Humans of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science

Karen Aardal


I live in Utrecht and a working day for me usually takes 12 to 14 hours, if I include travel time. Add to that a scheduled meeting during lunch time – because at least then you don't have a teaching responsibility – and one moment you are happy, the next day you think, “this just can't be good”. Only now that I also work one day a week for NWO have I become much better at saying no. If it doesn't fit into four days, I dare to say no.

A lot of the pressure comes from yourself, of course, because you really like what you do. Otherwise you wouldn't keep it up. But our work does seem to get busier and busier, as everything else does in our current society. This is mainly because the urge for control is ever increasing. In that respect, academia is no different to, say, healthcare. All those interviews, committees, and forms that have to be signed by all sorts of people, in the right order. The conversations are valuable, absolutely, but the documentation that surrounds them... For me, all that could be taken down a notch. We could rely more on trust: people grow from taking responsibility.

In that sense, I want to give kudos to my department. I have rarely experienced a department without tensions or quarrels, but here we really take good care of each other. Everyone is of good will. And my institute understands very well that as a scientist you can be successful one year and have a difficult time the next.

There is hardly an evening or weekend when I am not working. Now that my children have left home, I have a bit more free time. But doing something spontaneously doesn't work out. So I plan appointments. I play the clarinet, for instance, together with a pianist. And I have to practise for that several times a week, because I don't want to waste her time. The same goes for sport, where I have allowed myself a personal trainer. And occasionally I go to Norway with my husband, for some zen in nature. We have a cottage on an island with no permanent residents, so we really are all alone there. We also have an opera subscription, and even though I often don’t seem to have the time for it, I always return feeling extremely glad I went. Lovely!

I also think that all the hustle and bustle has taken a hold of our young people. We drive them a bit crazy with all those reviews and R&O calls, with lots of demands. I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that building a creative, stimulating and academic atmosphere is so important. And again, our department tries to deal with this well, but I do see that many young people are often concerned. The minister has observed this very well: in his policy he calls for "more calm in the system."

This all means that I see putting people at ease as one of my main tasks. Whereas we normally have a group meeting every month, during COVID I did it weekly, online. Keeping a finger on the pulse, not just in terms of research but also especially how they are doing personally. My door is almost always open and I try to plan 15 minutes, 20 minutes every week for each of them to talk with me. We do joint outings like paintball and at lunches we hardly ever talk about work. It's a very international group, so there is so much interesting stuff to talk about. I'm really very attached to the group and get huge inspiration from them.

Besides the drive for control, I also would like to see some other things change. That toughness, that culture of working 24/7, it does seem to be all about bragging. It's unhealthy, and a bit childish too. But, when I hear myself talk, I apparently participate in it just as much. And at TU Delft, we aspire to be a very inclusive and diverse working environment. I still find that too much of a paper construct. When you enter the faculty, for example, it is clearly a very white, masculine building. Where are the quiet rooms for people who might want to pray? And spaces for young mothers? The organisation needs to show that it means business.