Monday 12 December 2022
Frank: ‘We’ve both been walking around UT for years now, but I don't think we've ever met. Tell me Paul, what exactly do you do?’
Paul: ‘You’re right. Quite striking, actually! I’m a professor in the Pervasive Systems department, part of the EEMCS faculty. We measure with smart sensors, look for ways to transfer that data via wireless communication, and analyse the data. So it’s very diverse.
Topics can be anything. You can make measurements in the field of agriculture and biodiversity, but also in your body, in the sea or in factories. You encounter many practical and fundamental problems there that must be solved. But in the end, it all comes down to this: we want to know what’s happening now, so that we can make processes better or more efficient.’
Frank: ‘Do you have an example of such a process?’
Paul: ‘Some time ago we did a project on predictive maintenance. We worked with energy harvesters, among other things. These are devices that generate the energy they need themselves. With solar cells, wind energy or through movement, for example. Such devices can run on their own, without a power cord or batteries.
At a trade fair, I met an entrepreneur who developed energy harvesters based on metal springs with a coil. When such a spring starts to move, you get energy. Nice system, but nobody wanted to buy these things. My colleagues and I then came up with the idea of placing such a device on train wheels.’
Frank: ‘Of course, those are constantly moving...’
Paul: ‘Exactly. Train wheel bearings – metal cylinders in the axle of the wheel – must be checked regularly. Because if such a bearing breaks, major disasters can occur. We built a system that generates energy from the vibrations of the moving train. The device then analyses those vibrations to detect wear. If something’s wrong, a signal is automatically sent to the repairman.’
Frank: ‘How clever! That saves a lot of check-ups.’
Paul: ‘Yes, you no longer have to inspect all trains every few months. And they always stay safe. The profit for users is therefore enormous. While the project was still running, thousands of devices were already sold to British railways.’
Frank: ‘I saw that in your career you’ve always had ties to the corporate world. You also work partly at TNO. Coincidentally, I also have such a duo position, at UT and Medisch Spectrum Twente. What drives you to seek out the connection with the professional field?’
Paul: ‘I think the things we do at UT are of great value for companies. In fact, as a university we serve the world. It’s important that we provide education and conduct research that has an impact and may ultimately have practical benefits. TNO has a similar goal, albeit on a somewhat shorter timeline.
Another factor is that I want my team members to see results from their work. I think it’s important that research doesn’t end up in a drawer, but finds its way in the form of concrete products. You can set up a spin-off company, for example, which we’ve done several times. When a PhD candidate has that ambition, I wholeheartedly support it.’
Frank: ‘It sounds like you’re very much into innovation – inventing and improving things. Recently I discovered the word 'exnovation'. It means that you look at what’s already going well and why, so that you can share that knowledge. What do you think we’re doing well at UT?’
Paul: ‘Then the first thing that comes to mind is working in a multidisciplinary way. I’m convinced that a multidisciplinary view gives us great strength as a university. It’s combining different themes and expertise that allows you to make great strides. In my own work I also encounter all sorts of things that I know little about, but where I can still contribute to solving problems.’
Frank: ‘Do you have a tip for colleagues who want to learn how to work in a more multidisciplinary way?’
Paul: ‘Professionals in other fields often speak a different language than you. You should take that into account. Personally, I read a lot of newspapers and magazines. So I know what's going on in the world. In conversations, I’ve noticed that this helps me to better understand where someone else wants to go, or what problems they have. So I would say: read the newspaper, immerse yourself in the world.
It's also important that you know how to sell yourself and your research. Marketing and PR are often seen as mandatory, like a necessary evil. But they’re vital. No matter how brilliant your paper is, if no one understands what your research is about, you won’t make an impact. So think about how you present your story to non-colleagues as well.’
Frank: ‘Good tips! I saw that the term ‘entrepreneurial’ is also included in the Shaping2030 vision. What lessons have you learned as an entrepreneurial scientist?’
Paul: ‘In my opinion and experience, it’s often easier to get in touch with SMEs than with large companies. Make sure you break down project into small steps, and that after a year the company has a result that they build upon. That 'something' can be very minor, but that’s how you show your added value.
It’s also important that you have a mentality of 'just doing it'. Just start, try it. Expect things to work out. If not, you’ll find out eventually. That’s the attitude I’ve raised my children with. I think it’ll get you far.’
Frank: ‘Hey Paul, you've been working here since 1985. And when I see the passion in your eyes, I suspect you're not done yet. Will we still see you here in 2030?’
Paul: ‘I think so, I feel completely at home here. Over the years it’s become increasingly clear to me what I like to do most: solving problems. And I have every opportunity to do that at UT.
The issues I work on have changed over the years. We used to mainly work with the regular industry, but now we’re increasingly moving towards sustainable matters. We’re working with Naturalis on a project on biodiversity, for example.’
Frank: ‘This conversation is the conclusion of the interview series about Shaping2030. As I look to the future, I hope we can maintain the sense of community. When colleagues from the hospital visit the campus, I always hear: wow, this place beams positive energy. What do you hope UT will look like in 2030?’
Paul: ‘I completely agree with you. Our campus distinguishes us from other universities. Since you don't just come here to work and study, but can also do plenty of sports and culture, people with a different mindset are united. This also strengthens our substantive work. We must continue to invest in the campus, because it brings us a lot.’
This was the last interview in the Shaping Perspectives series. Over a period of 2 years, more than 100 UT people talked to each other in this series. How do they contribute to the university-wide vision 'Shaping2030'? You can read all the stories here.