Interview with Johann Hurink, new Scientific Director at the 4TU Applied Mathematics Institute
Johann Hurink (UT) is taking over from the current director Kees Vuik (TU Delft) as of 1 July. We talked to Hurink about his plans for 4TU.AMI, how he sees the future of mathematics and what the greatest strength is of the 4TU alliance.
For anyone who is not familiar with the AMI: what does 4TU.AMI do?
The Applied Mathematics Institute facilitates research and teaching in applied mathematics. Our greatest strength lies in joining forces of the four universities of technology, making sure that efforts are brought together and made more visible.
We are an institute for applied mathematics. That means that we want to make a real contribution to the applied aspect of mathematics. Our attitude must never be that we concentrate only on the mathematical part of an issue and ignore the rest. The interface with the rest of technology, and the contribution to society and the economy is very important.
In what ways do you work together?
As four universities of technology we look to coordinate our activities by forming consortia and setting up other joint projects. This has the advantage of being able to put forward the very best people per specialisation from the four universities, so we can select people based on their expertise. Looking beyond the institute, we want to act as a point of contact for questions from the field. For example if the business community needs a certain expertise, we can track down the best mathematicians in the field in question. And internationally we want to make sure that the Netherlands has a high profile and is asked as a partner in interesting research consortia.
The binding force of AMI is very important; my predecessor Kees Vuik has worked hard on this and I am keen to continue building this further. I am convinced that the best connections are those that come about bottom up, thus from an existing initiative originating from the researchers or the business community.
Could you give some examples of such initiatives?
We organise community meetings (currently mainly on the topics water, health, data science, resilience and energy) in which researchers as well as the business community participate. This network offers enormous added value to businesses looking to work at the forefront of these developments. Among other things: they can gain insight into the latest scientific developments, they can bring in the challenges they are facing, start up joint projects with researchers and define graduation projects. Also, they meet young researchers who may be their future employees.
A network of this kind is great for helping young researchers find out if they are interested in a certain topic by giving them plenty of space to explore this. And in turn, AMI needs the business community, for collaboration in projects, for example, or for co-funding PhD projects.
We also develop education projects across the four universities of technology, such as Blended Learning, and a mathematics competition for secondary school pupils, the Mathekalender.
Have you been presented with any new problems since the coronavirus pandemic?
Yes, that is something I see among my mathematics colleagues. Several aspects of the pandemic are being researched: within the healthcare sector, for example, in planning hospital bed occupancy, but also concerning the virus itself. How does the coronavirus spread? How are the statistics developing? You want to get it under control. Also consider the Dutch railway company, where the train timetables had to be changed at very short notice. The planning and analysis aspects of these problems are often the work of mathematicians.
What is your background?
My specialisation is operations research or mathematical decision theory. This concerns optimising processes. These may be production planning within a company, but also logistical processes in the healthcare sector. Many graduates from my specialisation end up working for the NS or ProRail or for consultancies such as Witteveen & Bos and ORTEC. I think that planning and its digitisation are going to become increasingly important. The current pandemic has already shown that companies need to be able to respond more and more flexibly.
The focus of my research in recent years has been on smart grids: smart networks for our energy supply. I first became interested in this fifteen years ago. It was really curiosity driven and from my personal conviction that we need to live more sustainably. I believe in an energy system that is organised bottom up and in which energy is generated locally and also used locally. Coordinating all the parts for this, not only the technology but also at consumer level and the legal aspects, requires intelligent systems driven by mathematical models. I am fascinated by the way all these different models or little pieces of maths come together in a single application and have to be joined together.
My prediction is that this will require a huge amount of research in the coming ten to twenty years. I feel it is important that, besides my work for the AMI, I can keep on working in this relevant field of research and continue to contribute to the developments in this field.
What do you feel is the greatest strength of 4TU?
I feel that the clout you have as four universities together is the greatest value of the 4TU alliance. We need this unity to realise our international position, as the universities in the surrounding countries are much larger.
The great thing about a country such as the Netherlands is that our universities are located so close together that it almost feels like ‘’The University of the Netherlands’’, with the difference that we can combine the expertise of four different universities.
Maybe it's because I live in Germany, but I'm extra aware of the added value that this brings. The Dutch should consider themselves lucky. Because the country is so densely populated, there are plenty of opportunities for joining forces and working together.
How do you see the future of mathematics?
Mathematics is indispensable, now and in the future. Even though it is an invisible element, mathematics is at the heart of every technology.
Issues are becoming more and more complex. Just consider traffic models, the energy transition and the current coronavirus pandemic. The planning and control needed for these issues require mathematical models, so I am convinced that the call on mathematicians will only increase.