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Brightful Minds 1 | Caring for sharing

Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Young, talented scientists who are going to change the world with high-tech

In this first episode of the Brightful Minds series you can read about the experiences of Carissa Champlin (DeSIRE) and Tim van Emmerik (Plantenna) from HTSF round 1, and the ambitions of Sujith Raman (Green Sensors) from HTSF round 2. Their stories illustrate the importance of collaboration, and of scheduling enough time to experiment at the beginning of a scientific career.

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) programmes. These talented, often young, scientists explain what drives them, what high-tech research they are working on, and how they organise their careers.

Text: Sonja Knols

Photos: Dieuwertje Bravenboer

The story of Carissa Champlin - Desire

Carissa Champlin, Assistant Professor of Participatory Design in the Department of Human-Centered Design at TU Delft, held a postdoc position within the 4TU DeSIRE programme, and acted as project leader for Open Educational Resources for Urban Resilience from 2019-2021. As of 2021, she holds a tenure track position in the Climate Action Programme at TU Delft.

“My 4TU experience instilled in me the importance of collaboration to tackle complex societal challenges. Through DeSIRE, I have truly found a home for my research.”
Carissa Champlin
TU Delft

How did you get interested in the 4TU DeSIRE programme?
‘Coming from the suburbs in the United States, I have always felt the urge to explore the question of what makes a city liveable.  After obtaining my master’s degree in International Trade and Development, I decided to pursue a professional master’s in Urban Management from the Berlin Institute of Technology. After my graduation, I worked there as a researcher and a lecturer. That work ultimately evolved into a start-up consultancy that facilitated the exchange of best practices between cities by hosting international delegation visits and trainings. Since there were so many fundamental questions that remained unanswered around tools and methods to support urban planning, I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD on that topic. So, I dropped my side jobs, and applied for a full time PhD position at University of Twente. While I was there, the DeSIRE programme came along. They had a vacancy that was the perfect match to my experience and ambitions.’

What did your postdoc-position within the DeSIRE program entail?
‘My main task was to act as the project lead for the SURF project “Open Educational Resources for Urban Resilience” aimed at setting up a platform to collect and develop open-sourcelearning materials on urban resilience. We started by collecting what was already available at the different 4TU groups working on urban resilience, then identified the gaps in that collection, and subsequently initiated the development of new materials to fill the voids. The platform now contains not only courses and lectures, but also games and animations that can be used in different educational settings. The online game RElastiCity is the hallmark of our efforts.’

What have you learned from this experience?
‘The platform and especially the development thereof acted as a vessel for community building within the DeSIRE programme. Since there is no such thing as a monofunctional urban space, urban resilience is an interdisciplinary field par excellence. Furthermore, it requires a transdisciplinary approach, involving various communities in decision-making processes. To achieve a true collaboration between actors from different backgrounds, it helps to not only talk, but to actually do things together. Aiming for a concrete outcome, in our case the platform, is a good way of bringing people together and actively engaging them in each other’s work, since they need to understand where their horizons meet in order to paint the full picture.’

How has being part of a 4TU initiative helped shape your career?
‘My current tenure track research looks into toolkitting for urban climate resilience. Each stage of the urban planning process has different knowledge requirements that needs to be sourced from a  variety of actors. I am studying how to collect and integrate this knowledge by bringing process requirements and knowledge needs along with insight-generating methods and technologies together in a modular way. Together with my DeSIRE colleague Claudiu Forgaci, we have taken a first step in constructing this modular toolkit in our “Amplifying Weak Signals” project. This toolkit aids facilitators of urban climate resilience projects in building their own customized methods for knowledge integration. DeSIRE acted as a launching pad for everything I am doing right now. I believe I have this research community to thank for my tenure track position. I am still involved in the 4TU Centre for Resilience Engineering, as interim co-chair of the urban thematic group where we explore the resilience of socio-technical and environmental systems in finite urban spaces. My 4TU experience instilled in me the importance of collaboration to tackle complex societal challenges. And this remains an important element of my research strategy aimed at team science and collaborating across sectors and disciplines. Through DeSIRE, I have truly found a home for my research.’

The story of Tim van Emmerik - Plantenna

Tim van Emmerik is Assistant Professor Hydrologic Sensing at Wageningen University. He started his  tenure track position in the 4TU Plantenna programme in 2019.

“‘As a tenure tracker, a lot is expected from you. Determine your strengths and what makes you tick, and focus on those tasks that fit you best.”
Tim van Emmerik

4TU is about collaboration between the four technical universities. You truly live up to that idea, by transferring from one technical university to another. How did that happen?

‘My PhD research at TU Delft was on remote sensing of water stress in vegetation. During those four years, I once visited Wageningen University. That is when I thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could end up there?” After obtaining my PhD, I found a job as Head of River Research at The Ocean Cleanup.

There, I developed new ways to detect macroplastics that pollute rivers globally. Though I thoroughly enjoyed my work there, I wanted to go back into academia. Then I saw the vacancy for a tenure track researcher in the Plantenna programme. The idea was to develop methods for measuring and monitoring the role of vegetation in the hydrosphere. That nicely connected to my PhD research, and it gave me the opportunity to join Wageningen University for a longer period of time, so I decided to apply.’

What does your research entail?

‘Originally, I wanted to pursue two different research lines. The first was aimed at studying the effect of droughts on crops and trees.

The second was inspired by a finding from my time at The Ocean Cleanup. I had noticed that the invasive species of water hyacinths formed large patches drifting in the river. These patches, which can be metres-wide and cause massive inconvenience for the local communities, turned out to catch a lot of the plastics floating around in the river. Why not use this vegetation to detect clumps of plastic from satellite images, and use these plants as a proxy for pollution? Added benefit of this idea: by removing the unwanted invasive hyacinths, you immediately also get rid of the majority of the plastic.

The first line of research did not really fly. But the plastics part did. I received an NWO Open Mind grant, an ESA Open Space Innovation Platform grant and a NWO Veni on related subjects, and now have a team of 7 researchers working on this.’

Does this mean you are not involved in Plantenna anymore?
‘Indeed, I drifted away from my original Plantenna-project, which has been taken over by Martine van der Ploeg. But during my first 1.5 years here in Wageningen, I have actively taken part in the consortium.’

What was the added value of being part of the programme for you?

‘Especially at the start, we as new tenure trackers could inspire each other. It was very nice to compare our different methods to look at vegetation and come up with ideas on how to use those for other purposes. We have prepared several joint proposals together, which unfortunately weren’t granted.

For me, Plantenna is an excellent example of the role 4TU can play in programming research that is not (yet) sexy enough for other parties to fund. Plantenna is very transdisciplinary, ranging from electrical engineering to environmental sciences. Many funding agencies say that is what they want, but when push comes to shove, finding funds for such projects often is hard.

I do also have a point for improvement though. The tenure track positions in the 4TU programmes did not come with a starter package. For the sake of coherence within the programme, it would be good to supply tenure track researchers with some funds to hire one or two (joint) PhD candidates. Now you have to find funds right from the start, which is harder when you have nothing to show. And, as has happened with me, this approach might lead to different lines of research than the programme originally was intended for.’

Comment 4TU: Based on the experiences in the first round of HTSF-programmes, 4TU decided indeed to grant a starting package to each Tenure Tracker in the second round of HTSF-programmes, which they can use to hire a PhD-student.

Do you have any tips for the next generation of tenure trackers that is now entering the 4TU programmes?
‘As a tenure tracker, a lot is expected from you. You have to do research and publish articles, write grant proposals, develop new educational courses, obtain your University Teaching Qualification, engage in managerial tasks, review papers, edit journals, and make an impact on society through public appearances… And all of that within a limited amount of time. If you are not prepared, you can get overwhelmed. Determine your strengths and what makes you tick, and focus on those tasks that fit you best.
Second, find the right balance between the timescales of your activities. Start by looking at smaller, faster granting programmes that enable you to hit the ground running. The fact that I was awarded an Open Mind grant in my first year as a tenure tracker, has helped me a lot. Although that grant was very small in terms of money, it did enable me to start working on my ideas and get some first results. And since I had something to show, it became much easier to obtain some of the larger grants later.

Finally, I would strongly urge early career colleagues to use the first few years of their tenure track to conduct their own experiments. Once the funding starts flowing in, your team will grow and you’ll have a lot less time to go out in the field yourself.’

The story of Sujith Raman - Green Sensors

Sujith Raman, currently Marie Curie fellow at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, will start a tenure track position in the 4TU Green Sensors programme at University of Twente in September 2023.

“My ultimate aim is to help drastically reduce electronic waste. My goal is to build the first academic group completely dedicated to biodegradable microwave electronics.”
Sujith Raman
Universiteit Twente (as of September)

Your resume shows you have been around the block. Not only do you hold a Bachelor in Physics and a Master and PhD in Electronics from two Indian universities, you have also worked at universities all over the world, from India to Ireland, Sweden and now Switzerland. What drives your career choices?
‘For every next step in my career, I look for projects that align with my research ambitions. Early on, I decided to study physics to obtain a solid, general background. I then specialized toward electronics, and more specifically, microwave antennas. That started with antennas for telecom applications, where the aim was to develop compact designs for mobile phones and wireless devices. During my subsequent postdocs, I evolved that research into bio-electromagnetics used for biomedical sensors to be applied outside of the body. One of the applications I worked on, was a sensor for monitoring the healing of the skull of new-borns after a specific type of skull surgery. With my current Marie Curie fellowship, I have taken this type of research to the next level: I am now developing biodegradable devices.’

What is the main challenge there?
‘Existing biocompatible or biodegradable microwave materials simply do not have the same specifications as the semiconductors that are currently used for electronics. So the first step is to identify and characterize existing biodegradable materials and see how those can be matched to certain applications. For some applications that require low frequency radio signals, there are already some paper, wood and polymer based alternatives available. But for high frequency applications, like microwave antennas, sensors or RFIDs, you need a low-loss material in order to efficiently radiate to the outside world. In addition to that, for high frequency RFIDs, there are many bits of information encoded in a single signal, so the quality factor of the resonators needs to be high to prevent information from getting lost.’

And what is the next step?
‘My ultimate aim is to help drastically reduce electronic waste. This also fits seamlessly into the European Green Deal, where the idea is to reduce, reuse and replace wasteful materials. My goal is to build the first academic group completely dedicated to biodegradable microwave electronics. The first application area we will be aiming for is agriculture, but in time, I want to extend that to other applications as well. Hopefully, we can go from agriculture to biomedical applications, and eventually, take over the traditional fields currently dominated by epoxy and silicon, like communication devices and sensors.’

When and why did you decide to pursue this goal in the Netherlands?
‘One year into my Marie Curie fellowship, I got a call from Twente, to gauge my interest to participate in the Green Sensors tenure track programme. Immediately, I was very excited, since this  programme exactly matches my ideas.
Twente has good facilities, and seems to be a good place for my family to live. There is a large international community, and everyone speaks English. And since this appointment is initially for seven years, me and my family get the time to learn Dutch and fully integrate into the Dutch society. I am really looking forward to starting there!’

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 four new HTSF programmes to start.