models for being confident and resilient leaders of the future. The six modules in the program will help grow personal competences of ESRs (Figure 1). ESRs participate in live masterclasses and online interactions in order to 1) achieve a better understanding of their purpose in life, 2) discover their own identity and to represent it to the outside world, 3) understand how cultural differences impact communication, 4) boost emotional intelligence, 5) experiment with new behavior and finally ESRs will learn to 6) recognize and lead ethical dilemmas.

At the masterclass Purpose-in-Life, ESRs have been invited to re-analyze the past, relish the present and desire the future. During this first module they have been exploring their destiny, their passion and purpose in life, and their Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). A purpose that may even seem out of reach, a little crazy but that you cannot let go of. This day was an opportunity to get inspired by many stories. One story was of a man who’s definitely familiar with chasing dreams. He told the ESRs how he turned an almost impossible goal into reality and how he is now contributing to a better, more sustainable world. Inspired by this story that dreams really can come true if you chase them hard enough, ESRs spent time to reflect on where they are today and what legacy they want to leave behind. This resulted in magical moments when every ESR shared his/her purpose in life. ‘After this masterclass I shared my purpose in life with others. They all supported me, and they found it weird as I had never talked about that.’  told Joaquín Maqueda.

As your North Star, your purpose offers a framework that makes hard work valuable and it can guide you taking conscious, and sometimes tough, decisions and inspire you to move forward, even in difficult times.  ‘During workdays when I feel tired or exhausted, I think to myself, what am I doing and why I am doing it, then things go much easier off the hand. This module has expanded my horizon and it created an atmosphere that connects people on a very fundamental level’, Jakob Wurth mentioned. Alejandro Allo Anido told ‘I liked the fact that the online supplement learning assignments were pretty different, although circling around the same topic of purpose in life. I also liked that they were pretty light, taking into account that we are all busy.’ 

Jan Molenaar (Principal Investigator and Coordinator of VAGABOND at the Princess Maxima Center for Pediatric Oncology) says: ‘Being a researcher is not just about science. I want to invest time and budget to provide our ESRs with an intensive program towards conscious role models for the new generation of scientists.’


For more information please do not hesitate to contact Celina Szanto, +31(0)621422797 or contact Ingrid Valks at, +31(0)651097805.