Stories#022 Heidi's new master's in robotics

#022 Heidi's new master's in robotics

The story of Bas' inclusive onboarding is a story of Heidi's new Master's in robotics

“Woman scientist light” Heidi Muijzer-Witteveen, programme manager of Twente Robotics, was destined for a career in technology. She eventually chose a career at the UT, but not as a researcher. Bas Koelewijn, Business Administration student, wants to know more. How does Heidi create connection and innovation on campus with her new Master’s in robotics? About women in science, Twente’s sober-headedness, inclusion and solutions. ‘I immediately wonder: how? I guess that shows I’m a real scientist after all.’

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Monday 15 March 2021

‘You can only inspire each other when you know each other’

Bas: ‘Nice to see you, Heidi. I don’t know much about you, except that you work in robotics. Traditionally, technology is a man’s world. How is that for you?’

Heidi: ‘In meetings with hard-core robotics researchers, I am usually the only woman. But I did have lots of other female PhD students and postdocs around me. The pyramid for scientists is steeper for women: we have the same number of men and women at the base, but we lose women on the way to the top. I dropped out as well. Actually, during my postdoc, I already did research only part of the time. I was also doing the research project management, and I found I enjoyed the organisational aspect more. I didn’t consider myself good enough for a career as a scientist.’

Bas: ‘What do you mean, not good enough?’

Heidi: ‘The way of working doesn’t suit me. Always writing new applications, looking for connections for innovative projects. I sometimes read project proposals with rather optimistic plans. You need to write them like that, otherwise you won’t get them noticed, but I couldn’t do it.’

Bas: ‘Would you say you’re too down-to-earth to write like that?’

Heidi: ‘Yes, I find it hard. It’s not in my character to sell myself. And that’s what you need to do in science.’

Bas: ‘But you have a strong drive: it’s not easy to develop a master’s programme.’

Heidi: ‘Yes, I do. And that drive is important. I now realise how many people it takes to set up a course. I’m in touch with lots of people in many areas of the UT.’

Bas: ‘Aha! So you may not be at the top of the pyramid, but you can choose and influence. A nice position, one where you can also make your mark.’

Heidi: ‘Yes, that’s right. I mainly help other people channel and focus their ideas, but you could call that influence.’

Bas: ‘From postdoc to quartermaster. Does connecting give you energy?’

Heidi: ‘Definitely. I love understanding what different people are working on and connecting people and ideas. I talk to teacher-researchers about the content, but also to people from finance and marketing and communication about how we will sell the master.

‘By the way, selling the master sometimes feels just as unnatural as selling myself. As a matter of fact, I think that at the UT as a whole we could do a better job of selling ourselves. For example, we were recently discussing how many people to admit to the new robotics master. We could say: we want to bring the very best students to Enschede, the rest can go to Delft. And I thought: we may be a little too sober-headed for that in Twente. But we don’t need to bluff; we do a lot of great work. Particularly relating to the interaction of people and robots, with a special focus on the social and ethical side of our discipline.’

Bas: ‘So, people first!’

Heidi: ‘Yes, definitely. There’s a reason our research programme is called “Human Centred Robotics”. Our robots make people’s lives better. My PhD was about restoring feeling in people with a robotic hand: How far am I opening my hand? How hard am I clenching?’

Bas: ‘Giving people a “real” hand, so that they can fully participate. That touches upon inclusion. I previously talked to David Fernandez Rivas, who’s working on a solution for needle-free injections. I love how scientists quickly think in solutions: how do we resolve this? But we mustn’t always think that we need to make someone who’s ill healthy. Sometimes that’s not possible or necessary.’

Heidi: ‘That’s right. Like when we would give an exoskeleton to someone who can’t walk, even though that person doesn’t see it as a replacement for a wheelchair at all... You’re in the Shaping Group Inclusion, aren’t you? What does inclusion mean for a study programme?’

Bas: ‘For me, inclusion is about listening to people. It’s about improving the context or environment, so that more people can participate. Whether it’s about people with a disability, elite athletes or students with children.’

Heidi: ‘I’m glad you say that. Everyone realises that we can do much more with respect to inclusion, but it’s not properly embedded in our system yet. When we develop something new, we base it on the “normal” student. It’s only later that people come and ask: “and what about me?” We should think more about differences beforehand. That’s something we need to incorporate. Which now makes me wonder: how do we make inclusion a standard part of the development of a new master’s programme? You see, there is a real scientist in me after all, thinking in solutions, haha!’

Bas: ‘Yes, it would be better if we didn’t need a Shaping Group Inclusion. But the UT is still a collection of islands. And for inclusion, you need to work together and think outside the box. I’m sure that’s the same when you are developing the robotics master.’

Heidi: ‘That’s exactly my role. I can invent something, but if there’s no support, it won’t work. Once teachers see the potential of something, they’re happy to help. I communicate with all the robotics groups and bring them together. I’d like us all to look across the boundaries of our own islands more and see what other people are doing. You can only inspire each other when you know each other.’


was born in The Hague and grew up in Flevoland. Here he played an active role in several youth organisations. After high school, he came to the University of Twente to do his bachelor’s in European Public Administration. Bas was involved in the introduction of students with a disability to the UT. Moreover, he participated in a research program focused on industrial innovation. He is currently working on his master’s thesis in Business Administration.

Dr. Heidi Muijzer-Witteveen (1983)

 studied Biomedical Technology at the UT and obtained her PhD, also in Twente, on research into non-invasive ways to restore feeling to people with a robotic hand. After a postdoc, she was asked to help develop the MSc Robotics programme. She is also programme manager of the Human Centred Robotics Programme at the UT.