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NWO-I Fellowships provide opportunities for women

WISE fellowship and Constance van Eeden fellowship explained

More men than women work at NWO-I. Women are especially underrepresented among scientific personnel and in technical positions. NWO-I does everything possible to increase the share of women. With funding via the NWO-I-wide WISE fellowship, more women are now joining the organisation. CWI recently established the Constance van Eeden Fellowship and appointed a talented woman to a PhD position.


The WISE fellowship was established in 2016 with the aim of improving the gender balance at the institutes by appointing women as tenure trackers. The WISE fellowships are an important instrument for NWO-I to positively influence the recruitment policy. The third round of WISE is now open and this time includes the appointment of women in technical positions. Wiebke Albrecht (AMOLF) and Julia Engelmann (NIOZ) are both WISE fellows. At the bottom of the page, you can read how they experience the fellowship.

Career kickstart

Peter Spijker, head of Office support and Strategy at the NWO-I office, has looked into the NWO-I annual reports for the figures: ‘Between 2019 and the start of 2022, the percentage of women slowly rose from 27 to 28 to 29 and finally to 30%. If you zoom in on scientific personnel, the increase is 6%, from 13% at the start of 2019 to 18% at the end of 2021. In a period of 6 years, 16 WISE fellows have been appointed. And there are still enough applications in the pipeline. It is a successful programme.’ Institutes that want to submit an application can contact the NWO-I office. The board decides about the award of 250,000 euros for the salary costs of a tenure tracker. Spijker says that all institutes use WISE: ‘The institutes do not make overhasty decisions when it comes to appointing a tenure tracker. WISE makes it possible to bring in a top woman and kickstart her career.’ Why has WISE been expanded to include technical positions? Spijker explains that at institutes like SRON, Nikhef and ASTRON, the supporting technical staff make up a significantly larger part of the total staff. Spijker: ‘Most technicians are still men, and the staff turnover is low. For this reason, the influx of women is also low. WISE is precisely the programme that can give a boost to efforts to appoint a female technical colleague.’

On all fronts

The NWO-I organisation is working to improve the gender balance on all fronts. At the office, Judith Kreukels has started as project leader Diversity & Inclusion. She will support the institutes and help them to develop this theme further. Spijker emphasises that the institutes have also found many ways themselves to ensure greater diversity and inclusion in their organisation. He mentions the example of advisory committees for appointments, where half the members are women to prevent gender bias. Centrum voor Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) recently established the Constance van Eeden Fellowship, a biannual grant for a PhD position for a woman in computer science or mathematics.

Fellowship increases diversity and inclusion

Around 2017, the number of female PhDs dropped to 17% at the CWI. The institute had no idea why that was the case. Angelique Schilder, then head of P&O at CWI, drew up a plan with several colleagues to increase diversity and inclusion. Her idea of establishing a biannual fellowship was wholeheartedly adopted. The fellowship was intended for a talented female student of mathematics, computer science or related disciplines who would wish to pursue a PhD at CWI and wanted to build up an academic career. Schilder: ‘With the fellowship, we wanted to emphasise our commitment to attracting more women to come and work at CWI. Another goal is to create awareness about the fact that the number of female researchers in mathematics and computer science continues to trail behind.’

Constance van Eeden

The Fellowship at CWI was named after Constance van Eeden (1927 – 2021). Who was she? Schilder: ‘Constance van Eeden worked from 1954 to 1960 at what was then called the Mathematisch Centrum (later CWI) and she was one of the first women in the Netherlands to gain a PhD in statistics. And she also obtained it cum laude. Constance was a veritable pioneer. It took almost 30 years before another woman in the Netherlands gained a PhD in mathematics. Kari van Eeden, Constance’s daughter, considered the establishment of the fellowship to be a lovely gesture by CWI and said that her mother would have considered it an honour. Kari was involved in the launch. We made a considerable noise about it, for example with videos on social media, and we received positive responses.’

The fellowship was first made available in 2022. In the recruitment text, CWI stated that candidates would be free to choose their own research theme, a six-month stay at a prestigious foreign institute and extra supervision by a female role model. Schilder says that many women applied for the position. CWI is keeping an eye on these candidates for possible new positions. On this occasion, the institute chose Hilde Verbeek, in part because she also had ideas for fulfilling the ambassadorship. Read more about this in the interview with Hilde.

Hilde Verbeek – CWI can inspire other institutes

Fellowship: Constance van Eeden
Institute: CWI
Started on: 1 December 2022
Discipline: Computer science

Hilde Verbeek (23) is back in her home city of Amsterdam at CWI. During her master’s in computer science at Utrecht University, she discovered that she did not want to go into software development. She was more interested in fundamental research. During her search for PhD positions, she came across the Constance van Eeden fellowship (CvE) at CWI. She laughs at the memory: ‘I showed the advertisement to my boyfriend as an example of a good initiative without even intending to apply for it myself.’ However, that is what she subsequently did. What particularly attracted her to the CvE fellowship was that she could choose her own research group. Verbeek: ‘Compared to other PhD positions, that is unique and gives me a lot of freedom.’

Win-win situation

At the end of last year, Verbeek joined CWI’s subgroup Algorithms and Data Structures for Sequence Analysis of the Networks and Optimization group. She says she especially had doubts about how her colleagues would view her before she started: ‘Would they judge me as “that woman who got in on a diversity position”? This anxiety proved unfounded: I am accepted at CWI for my skills and knowledge. Most researchers see the fellowship as a win-win situation: CWI made money available for an extra PhD position and a woman has joined the team.’

Verbeek says that in her group of 25 people, four are women, including herself. One of them is a senior researcher and the other three are PhDs. Two of them have almost completed their doctoral research, as a result of which Verbeek will become the only female PhD. Everywhere in mathematics and computer science, and not just at CWI, female students and researchers are few and far between. Although more young women are choosing to study computer science, women also continue to drop out at every subsequent step on the scientific career ladder. Verbeek: ‘That is a problem that needs to be tackled everywhere. There are few female role models in computer science. This lack of role models, and the fact that men clearly outnumber women within the exact sciences, can mean that women feel they are outsiders. And that provides little motivation to rise further up the academic ladder. Another aspect is that women often experience disadvantages during job applications due to implicit bias, simply because they are women. New aspiring female researchers will feel safer and more welcome with more women in the exact sciences. CWI’s role could consist of collaborating with universities and other institutes to give potential role models a podium. For example, via an event like Girls Day, which aims to attract more female students. Also, CWI can inspire and encourage other institutes to realise initiatives like the CvE fellowship. As an ambassador, I’d very much like to contribute to that.’

About Hilde Verbeek’s research

Verbeek did her master’s research into a variant of the problem that is called the “Steiner Tree”: in a network, a connection is sought between a number of important terminals by using as little of the network as possible. The subgroup at CWI where Verbeek now works, focuses on designing algorithms and data structures suitable for analysing sequences. The sequence could be text, (personal) data or DNA, for example. Within bioinformatics, there is a lot of interest in the efficient matching and analysis of DNA sequences. Verbeek: ‘My research has a strong fundamental focus, but there is a range of international projects in which researchers are developing applications. One day I would also like to become part of those.’


Julia Engelmann – Off to Antarctica through WISE

Fellowship: WISE
Institute: NIOZ
Started: May 2020
Discipline: Bioinformatics

Julia Engelmann (44) holds a PhD in bioinformatics and, in the summer of 2017, started to work at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) with a tenure track contract for five years. At the start of 2019, she applied for a WISE grant. Partly due to being awarded this grant, Engelmann received a tenured position as a senior researcher, could join the Netherlands Polar programme of NWO, and could able to send her postdoc on a journey to Antarctica.

Engelmann is in favour of an instrument like WISE because there are big differences between men and women when it comes to acquiring funding via research proposals: ‘Men are more successful at this. They write more daringly than women, who only include things in proposals if they are very certain about them. Male assessors are also more likely to believe male applicants. I’m in favour of not including names and CVs in applications. An applicant can sometimes have a brilliant research idea at one occasion or, equally, a really bad one another time. So why are CVs so important? Competition must be on the basis of content. That is the case with grants for women like WISE. Of course, for this grant you must be able to present yourself with a good story as well.’

About Julia Engelmann’s research

Engelmann investigates interactions between microorganisms with her group and explains these using computer programs: ‘Microorganisms are so small that you cannot see them with the naked eye. Take bacteria, viruses and unicellular algae, for instance. We take samples from seawater and remove the cells of the microorganisms from these. Based on the DNA, we can reconstruct which species the water contained. My postdoc is collecting a lot of samples off the coast of Antarctica. We are comparing these with samples taken from the Wadden Sea.’ Why did she choose these locations? Engelmann: ‘I wanted to investigate two areas that are extremely different from each other. The Wadden Sea is heavily influenced by people, while that is hardly the case with the waters off Antarctica. We are now busy working on the DNA analysis, after which we will use computer models to better comprehend which species work together with each other. That knowledge is important for understanding how microbial communities produce food for the food web and reuse waste substances. Our models also include the potential impact of climate change.’


Wiebke Albrecht – A role model for young researchers

Fellowship: WISE
Institute: AMOLF
Started on: 1 May 2021
Discipline: Physic

Wiebke Albrecht (36) has been group leader Hybrid Nanosystems at AMOLF since 2021. She started as a new group leader at AMOLF at about the same time as the other group leader, Marc Serra Garcia. The institute received WISE funding for Albrecht’s tenure track position.

Albrecht says that WISE therefore made the appointment of two group leaders possible, and with that, the total number of women rose to 3 of the 20 group leaders: ‘I was appointed due to my skills and I hope that this always applies to everybody. However, if you look at the small number of women in scientific top positions, then incentive instruments such as WISE are still necessary to increase the proportion of female top scientists. Role models like me can inspire other young researchers – women and men – to combine a career in science with starting a family, for example.’ Albrecht has just returned from maternity leave after the birth of her first son. At AMOLF, she received a lot of support. Albrecht: ‘That was really great. I did not find it easy to go on maternity leave because you leave your work and your group behind for several months. Because of our biology, women obviously need more time to recover from the birth of a new child than men. After that, the care tasks can easily be split 50-50. That is what I tell everybody who is prepared to listen.’

About Wiebke Albrecht's research

With her group, Albrecht is investigating the interaction between different components and complex hybrid nanosystems. ‘How can we influence the morphology and properties of such a nanosystem at the level of a single particle?’, says Albrecht. ‘Electrons in metals are mobile and therefore very suitable for conducting electricity from A to B. However, things work differently at the nanoscale. The optical properties differ depending on the nanoparticle’s size and shape; whether it is more square, round or highly elongated instead.’ With her steadily growing group, she wants to acquire a unique electron microscope with which she can image materials at the atomic scale while these are being illuminated by laser light. That will make it possible to produce better solar cells and study chemical reactions powered by light, both of which are vital for a wide range of research at AMOLF.

Text: Anita van Stel

Newsletter Inside NWO-I, March 2023
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

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