Introducing... Kobus Kuipers

Professor Kobus Kuipers is Director of the department of Quantum Nanoscience (QN). Last November, he made the move to TU Delft from AMOLF, where he was group leader of NanoOptics and Head of the Center for Nanophotonics. How has he experienced the first 6 months of his Directorship? And what does he have planned for the department?

Do you have any hobbies?

‘I absolutely love good food. I used to be a typical Saturday chef: I would plunder all the markets for the right ingredients and cook up something special with what I found. Nowadays, I no longer always have time to indulge my foodie side. Apart from that, I used to play table tennis and I still enjoy playing strategic games online.’

Light seems to be a theme running through your research. Is this true?

‘Yes, I call myself a “light person”. Put simply, I use nanostructures to do fun and interesting things with light. I am not one to blow my own trumpet, but I created the biggest stir with my slow light measurements.’

Slow light? Isn’t the speed of light constant?

‘No. You can pass light through a structure in which you periodically alternate different materials. I typically use a thin slice of silicon, into which I position a periodical grid of holes, approximately half a wavelength apart. If light wants to move within this construction, it needs to conform to the periodicity that has been introduced. That means that light behaves like electrons in an atomic crystal, and slows down or even stops for certain colours and/or places. You can therefore control the interaction between light and material. Incidentally, that is one of the reasons behind my decision to come to Delft. There are several material systems here in Delft that make me think: if we combine my expertise with the expertise already here, we should be able to look forward to some very exciting results.’

So the move was on the cards?

‘Every so often in the last few years, I was asked whether I wanted to leave AMOLF. AMOLF is a fantastic place and I really enjoyed being there, so my answer was usually an unhesitating “no”. But in 2015, I got a call from Tim van der Hagen, who was still Dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the time. I realised that it was perhaps time for a change, and got talking with him. That is how I moved from one fantastic place to another, with the aim of broadening my horizons and taking my research to the next level.’

And has collaboration already flourished?

‘The academic interactions with the other PIs (Principal Investigators, ed.) are going well, and the first simple measurements are being prepared. Initial plans are now being laid for more in-depth collaboration.’

What is the culture like here, compared to at AMOLF?

‘It is different. For example, I get the idea that people here are quite focused on the United States. AMOLF also had an international focus, but it was a touch more ‘European’, I think. Researchers at AMOLF were also involved in education, but they do not teach as much as researchers here. That naturally takes up a chunk of their time. Having said that, other things are comparable. Apart from being tremendously intelligent and creative, people here are – to name just one characteristic – extremely dedicated. They are keen to succeed on the boundaries of what is possible, and to stand out while doing so.  Everyone here is striving to be amongst the best in the world, as was also the case at AMOLF.’

And when it comes to the organisation?

‘That is also different, because at Delft, you are part of a (much) larger structure. That is reflected, for example, in the fact that some things take a little longer; the dynamics of the organisation are slightly different. I have an idea that the danger of individualism therefore looms more evidently here than at AMOLF.’

Will that be one of your focuses moving forward?

‘Yes, I would like to increase the ‘we feeling’. I think that there are gains to be made with respect to our sense of unity. We recently made a start – we had the first away-day since I came to Delft.’

Just to increase the ‘we feeling'?

‘Absolutely not, it naturally also has substantive benefits. During the away-day, I focused on three questions: ‘What are we good at?’, ‘What inspires us?’ and ‘What connects us?’. I asked my colleagues to brainstorm on these questions in small, alternating groups. It is now up to me to extract one or more themes from their answers that can help the abundant talent and expertise available at the university to live up to its promise. These themes will then provide a point of departure for follow-up sessions, which should lead to improved internal collaboration and, ideally, a new ‘Man on the Moon’ project. I believe that it is important that we become more than the sum of our parts.’

Any other news from the department?

‘Last year, the section structure at QN was replaced with a PI structure. A positive development if you ask me, but the advantage of the sections was that they provided an element of coherence and structure. Now, we are ‘flat’. We need to work together to ensure that this structure does not lead to disintegration. I have to admit that I actually enjoy thinking about how we can safeguard the coherence and how we can run the department efficiently.’

Did you not expect to enjoy that side of the job?

‘Well, I think that Tim primarily brought me on board as Departmental Director, and I see that role as a fine challenge. However, I made the move mainly because of my deep interest in the scientific side of things. When my lab was delayed, and I was here a month earlier than my group, it suddenly dawned on me how much I enjoyed pondering how to improve departmental processes.’