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#027 Massimo’s multiple academic pathways

The story of Kathi’s European dream is a story of Massimo’s multiple academic pathways

If you want people to work together, policy advisor Kathi Lemmens-Krug knows, it’s crucial that they treat each other as equals. Her family roots in Eastern Germany and her studies in European Governance have taught her that. Today, Kathi asks Associate Professor Massimo Sartori about hierarchy in academia. How does he – as an award-winning scientist – look at the way we build our academic careers? ‘Nowadays, one person is required to have too many skills.’

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Monday 19 April 2021

Building resilience to find your way

Kathi: ‘I understand you’re working on wearable robotics. How did you become interested in this research topic?’

Massimo: ‘A friend of mine had an accident and lost his ability to walk. Around that time, I was looking for a subject for my master’s thesis. I was intrigued by a thesis in robotics about exoskeletons for people who’ve had a spinal cord injury. Later, the ‘human’ aspect – the biomechanics of movement – fascinated me more and more as well. You need a lot of knowledge about the human body to make this kind of technology work. In 2017, I came to UT, because the department of Biomechanical Engineering is one of the best in Europe in the field of wearable robotics.’

Kathi: ‘Do you get to see the practical results of your work enough?’

Massimo: ‘Well, during my PhD and most of my postdoc I didn’t reach the patient's level. First, I had to learn and understand a lot. Towards the end of my postdoc, I could start applying my work on robotics to patients. For example, I saw people who could extend their knee again for the first time using the robotic systems my team and I developed. That was really cool to see.’

“You can publish as much as you want; if you don’t get grants, it’s over”

Kathi: ‘From my own experience, I can say research becomes much more valuable once you get a personal connection to it. Speaking about value: have you heard that they’re working on a more comprehensive way of rewarding and recognising people in academia? In Dutch, it’s called ‘erkennen en waarderen’. Your work is less about fundamental science. Do you feel it’s recognised enough?’

Massimo: ‘I notice that priorities are changing in the right direction. With the TechMed Centre, UT is trying to focus more on healthcare technologies. So yes, I do feel that my contributions are being recognised within Biorobotics, which is one of the TechMed Center’s key pillars. But perhaps your question is somewhat broader. In academia, we reward people primarily on the amount of research money they bring in. The amount of grants you obtain, is key.’

Kathi: ‘That, and the number of papers you publish.’

Massimo: ‘Partly, yes, but you can publish as much as you want – if you don’t get grants, it’s over. Then again, in order to get a grant, you need publications. I think this ‘publish or perish’-paradigm is a problem. We try to apply the same paradigm to everyone, but it doesn’t work.’

Kathi: ‘I totally agree! In fact, there’s kind of a ‘class system’ in academia. There’s the upper class – who’s getting all the prestigious grants. And then there are people who publish a lot, they’re also upper class. But next to that, there are people teaching first-year bachelor courses with five hundred students, year after year. Their work isn’t as much valued.’

Massimo: ‘True. Every academic has their own qualities – but nowadays, one single person is required to have too many skills. When I got my fixed-term contract as an assistant professor, the contract contained a table. It stated exactly how many papers I had to publish, how much grant-money I had to bring in, and that I had to supervise a certain number of successful PhD candidates within a pre-defined time frame. I was like: what?! That’s a lot to ask. Some people prefer to do research, while others like teaching better. I understand it’s cheaper to hire one person and let them do everything, but if we want good quality in academia, we’ll have to do it differently. I think personalizing professional pathways to each individual is key in the “academia of the future”. That starts by acknowledging there’s a spectrum of paths you can take in your career.’

“Every academic has their own skills and qualities. That should be recognised more”

Kathi: ‘Looking at your profile; you seem to be someone who is winning awards and grants. I would like to learn more about the process. Do you think it’s an individual performance, or is it actually a group effort to allow one person to obtain a grant?’

Massimo: ‘That’s a good question. Just now, I realise I’ve never thought about this. In my own team, writing grants has been mostly my task – because my team members are still quite early-career. But from what I’ve seen in the past, it’s really a team effort. When I was a postdoc, writing grants for my superiors was a way to help the department. I knew my name wouldn’t be on the proposal’s PI list, but I guess that was ok for me, because it helped me understand how the granting system works. And I got to build my own collaborative network across Europe. Besides, I knew that if an application was successful, it would pay my salary for the next year.

‘You know, when you’re a postdoc, you’re in a kind of limbo. Most of the things you do, are driven by this uncertainty, the fear to be left out of academia, to lose your job… In the last part of my postdoc, I applied for a personal grant, because they’re smaller and easier to write. I got all the way to the interview, and then I didn’t get it. That was very painful – another thing I had to learn: academia is really about failing, failing, and failing again. Because that’s the only way you can learn and improve.’

Kathi: ‘You mean: it happens to everyone?’

Massimo: ‘Indeed! It's just the way it goes. You do experiments, you fail. You write a paper, you get rejected. But that doesn’t mean your work is in vain. You might use the work later, for new projects. It’s about getting rejected and building resilience. And only by building resilience, you will find your way.’

KATHI LEMMENS-KRUG MSC (1988)

is policy advisor for research. She focuses on scientific integrity. Kathi is also writing her thesis about policy in the field of the quality of education at European universities in the UT department CHEPS. After completing a Bachelor in European Studies at the UT and a Master in European Governance at the University of Bristol, she did an internship at the DG Education and Culture at the European Commission and worked for DAAD, the German institute for university exchange.

Dr. Massimo Sartori (1982)

is Associate Professor at the Department of Biomechanical Engineering in the faculty of Engineering Technology (ET) where he leads the Neuromechanical Modelling and Engineering Lab. His research focuses on interfacing robotic technologies with the neuromuscular system for enhancing human movement. Sartori was born and raised in Italy and worked in Germany, Australia and the US.