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Highlight NWO Institutes: magazine De Ingenieur appoints Technology Talents at AMOLF, ARCNL and CWI

Each year, Dutch technology magazine De Ingenieur designates several engineers younger than 35 years as Technology Talents. In 2020, it nominated fifteen such talents, and three of them are researchers at NWO Institutes: Bas Overvelde (group leader soft robotics at AMOLF), Peter Kraus (group leader at ARCNL) and Stacey Jeffery (senior researcher at CWI). ‘Their young age and technical excellence are not the only characteristics these engineers have in common. Sustainability and care for their fellow human beings feature remarkably often in their work. Not only do these engineering talents dare to dream of a better future, but they are also working hard on realising that’, according to De Ingenieur.

Bas Overvelde

Age: 34
Education: mechanical engineering, TU Delft, applied mathematics, Harvard University (US)
Position: group leader Soft Robotic Matter, NWO Institute AMOLF

Bas Overvelde works on exotic metamaterials and soft robotics. His greatest talent: an unbridled creativity. He did his PhD at Harvard University in the United States. ‘There is such an awesome, open atmosphere there. Collaboration is genuinely encouraged. Everything is possible as long as you are prepared to roll up your sleeves. I picked up that attitude there. My time in the United States really shaped and motivated me.’

Overvelde has now worked at AMOLF for almost five years and conducts research into soft robotics and metamaterials at the institute. At the age of 34, he leads a team of eleven people. ‘That is something I really enjoy doing. I mostly lead based on my intuition because you acquire few management skills during your study in the Netherlands. I give my group members a lot of freedom and all the room they need to develop their ideas. And I really enjoy seeing how they become enthusiastic about the results they achieve.’
However, he does set high standards. ‘I get annoyed when one of my group members promises to do something several times, and it subsequently doesn’t get done. I feel people should discuss potential delays before promising to do something.’ Overvelde considers his creativity to be his greatest talent. ‘If we brainstorm together with a few people, then the ideas simply start to flow from me without a lot of effort. Occasionally, I have to consciously stop that process because it is time to select and elaborate an idea and see whether such a wild idea will actually work.’ Overvelde experiences his work as an extension of his interests. ‘I enjoy it so much that I often continue to work late into the evenings and during the weekends to explore something a bit further.’

Overvelde received a lot of media attention with his metamaterials based on origami, which can fold and unfold in many different steps as well as at different scales. With these kinds of materials, he hopes to construct an artificial heart that can help people with a serious heart disease. He came up with that idea together with a heart surgeon from Amsterdam UMC, and they recently received large grants to develop the concept. ‘Up until now, my research was mainly driven by curiosity. However, I graduated as a mechanical engineer, and now I am ready to do something genuinely useful with this.’

Peter Kraus

Age: 32
Education: physics and chemistry, ETH Zurich (Switzerland)
Position: group leader, NWO Institute ARCNL

Chip manufacturer ASML looks to fundamental science to further improve its chip machines. In research institute ARCNL’s largest laboratory space, Peter Kraus is therefore building a powerful laser setup that can measure the minutest of details. This requires fundamental, difficult physics, but if it succeeds the application is already clear: ASML in Veldhoven will be able to layer even finer structures onto computer chips. ‘You want to be able to check whether the layers on the computer chip have been printed over each other with sufficient accuracy’, says Kraus. ‘We’re developing the technology to measure that extremely precisely with light.’

World-class facilities
Kraus graduated and gained his doctorate from the prestigious technical university ETH in Zurich and then spent several years at the equally renowned University of California in Berkeley. Why did he choose to come to ARCNL in 2018? ‘The level and the facilities here are genuinely world-class. And ARCNL was prepared to invest in a large optical measurement system that is expected to be ready early next year.’ If he continues like this, then Kraus is well on the way to a tenured position*, the route to a tenured contract as group leader at ARCNL and, in the future, possibly a professorship at the (partner) university. He currently supervises three PhDs, a postdoc, a technician and a varying number of master students. At ARCNL, he is coordinating the construction of one of the world’s most powerful laser systems. ‘I have built experimental setups in the past, but this is definitely the biggest.’

Kraus believes that providing leadership to scientists involves striking a delicate balance. ‘You want to give people as much freedom as possible, and at the same time, you want to achieve results with your group. I encourage my group members to think outside the box so that they hit on ideas and deliver results that I would never have come up with myself.’ Kraus is happiest when one of his group members discovers something new. ‘I really like it when that happens, especially if things prove to be slightly different from what we initially imagined.’

Staying in touch
Does Kraus still have time to work in the lab himself, on top of all his management tasks? ‘Well, usually – before COVID-19 – I tried to briefly visit the lab every day, but now I really need to plan these visits well in advance**. I feel these visits are important since you cannot hope to remain up-to-date through meetings alone. You also need to do experimental work to stay in touch with what is happening.’

* A tenure track group leader is appointed for a certain period and works towards a tenured position.
**During the lockdown due to COVID-19, ARCNL is open to a limited extent to give researchers the possibility to carry out critical experiments. That means that only researchers who need to use the lab can work at ARCNL and that the work which can be done at home, should be done at home.

Stacey Jeffery

Age: 34
Education: computer science, University of Waterloo (Canada)
Position: senior researcher, NWO Institute CWI

How will quantum computers perform calculations in the future, and which algorithms will they run? Stacey Jeffery is working on that with considerable perseverance and the patience of a saint. She works at both CWI and QuSoft on quantum algorithms, the computation rules designed to run on quantum computers at a later stage.

In a flow
The Canadian is happy when she is working on a problem with the utmost concentration. She plans blocks of time to remain in the flow. Although Jeffery often does that writing and refining of algorithms alone in her office, her job is definitely not a solo effort. ‘You do the thinking alone, but after that, you meet up with your colleagues and bring together different ideas, which allow you to proceed further.’

Frequently mentioned applications of quantum computers are the development of new materials and the solving of complex logistics problems, such as the travelling salesman problem*** or the planning of airlines. Normal computers fail to get to grips with these. However, a usable quantum computer does not yet exist. Doesn’t she find that frustrating? After all, genuine applications of her work still seem years away. ‘To be honest, that doesn’t really bother me since it was not the practical application that drew me to this work.’

*** One of the most famous problems in computer science and operational research: given n cities together with the distance between each pair of these cities, find the shortest route that passes each city exactly once and ends at the first city.

Climate change
So what motivated her to embark on this research? ‘Hmm, the socially desirable answer is: saving the world. The media like to exaggerate when it comes to the uses of quantum computers. They often write that the quantum computer will solve everything, including climate change. But if I’m honest, I simply get a kick out of solving difficult mathematical problems. How do you manage to put together a usable algorithm in the strange quantum world of entanglement and uncertainty? Quantum mechanics really fascinates me. Classical mechanics, on the other hand, rather bores me.’ However, Jeffery’s field is anything but boring. ‘It is a young field in which a lot is happening. Plenty of work still needs to be done, and there are amazing things to discover.’

Source: De Ingenieur

An overview (in Dutch) of all Technology Talents 2020 can be found on the website of the De Ingenieur.

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