Monday 9 August 2021
Bolanle: ‘I heard you have an unusual academic career path, Jasper. Tell me more!’
Jasper: ‘After I had finished my PhD in biomechanical engineering, I became assistant professor. But I struggled with that role. As a professor, you mainly write grant proposals, so others – postdocs and PhD students – can do research. By getting grants and leading research projects, you build your academic career.
While I was good enough at doing research, I figured I am absolutely rubbish at getting grant money. My passion and talent is education – I love teaching. It runs in my family: my grandparents and parents were all teachers, and both of my brothers are, too. But in academia, just teaching doesn’t get you very far.
At a certain point I made a conscious decision: “It may or may not benefit my career, but I will focus on teaching. Because that’s where I can make my best contribution to the world. I’ll just have to trust that things will work out somehow.”’
Bolanle: ‘And things did work out, because you’re not a teacher anymore, are you?’
Jasper: ‘Indeed. It turns out there are a lot of different career paths at UT that can get you somewhere – although they’re not officially advertised. After I’d worked as a university teacher for a few years, I was asked to become part of ATLAS, the new University College Twente. Kees Ruijter, the person who invented it, had seen me teach – and asked me to join the team. ATLAS combines social and technical sciences, and the programme gives students a lot of freedom. I helped build the program; later, I became programme director and dean.
Last year, I felt it was time for a new challenge. Since September 2020, I’ve been the vice programme director of the bachelor’s and master’s programme in Technical Medicine.’
Bolanle: ‘Is being a programme director very different from teaching?’
Jasper: ‘It’s still about teaching, but on a different level. How do you build a proper curriculum? In what order, and how, does everything fit together in a six-year program?
I sometimes compare it to a theatre. As a programme director, you’re in charge of the ideas behind the scenes and the play as a whole. The teachers detail the set and give colour to the scenes. Together with students, they play the scenes. My task is to make sure those scenes form one play. The University and faculties ensure there are actually stages, seats, actors, a playing schedule and so on.’
Bolanle: ‘Actually, I’m thinking about doing a PhD when I finish my master’s degree. I want to be able to teach people too and give back to society, to help them further in life. What exactly do you like about teaching?’
Jasper: ‘It’s fantastic to witness a student’s learning progress. Usually, you’ve been explaining stuff for a while. Then suddenly, you notice a light in their eyes, something clicks in their head – and they’ve learned something new. I also love to see young people developing and becoming independent thinkers. As a teacher, your role is to guide students – but not stand in their way. At some point, you just have to step aside, and let them pass.’
Bolanle: ‘Yes, I feel you. Next to my study, I run a coaching business. To me, it’s very important that what I do, contributes to the world – and to other people. How does your work relate to society?’
Jasper: ‘Our largest problems – like climate change and poverty – have both technical ánd social components. Any technical solution you come up with, needs to be accepted by people. Otherwise, nobody will use it. Think of windmills: they’re great to generate clean electricity, but if they’re too ugly, people don’t want them in their backyards.
For the same reason, we train technical doctors at UT. Most medical specialists have no idea how an MRI-scanner or an ultrasound works. At Technical Medicine, we educate people to understand both human bodies and technology, so they can come up with new ways to improve their patient’s treatment.’
Bolanle: ‘I’ve been here for three years now, and I hope to stay in Enschede for a while after I’ve finished my master’s. Do you have any career advice for me?’
Jasper: ‘Find out what your strength is. What are you good at? As soon as you acknowledge that, it’s easier to accept your weaknesses too. As for myself: I don’t really care anymore that I’m bad at writing grant proposals – because my value lies elsewhere.
‘Then, find a job that aligns best with your strength. That will probably not happen at once. But you have to trust that there is a place, and a need, for whatever weird set of combination of skills you have. Sooner or later, you’ll get that chance. And of course, it helps to get out there and show people what you’ve got – so get out of your room, and make sure people know who you are.’