Stories#072 Maarten’s different race

#072 Maarten’s different race

The story of Srinivas’s flipping theory is a story of Maarten’s different race

After Srinivas Vanapalli’s father died of cancer, he asked doctors how his specific academic skills and knowledge might further cancer research. The result was a medical device for the preservation of biopsies at extremely low temperatures – a real solution to a real-world problem. This kind of use-inspired science is the most important reason for Maarten van Steen to work in academia. Srinivas is eager to find out how Maarten likes to shake up his research and teaching. ‘At UT, we run a different race – I think we are doing the right things and we do them well.’

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Monday 4 april 2022 

Real-world inspiration

Srinivas: ‘On your website I found a video in which you discuss the role of computer science in academia and society. Can you please elaborate on that?’

Maarten: ‘Ha! That video was my response to a debate that was going on about what is considered core computer science. I find that discussion ridiculous. To me, what matters is the reason why we are doing science. I believe in use-inspired research: scientific research to solve real-world problems. Where scientists with different backgrounds work together without knowing the solution they are looking for beforehand. A computer science example is the great number of fake Facebook-accounts. Identifying fake accounts from real ones is a real challenge.’

Srinivas: ‘This touches upon another theme you have been working on: cybersecurity. You were involved in a new institute: the Centre for Safety and Digitalisation, or Centrum voor Veiligheid en Digitalisering (CVD) in Dutch. Talking about hardcore computer science.’

Maarten: ‘Oh no, it’s not hardcore computer science, quite the opposite. Applying digital technology always involves people. The biggest safety and security concerns come from people who find it difficult to work with digital systems in a proper way. At the CVD, we train people to become more digitally savvy. It’s like learning to drive a car: the actual driving of a car is quite easy. What you really need to learn is to become a responsible member of a traffic community.’

Srinivas: ‘One of the objectives of UT’s participation in the CVD is Life Long Learning. You have an interesting way of approaching education. You do away with classical teaching and focus on critical thinking. What do you mean by that?’

Maarten: ‘Thank you for this question. I like it a lot, just as I like teaching a lot. When I got the opportunity to teach distributed systems at UT, the easy way would have been to take my own book and re-use all my old materials. I didn’t want to do this. Distributed systems is about relationships. About why, when you push here, it starts hurting over there. For this, you need what I call critical thinking: a mindset that allows you to really understand for yourself.’

‘I ask groups of students to explain their solutions to each other. My assumption is that you won’t be able to explain something if you didn’t understand it. I motivate the students who are in listening mode to ask critical questions. To help the presenters pinpoint the parts of their explanation that were not yet clear enough. The listeners can only ask good questions if they understand what the presenters have been working on, too.’

Srinivas: ‘But you still need to grade your students. How do you do that?’

Maarten: ‘I make use of the wisdom of the crowd. Since I’m sort of lazy and don’t really like exams, I have set up a system in which students rank each other. In the end, I collect these rankings, average them, and translate them to grades. I’ve done this three times now, and my rankings barely deviate from those of the students.’

Srinivas: ‘Something else, then. The computer science study programme has grown really big over the last couple of years. Why do you think students are coming to Twente? Is it because of people like you?’

Maarten: ‘No, they’re not coming because of me. I like to think that students pick computer science because they have become so digitally savvy that they want to know what’s going on under the hood of the technology they use. A bit like myself. I also have an inherent interest in technology. I knew that I wanted to study applied math, but as a student I considered studying electrical engineering next to my math studies. My PhD in computer science was a bit of a coincidence. I think I could have taken different roads, and still have ended up doing the exact same thing I am doing now.’

Srinivas: ‘Funnily, you and I followed similar career paths. After our PhDs, we both worked for TNO and then came back to academia. Why did you make this switch?’

Maarten: ‘After my PhD I was a bit fed up with academic life and wanted a real job, ha ha! Working on applied projects, with real customers who paid real money. I learned a lot at TNO, like project management. But at some point I realised that too little of my work was about the content. So I went back to academia. First at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, then at the VU in Amsterdam and later to Twente. Now, I am a very happy camper. I still live in Leiden, but we have a cottage in a wooded area close to Eibergen. Since I love biking, I love my commute.’

Srinivas: ‘Final question: in your eyes, how has UT changed since you graduated?’

Maarten: ‘Oh, I really don't know. It's been about 35 years. But what I do know is that UT is different. You make me think about the reason why I came to UT for my studies. It’s the same reason why I am so happy to be back. We are much more outward looking than other universities in the Netherlands. We find inspiration in the real world to do the things that we do.’

‘In academia in general, we tend to look at how well our colleagues are doing. But at UT, we run a different race. This is sometimes difficult, because we do need recognition from our colleagues at other universities to be able to do our own thing. But I think we are doing the right things and we do them well. If I’m not mistaken, you and I are both very proud to work for UT.’

Srinivas: ‘You’re right!’

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.

Prof. Dr. Ir. Maarten van Steen (1959)

studied Applied Mathematics at UT and obtained his PhD in computer science from Leiden University. He spent five years with TNO research, before returning to academia. After working at Erasmus University Rotterdam and VU Amsterdam he rejoined UT to become the Scientific Director the Digital Society Institute. As part of his work at UT, Maarten is member of the AiNed advisory board and member of the NWO Science board.