Part of the
TU DelftTU EindhovenUniversity of TwenteWageningen University


+31(0)6 48 27 55 61


Brightful Minds 3 | Own path to passion

Monday, 3 July 2023
Young, talented scientists who are going to change the world with high-tech

In the 4-part series Brightful Minds, science editor Sonja Knols and photographer Dieuwertje Bravenboer are taking a tour along the tenure trackers involved in the 4TU High Tech for a Sustainable Future (HTSF) programs. These talented, often young, scientists explain what drives them, what high-tech research they are working on, and how they organize their careers. 

This third edition focuses on diversity and inclusiveness. Agnes Berendsen (RECENTRE), Srinidhi Gadde (HERITAGE) and Aimée Sakes (Soft Robotics) tell how they each followed their own path towards their current position at one of the Dutch technical universities.

Text: Sonja Knols

Images: Dieuwertje Bravenboer

The story of Aimée Sakes | 4TU.Soft Robotics

Aimée Sakes is Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Delft University of Technology since June 2019. Aimée knew early on that she wanted to design and manufacture technical objects herself. And preferably for healthcare applications. With her degree in mechanical engineering in the pocket, she steamed right up to a Master's degree, a PhD, a postdoc and now a tenure track in biomedical technology.

“I want to help ensure that we identify and, where possible, remove the barriers for women, and also that we bring about a culture change that ensures a more inclusive science field.”
Aimée Sakes
TU Delft

Current research

‘Within the 4TU Soft Robotics program, I am developing smart instruments that behave in a gentle way. The term soft robotics refers not only to robots made of soft materials, but also to robots that behave “softly” when they come into contact with their environment. For example, consider a necklace. This is often made of a hard material, but is very flexible, so it does not hurt your body when you wear it.

My work is focused on soft robotics for surgical applications, like ultra-thin and small robots for heart or brain surgery. The goal is to develop instruments that can move through the body and manipulate tissues with as little damage as possible. For example, I work on catheters that can make complex turns or that can adjust their friction properties through vibration, on thin and soft tissue transporters that can transport tissues out of the body, and on soft graspers that can grasp tissue in a safe way.

In my work, nature is my source of inspiration. For example, I look at the tentacles of an octopus. These tentacles are able to perform complex movements and contain a series of suction cups that allow them to grab onto different surfaces, ranging from rocks to fish scales. To date, suction cups developed by humans only work well on flat surfaces. Unraveling how nature is able to grip rocks with suction cups will reveal new principles of operation that we can use to develop new medical instruments. The dream is to arrive at systems that can adapt themselves to changing conditions with minimal outside control.’

Career path

‘I always wanted to be a designer, and also knew early on that I wanted to work on applications for the medical world. When I started studying, there were not so many studies in biomedical engineering, and I wanted to have a solid foundation first. Therefore, I first pursued a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, after which I started to specialize in medical engineering during my Master’s at TUDelft. It was then that I got captivated by scientific research. Finding creative solutions to medical problems is what drives me. At the university, you have a lot of freedom to come up with new ideas. You can ask questions and get to the bottom of how something works and how you could make it yourself.

During my postdoc project, I was working on smart needles for taking biopsies of potential breast tumors, which are currently being used in a clinical trial. My professor then pointed me to the 4TU Soft Robotics program. This program fitted my research and ideas, so I decided to apply.

Since a few months, in addition to my position at TUDelft, I am also a board member of the NWO Applied and Engineering Sciences (AES) domain. I find it important to represent the voice of younger and mid-career researchers there, for example when it comes to setting up new funding instruments. With the sector plan funds and initiatives like the 4TU programs, the number of tenure trackers is growing, which of course is a good sign! But we must be careful not to increase the application pressure even more. This is an issue I am looking into. Another issue close to my heart is increasing the number of women in science. There are now practical barriers that unintentionally disadvantage women, such as deadlines for research applications that coincide with a maternity leave. I want to help ensure that we identify and, where possible, remove these kinds of barriers, and also that we bring about a culture change that ensures a more inclusive science field.’

Key people

‘For me, my supervisor Paul Breedveld has been very important at various stages of my career. With his positive-critical attitude and his enormous expertise in this field, he helped me grow. The same goes for my former department head DirkJan Veeger. When I was dealing with physical problems during my pregnancy, he boosted my self-confidence by letting me know that he knew what I was worth, and that he assumed that things would work out for the best.’

Advice for other (aspiring) academics

‘Don’t conduct your research in splendid isolation, but gather good people around you who can provide you with feedback and help you with problems. Maybe someone has had the same problem before and already found a solution for it. And if not, just talking about it can help you figure things out.

Within the 4TU program there is a lot of contact with other tenure trackers. It is always good to have contact with people who are in the same stage of their career. You can then exchange views about what is expected of you, and how you can live up to that. And you can set something up together, like in our case a symposium and a summer school.

All in all, there is a lot of added value in maintaining close contacts with the other universities in your program. By bringing together the strengths of different universities, you can come up with better research proposals and scientific articles. And once you know people, it is easier to call them if you have a problem for which you could make good use of their specific expertise.’

The story of Srinidhi Gadde | 4TU.Heritage

Srinidhi Gadde will start his tenure track at University of Twente in July 2023. Srinidhi comes from a rural region in India, and grew up with no access to computers till he went to university. Now, he works with supercomputers to develop high resolution models to study the Earth’s climate.

“Don’t be afraid to venture into new research areas, switching fields opens up new avenues of learning.”
Srinidhi Gadde
Twente University

Current and future work

‘I am currently working on polar climate modelling as a postdoc at Utrecht University. Most climate models do not accurately model the polar phenomena necessary for predicting climate change. We develop specialized models accurately representing physics of the polar regions and predict the polar climate at resolutions of 5.5 - 11 kilometers. In our regional climate model, we incorporate unique polar phenomena like melting of ice, refreezing water, snowfall, and also the dispersal of snow across the Antarctic continent due to high speed winds.

This July, I will go back to University of Twente where I obtained my PhD to shift my focus from polar climate to urban microclimate. Though at first sight polar and urban climates might seem worlds apart, in terms of modelling they are not so different. In my project, which is a part of the HERITAGE program, I will work on models to improve the predictions of urban climate. The aim is to use inputs from remote sensing and incorporate them in high resolution climate models that can simulate urban climate at a resolution of 1 meter and lower, which is a factor of 10 to 100 times better than current models. We also aim to differentiate between heat stresses on newer parts of the city and older city areas with inefficient heat management.’

Career path

‘In my family I am the first to obtain a PhD degree. Ever since high school, I have been intrigued by the physics of fluids, which is complex in so many different ways and influence everything around us.

During my bachelor studies in Mechanical engineering, I performed a simulation of the aerodynamics of a race car, where I developed interest in turbulence and realized the power of computers in modelling physics.

I obtained a scholarship to pursue my Master’s degree at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras, where I specialized in fluid mechanics, turbulence modelling, and parallel programming.

During my PhD research at University of Twente, I started working on atmospheric turbulence modelling and renewable energy: I developed models to describe how air flows in and around a wind park. That is how I got interested in atmosphere, meteorology, and climate modelling, leading me to my current postdoc position and my future tenure track position.’

Key people

‘My father has always been an inspiration for me. Though he did not study much himself and did not have a lot of money, he always tried his best to get his children educated. And when I said I wanted to pursue Master’s in an institute far away from where we lived, he immediately said I had to go for it, and that we would find a way to finance all of that. If I see what he has put in to get me this far, I can only work as hard as possible and enjoy my work as much as I can.’

Advice for other (aspiring) academics

‘If something doesn’t go your way the first time around, just try again and work harder. It has not always been walk in the park for me; in India during my Master’s I have had my share of failures in exams. Though in the end I managed, I was worried about the failures at first, but eventually it did not mean that much. If you really like something and persevere, you can get pretty far.

And don’t be afraid to venture into new research areas, switching fields opens up new avenues of learning. When you are applying for a vacancy, you are judged not only on your background, but also on your competences, interdisciplinary skills, and ambitions. If you are willing to learn new things, you will find a lot of open options. For a researcher, learning should never stop.’

The story of Agnes Berendsen | 4TU.RECENTRE

Agnes Berendsen is associate professor of Malnutrition in Obesity at Wageningen University since January 2023. After getting her havo diploma, Agnes was trained as a dietitian and worked in several hospitals. Until she decided to quit her job and sell her house, move back in with her parents and pursue a Master's degree at Wageningen University.

“Don’t doubt your own abilities, don’t look at others too much and follow your own path. Find people to help you put things into perspective; there are other things that are much more important than daily to-do lists.”
Agnes Berendsen

Current research

‘As of last January, I have been appointed as a nutrition epidemiologist within the 4TU program RECENTRE. That program aims to move care that currently takes place in the hospital to the home setting. Technological solutions play an important role in this. Think for example of smart monitoring and smart sensing. Based on the information gathered by smart sensors, we want to arrive at more individualized interventions.

Within that program, I focus on the long-term health of women after obesity treatment, such as gastric bypass surgery. After gastric bypass surgery, not only can you eat smaller portions, but you also absorb fewer nutrients from them. A significant proportion of patients experience adverse effects from this, such as deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals. Among other things, these nutritional deficiencies increase the risk of early onset of osteoporosis or substantial loss of muscle mass. The consequences of these nutritional deficiencies for the offspring of women who have undergone obesity treatment are not yet adequately known. Therefore, I am looking for measurements that people can do at home to get as complete a picture as possible of their health status, for example to monitor their nutritional status, bone density and muscle quality over a longer period of time and during pregnancy. In doing so, I am investigating how we can counteract any negative long-term effects with targeted nutritional advice.’

Career path

‘In my youth, I dealt with a dietitian myself. That woman played an important role in a vulnerable period of my life. Since I wanted to be able to also play such a role in the lives of others, I chose to study dietetics. In addition, I always felt that I “only” came from havo, so I didn’t even consider the possibility of attending university in the first place. Even though I did very well in havo. After my education, I started working as a dietician at St. Antonius Hospital and later at Rijnstate Hospital. But I soon discovered that that work was too monotonous for me, and not evidence-based enough. Many dietary recommendations were based on a “one-size-fits-all” model, while I preferred to offer each individual patient the best tailormade solution. I clearly remember the moment my eyes were opened: it was my turn to analyze a scientific article and present it to my colleagues during our group meeting. Everyone felt that was an annoying homework assignment, but I enjoyed it. Above all, I wanted to know more. So then I decided to go to college after all.’

Key moments

‘After transferring from St. Antonius Hospital to Rijnstate as a dietitian, I took a three-month trip through Australia. During that trip I decided to give up my secure working life, to sell my house, and to embark on the adventure of going back to school.

After obtaining my Master’s, I first worked as a research assistant and teaching assistant at Wageningen University. Two professors who had heard about my master’s research, the teaching materials I had developed in the meantime, and my practical work within an ongoing study, contacted me and persuaded me to pursue a PhD.

In 2019, I returned to Rijnstate as a postdoc, working with a bariatric surgeon interested in nutrition research. That experience inspired my current line of research.

Ultimately, the life lessons I learned growing up and after the death of my father were probably the most important. It is the drastic events through which you discover the importance of being able to put things in perspective and of persevere in times of adversity, traits that also come in very handy in a scientific career.’

Advice for other (aspiring) academics

‘Don’t doubt your own abilities, don’t look at others too much and follow your own path. Find people to help you put things into perspective; there are other things that are much more important than daily to-do lists. Don’t let anything get to you. But as a starting tenure tracker, even for me it stays difficult sometimes to follow that last piece of advice.’


Tenure track

A tenure track is a career path from universities to engage young, talented researchers for a longer period of time. The track runs from assistant professor, through adjunct professor to full professor. The duration of the track is about 10 years. To read further

About HTSF

The goal of the High Tech for a Sustainable Future (HTSF) programme is to stimulate structural and sustainable collaborative theme-oriented research between the four technical universities on topics that require 4TU collaboration and for which it is currently more difficult to acquire funding externally (i.e. new or high risk topics). The societal relevant research programmes attract and develop new and diverse talent for the four TU’s -among others 63 Tenure Trackers- and aim to deliver societal impact through scientific breakthroughs. After a funded start-up period of five years, research should continue without 4TU.Federation funding.

In 2018 the first round of HTSF programmes started. Now, after five years, they are ready to continue independently and make room for the new HTSF programmes to start. A total of €20 million has been made available for the four new HTSF programmes.