Lesson about bitterballen (fried mini-meatballs) comes in handy for safety advisor Rick

From time to time, Rick Elbersen – a project coordinator at Tauw (a consultancy and engineering firm) – casts his mind back to that lesson about bitterballen. “At Twente, I learned to think in problem-solving mode.”

As a Tauw employee, Rick advises companies in the chemical industry (such as Akzo, DSM and Shell) on external safety. His customers are legally obliged to identify the risks associated with their activities (involving hazardous substances). Tauw is often called in to calculate these risks for those who are immediately concerned. “I’ve found that companies appreciate the fact that I have a background in chemistry. I have an extensive knowledge of materials science and of technical processes. As a result, they feel more at ease talking to me than they would be with a management consultant.”

Standing on my own two feet

In 2005, Rick opted for Chemical Engineering because chemistry had been his favourite subject at secondary school. Eindhoven, close to his parental home at Deurne, was the obvious place to study for a degree. However, distance was one of the factors that prompted his move to Enschede. “I was keen to stand on my own two feet, and to work on my future. Another factor was the campus. The Open Day included a lot of sporting activities, and something about that felt completely right.”

He had no well thought-out career plan. Rick’s idea was to dive into Chemical Engineering and see where it took him. He thoroughly enjoyed the programme itself. “Some of the courses I took were totally unexpected. Energy and entropy, for example, in which you learn how to predict chemical reactions. And physical transport phenomena, a really useful subject that I have found to be very helpful, even in my current job.”

Efficient solar cells

After obtaining his Bachelor’s degree, he opted for a Master’s in Chemical Engineering, with a focus on materials science. Having completed his studies, Rick looked around for a new challenge and opted to pursue a career in science. The next step was PhD research into solar cells. The aim was to achieve efficiency improvements by modifying the structure of the cells’ surface. His research showed this was indeed feasible, but that the solution was too expensive to be viable - at least for the time being. “I didn’t want to wait. It was all a little too fundamental for my taste. I wanted to solve the problems we’re facing here and now.”


So he switched to the world of business. Rick has been working at Tauw since 2016. As a project coordinator, he tackles issues using a problem-solving approach. Here, he often reaps the benefits of the practical assignments he worked on as a student. “Once, I remember, we had to calculate how long it would take for a bitterbal taken straight from the freezer to reach a core temperature of 60°C in a pan of fat at 190°C. There were plenty of other memorable assignments that also were a lot of fun. That programme taught me to first analyse a problem completely and collect the information you need to perform a calculation. This is all part and parcel of analytical thinking. For me, approaching problems in this way has become second nature.”

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