Stories#071 Srinivas' inspirational education

#071 Srinivas' inspirational education

The story of Renske’s serving science is a story of Srinivas' inspirational education

As project manager knowledge transfer at the TechMed Centre, Renske van Wijk constantly tries to bridge the gap between science and society. Thermodynamics teacher Srinivas Vanapalli seems to be doing good in that regard. His fascination for cryo-cooling started with a satellite launch in India – now he helps cancer patients with his expertise on the subject. Renske would like to know how Srinivas made this step and where he gets his inspiration from nowadays.

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Monday 28 march 2022 

Eureka moments

Renske: ‘Hi Srinivas! Nice to meet you. You’re an expert in cryo-cooling. I can't imagine that you woke up one day and decided to focus on cryo-cooling. So, where does your fascination for this subject come from?'

Srinivas: ‘It all began during the second year of my bachelor's degree, in India. I witnessed a live satellite launch. It was the middle of the night, pitch black outside. And suddenly everything lit up, I heard a lot of noise and saw a rocket launch into the sky. It was a jaw-dropping experience and I wanted to learn more about it. Google didn't exist yet, so I went to the library. I found out that a combination of liquid hydrogen and oxygen is used in such a launch. That's how my fascination for cryogenics – cooling with small molecules such as liquid nitrogen and carbon dioxide – started.’

Renske: ‘That’s amazing. I also read that you’re now looking into its medical application. I work at the TechMed center, so naturally, that’s very interesting to me. But how do you go from a rocket launch to a medical application?'

Srinivas: ‘That didn’t occur to me until sometime later. I was already living and working in the Netherlands, at ECN, by then. My father passed away in 2013 from a rare kind of cancer. I kept wondering: what can I do about this? I asked several doctors how my expertise could be meaningful for cancer research. Ultimately, oncologist Henk Verheul from Vumc Amsterdam came up with a concrete question about cryopreservation of biopsies. I developed a device that can now help cancer patients. How wonderful is that?'

Renske: ‘That is wonderful! It sounds like you can put a lot of yourself into your work. That’s probably a good thing, because sometimes you have to concentrate on one subject for years. In that respect, scientists are a bit like Olympic athletes. Don’t you agree?’

Srinivas: ‘I do. And just like with athletes, sometimes things don't tun out the way we planned. In fact, most lab experiments fail. But that’s also valuable output. And it motivates you to keep looking for the solution.’

Renske: ‘And once you’ve found it, you must look for a new challenge. That seems quite difficult to me. Not only do you have to know what’s going on in society – but also how technology can offer a solution. How do you handle that?'

Srinivas: 'By talking with companies that are involved in the cryogenic world a lot. At conferences, for example. What’s their ambition? Where are the challenges? For example, I spoke to someone about recycling batteries yesterday. Electric cars use these a lot. Now, the industry wants to know how cryogenic technology can be used to separate the materials.'

Renske: ‘You seem to be doing a good job. You’ve collected almost three million in research investments!'

Srinivas: ‘Yes, that's right. What helps is that I come from the corporate world myself. I speak the language. Entrepreneurs like to work efficiently towards concrete goals. Academics are known for working slowly and being sidetracked a lot. I want to show that we, in fact, can combine fundamental research with results-oriented research very well.'

Renske: 'Speaking of combining: you’re not only a commendable researcher, but also teacher. Your way of teaching immediately sparked my interest when I read about it. Flipped education?’

Srinivas: ‘Indeed. It’s an educational model inspired by my promoter, Prof. Miko Elwenspoek. I teach thermodynamics and that’s a tough subject. But with flipped education, I can still stimulate and encourage students to get to work.

First, I send all the course material to the students, with a message saying that that they can decide for themselves when they will study it. And then I use the lectures for discussion and to let them familiarise themselves with the course material in a fun way. For example, with Kahoot or crossword puzzles, which they can work on in groups. A large part of my lectures last year took place during the Sinterklaas period. So, I organised a competition a thermodynamics-themed competition for Sinterklaas poems. So much fun. And, actually, very informative.'

Renske: 'Gosh, I’d almost consider a career switch and start taking your classes. Haha! Do you have time for other things besides organisation, research and education?'

Srinivas: 'Every Thursday night I take a drawing class. Very low-key. We’ll draw something and then the teacher gives us tips to improve our skills. It’s fun and soothing to me. I also play badminton. Oh, and I love gaming, too.’

Renske: 'Do you ever have any Eureka moments while drawing, playing badminton or gaming?'

Srinivas: 'No, oddly enough, I usually have those when I'm on the train. I live in Amstelveen and have to travel to Enschede every day. So I use that time to stare out the window with a notebook on my lap. Then, if something comes to mind, I immediately write it down. I came up with my best ideas on the train, haha.’

Renske: ‘Ah, look, learned something new today: everyone at UT should just take the train more often!'

dr. Srinivas Vanapalli

started his academic career at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He came to UT in 2002. Here, Srinivas obtained his master’s degree in electrical engineering cum laude. He finished his PhD with research on cryo-coolers, for which he spent most of the time in the United States. He worked for non-profit companies for many years, including Energieonderzoek Centrum Nederland (ECN) in Petten, before returning to UT. He works as an associate professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences and conducts research into the application of cryogenic technology.

dr. Renske van Wijk (1983)

studied health sciences and physiotherapy at Maastricht University. At UT, she conducted PhD research into the effect of helmet therapy for infants with skull deformation. She won several national awards with that research. Since 2014, Renske has been working at the TechMed Center of UT, where she is committed to social impact. She is, among other things, project manager at the TOPFIT CitizenLab and is part of the Shaping Expert Group 'citizen science'.