Cancer researcher and entrepreneur Hetty Helsmoortel: ‘Nerd is no longer a swear word’


After a career as a cancer researcher, she became a science entrepreneur. She organizes festivals, makes podcasts and will soon be on stage with her own show. Breakfast with De Tijd.

Many people in this section don’t get around to breakfast. Hetty Helsmoortel (37) is also busy talking, but she does manage to eat a pink bun with scrambled eggs and avocado. Later she orders another yogurt with granola and fruit. “I like to take my time,” she says when we say goodbye more than two hours later in the café of the De Grote Post cultural center in Ostend.

Helsmoortel is a molecular biologist. She conducted research into the development and detection of cancer at Ghent University for almost a decade. But in 2020 she called it a day in her lab and renamed herself a science watcher. In books, podcasts and TV programs, she tries to teach laypeople the most important scientific and technological breakthroughs. This ranges from the genetic cutting and pasting technique CRISPR to the observations of the James Webb telescope to Kepler’s law, which describes the movement of planets, rediscovered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Breakfast with

The time

Ostend, 10 am, in the café of the De Grote Post cultural center.

With Hetty Helsmoortel we talk about science and motherhood. And about the implanted chip in her hand.

With that information she reaches anything but a niche. The best proof is Sound of Science, our country’s first science festival, which she founded in 2018. The small-scale event with academics on stage has grown in a few years into the Nerdland Festival, a three-day event that brings together 20,000 people on a meadow in Wachtebeke. And at the end of this year, Helsmoortel, together with television maker Lieven Scheire, will fill the Lotto Arena twice with a major science show for children.

“We are growing at an insane pace and there seems to be no end in sight,” says Helsmoortel. ‘When I hear presenter Luc Appermont talk about Nerdland during ‘The Sweet Inval’ on Radio 2, I think we can say: nerd is no longer a swear word.’

She does not find it surprising that science is ‘hot and happening’. ‘We live in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and chaotic. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the attacks, at climate change. In such a context, science can provide guidance, just as religion once did. I find nothing more comforting than the fact that one plus one always equals two. That logic brings me peace.’

But that reasoning does not apply to every Belgian. Certainly not for the youngest. The popularity of scientific disciplines has been declining in secondary education for years. ‘What I do on stage is completely different from teaching a chemistry or physics lesson. I present the goodies of science. But I don’t have to learn the dough, the theoretical models that precede it.’

At the same time, she wonders whether it is a good idea to teach students that theory first. ‘Newton’s laws are not exciting in themselves. But a rocket launch, for which such laws form the basis, is. If you start with that, you might be able to stimulate interest more.’

Genetic overlap

It is no coincidence that we agreed in De Grote Post. Helsmoortel comes there often. Until a few years ago, the Ostend woman lived nearby. ‘I never thought I would leave here. But after my divorce I met another woman and moving to Ghent was the most pragmatic solution.’

The break-up has made her a more involved parent for her two own children and daughter-in-lawr, she says. ‘In the arrangement we have made now, there is one week to focus on work and another to be there for my family. That variety works well for me.’

Helsmoortel herself bore one child. ‘The donor my ex used is the same, making our children half-brother and half-sister. As a scientist, I thought that genetic overlap was important.’ She and her ex also opted for an open donation. A loophole in Belgian law made it possible for a foreign donor to be contacted, with whom the children – if they are of legal age and wish to do so.

‘I find it quite educational that I am not only a biological but also a non-biological mother. Partly because my bond with my children came about in different ways. Is that what a father feels after birth? I’ve sometimes wondered that.’

Full screen display
Hetty Helsmoortel.
©Wouter Van Vooren

Helsmoortel will soon be on stage in this cultural centre. In mid-November she will present her – sold out – show ‘Mission 2023’, in which she reviews the most important scientific facts of the year. She will also talk about artificial intelligence, how could it be otherwise?

‘Almost everyone today – consciously or unconsciously – uses systems based on it. You name it, and AI is involved,” she says. ‘Look at healthcare. There are hospitals where radiologists are experimenting with AI software to interpret mammography and ultrasound scans. And that’s just the beginning. So much more can be automated. The benefits that AI will bring are incalculable. Take the drug test. While it used to take us up to thirty years to test one substance, AI now assembles substances itself to see what could theoretically be effective.’

My poster was made with AI, my show was not. I want to make a performance that is mine, with my personality in it.

Hetty Helsmoortel

Science watcher

Helsmoortel finds it difficult to put into words what exactly a future with AI will look like. She emphasizes that she is not without worries either. ‘It’s a double-edged sword. And there are many questions, ethical ones. For example, what do we do with the incorrect or misleading information that AI produces?’ But she puts the fear of many that AI will take away their jobs into perspective. ‘Human choices will always be necessary. If jobs are taken away, this will mainly be done by people who can work with AI.’

The question is whether we prepare enough for that. ‘Education remains a cumbersome tanker. You have teachers who immediately embrace new technology, but you also have those who ban AI,” says Helsmoortel. She avoids making grand statements about education, but she believes that AI will certainly force us to rethink the school system in the long term. ‘AI has a computing power that our heads cannot reach in 100,000 years. She translates whatever you want. And she offers support in writing: from humorous texts to papers in academic English.’

Yet she only uses AI to a limited extent in her own work. ‘My poster was made with AI, my show was not. I want to make a performance that is mine, with my personality in it. A machine like that can’t do that.’

An official cyborg

While eating, Helsmoortel suddenly points to a small scar on her hand. ‘Did you know that I had a chip implanted there? I’m officially a cyborg.’ She doesn’t want to say what she can and cannot do with it. ‘That’s in my imagination.’

The passion for science came more by chance. The daughter of a company doctor and personnel director had many interests. ‘After an information fair, I went home with almost every possible brochure from Ghent University: from civil engineering to Germanic.’ The fact that it became chemistry had to do with a teacher in secondary school. ‘I was quite rebellious, and so was that man. He criticized, among other things, the school system. That’s why we clicked. If he had taught Dutch, I might have gone in that direction.’

I couldn’t see sacrificing decades to find a tiny piece of the complex puzzle that is cancer. I need faster feedback.

Hetty Helsmoortel

Science watcher

Helsmoortel graduated with the greatest distinction, but not long afterwards ended up in a valley. Partly due to a relationship break-up, she developed a severe depression in her early twenties, which left her listless at home for months. She recovered with therapy and antidepressants. That difficult period did put some things on edge. She wondered what else she wanted to do in her life. Drama school, as it turned out. And so, as a recently graduated molecular biologist, she enrolled in the directing course at the RITCS in Brussels. ‘It was a period in which I was very searching. But I also felt out of place at RITCS.’

She searched and found her way back to the academic world. But in the end she didn’t want to stay there. She is too nonchalant and impatient to be a researcher, she says. ‘I couldn’t see sacrificing decades to find a tiny piece of the complex puzzle that is cancer. I have a lot of respect for people who do that and get satisfaction from it, but I couldn’t do it. I need faster feedback.’

Helsmoortel feels more like an entrepreneur than a researcher. This mainly has to do with her role as founder and artistic director of the Nerdland Festival. A small part of her time also goes to the business she has with her partner: Studio Heldr. Among other things, they edit ‘Nerdland’, one of the most popular podcasts in our country with 300,000 monthly listeners. ‘I didn’t know I had it in me, but trying new things, taking financial risks and managing a team means more to me than I thought. I find it satisfying to see how my ideas take on a life of their own over time.’

Although she does not rule out a return to university. ‘Every so often I look at the courses. Astrophysics is something I would like to study again one day.’

The article is in Dutch

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