Prof. M. (Max) Mulder.
Professor of Aerospace Human-Machine Systems.
‘I live with my wife Loes and son Jonathan (11) in Pijnacker. The thing I like most of all aside from my work is travelling with my family. We once travelled across America, visiting all the canyons: it was wonderful. We were recently in Germany for six weeks because of my work. I spent a sabbatical at the Max Planck Institute completing some articles that had needed doing for a few years. My other passions include working as a sports coach – I coach a handball youth team – and playing the piano. The latter is something I had wanted to do for a long time, but when I became a professor, in 2009, I finally took on the challenge. In some ways, it was an answer to the question “What next?” I am by no means a star player, but I do enjoy playing simpler pieces, ranging from Bach to the Beatles. Because music involves such focused concentration, it clears the mind, which I find great. I have always been interested in it. In my youth, I was a punk and I still love heavy rock music. The main thing is that the music should be about something: it needs to come from the heart and the people making it need to have something to say.’
Any other hobbies?
‘I would love to learn to sail. The annual meeting for professors is often held at De Kaag and we sometimes go sailing there. I love the water and the peace and quiet, and cannot resist the crack of the sail and the wood as the wind catches it. It is really important to me to spend time outdoors. As a child, I was always outside and I miss that a lot. If I were not a professor, I would love to be an arable farmer, with a little livestock just for the fun of it. Working hard in the outdoor air seems wonderful to me.’
Career high point
‘In 2005 I was awarded a Vidi grant for my research project “Cybernetic Approach to Assess Simulator Fidelity”. The research involved the development of the Simona flight simulator, which is supposed to work in such a way that pilots who use it exhibit exactly the same behaviour as they would in a real aircraft. The Vidi award was a real boost for me, and you need that sometimes. I felt I had really achieved something then.’
Most enjoyable aspect of work
‘To a large extent, our research funding, and therefore the work we do, is driven by external forces. We generally work on questions faced by industry, which means that our work is focused on practical applications. This often entails sidestepping the fundamental issues, which are actually the things that interest me most. I am always thinking about the fundamental aspects of my discipline and whether what we are doing actually make sense. Are we doing the right things? The best thing about working here is that you also have the possibility to examine these really fundamental issues with your students and PhD candidates. The greatest thing is the academic freedom we have. Our department is also extremely dynamic. Every year you see new faces and I find that especially energising. I really missed our students during my recent mini-sabbatical at the Max Planck Institute.’
Your greatest challenge at the moment?
‘For me personally, that would be staying on the cutting edge of science. Since becoming a professor, I have also held the position of Departmental Director. In practice, that means that I am more a manager than a researcher. The challenge is to remain involved in the research work, because that’s where my heart lies. In fact, being a professor is an impossible job. You are continually divided by the need to be outstanding in your discipline while also seeing to a huge number of trivialities. It would be nice if a professor could be an academic figurehead, with a separate manager for administrative issues.’
‘I have always worked in Delft. The place has a good atmosphere, and we have good facilities and extremely smart students. Nevertheless, I prefer to send my PhD students elsewhere after they finish, to spend a few years experiencing the world outside. It’s good for their personal development.’
Best character trait
‘That would be that I’m still enthusiastic about my work, something I find a little surprising, to be honest. And then there’s the fact that I can enthuse students and PhD candidates, even with regard to more difficult problems. By the same token, I still adore learning and discovering new things. Biology, psychology, measurement and control engineering, aviation, simulation – all of it fascinates me. And the best part is, all of these disciplines come together in my interest in human-machine interaction, which is what I work on intensively.’
Worst character trait
‘I am sometimes quick to become angry or irritated. Nowadays, I tend not to show that so easily and I have learned to bite my tongue. I particularly have problems with people who beat around the bush. I prefer the direct approach: put your cards on the table, then we can make progress. I also get annoyed by things that drag on, and often I just don’t have the patience. On the other hand, these are characteristics that can be beneficial in an administrative position.’
Key issues on the political agenda
‘The funding of higher education. Here in the Netherlands, we have to fight for every cent. In Germany, things couldn’t be more different. It may be just a 100-km drive away, but it is light years ahead when it comes to funding research. In Germany, there is real investment, in good equipment for example, and excellent budgets for professors. Of course, that attracts the best people; also from the Netherlands, which has repercussions of its own. However, our group has nothing to complain about at the moment. We still receive a lot of contract funding and have a superb simulator here.’
‘Ever since I was a student, my motto has been: “Do it yourself!” Don’t wait for others to do something, but take action yourself. Don’t just talk, but get on with things. That way you will get ahead.’