Same-day UT doctorates for husband and wife researchers

On Friday, 21 April a married couple will obtain separate doctorates on the same day at the University of Twente’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS). Laura and Geert Folkertsma will defend their PhD theses within two hours of one another. It is a rare event for married couples to earn the academic title of ‘doctor’ on the same day, yet at the University of Twente Geert and Laura will be the fourth couple to do so within three years.

The last four years have been eventful to say the least for Laura and Geert Folkertsma: not only did they complete two separate PhD studies at the EEMCS faculty, they also had two children. On 21 April, they will both be awarded their doctorate: Laura in chemistry and Geert in robotics.

Geert Folkertsma fills in the background to this remarkable achievement: “Laura began her doctorate before I did, but since her studies were interrupted by two lots of maternity leave for the births of our two children, we ended up finishing at the same time. Knowing this would be the case, we did our best to make sure we could defend our theses on the same day. It’s partly a practical consideration, but it makes the event all the more special and enjoyable. Everyone involved has been enthusiastic about making it happen, which is just as well since all kinds of things need to come together on that one afternoon. We are even sharing one member of our thesis board, a scientist with knowledge of both robotics and microfluidics (lab-on-a-chip research).”

This is the fourth time in relatively quick succession that a married couple have earned their doctorates on the same day at the University of Twente: the previous occasions were 2014 and twice in 2016 (link, link). Geert and Laura obtained their PhD positions without relying on support from the University of Twente, but immigration consultant Cecile Schouten explains that on request the university is happy to offer support to the partners of new staff members. “Our aim is to make our employees feel welcome. When a new PhD appointment is made and we know that the researcher’s partner is also looking for a position, we lend them all the support we can. We are keen to live up to the University of Twente’s ambition to be the Netherlands’ most welcoming university.

Laura’s research

Laura’s research centred on electrochemical sensors. The objective was to develop a sensor that responds to specific components in fluids. Using a layer of polymers that respond to these components makes it possible to detect their presence and measure their concentration. In addition, Laura’s work focused on formulating polymers to enhance sensor performance. For this purpose, she printed structures with a nano 3D printer, and made minuscule particles using a lab on a chip. This is a tiny device containing fluid channels, which combines a range of laboratory functions. Laura used such a ‘lab’ to produce droplets that harden to become porous particles.

Geert’s research

Meanwhile, Geert was busy developing a robotic cheetah. “As you might expect of the fastest land animal in the world, the cheetah makes very efficient use of its energy,” he explains. “I wanted to create a robot that runs the same way, a useful element in the development of new robots. Robots are bound to play an increasingly important part in our daily lives, yet my robot vacuum cleaner can’t climb stairs or even cope with thresholds. We therefore have to develop robots that can walk. To do so efficiently, there’s a lot we can learn from the cheetah. The prototype I have developed is already a pretty good runner and pound for pound it uses only slightly more energy than a cheetah. More research is needed to enable it to reach the same kind of speed. A Master’s student is currently working on this aspect and so far the results are promising.” Geert’s research provides valuable knowledge that can be used for medical purposes: for example, in rehabilitation robots or prosthetic devices equipped with robotics.