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Hora est through a computer speaker: Leiden’s first fully online PhD defence

Samineh Bagheri is the first PhD candidate to defend her thesis fully remotely.

In a small conference room, Samineh Bagheri sits behind her computer. Her husband has come along for moral support, but no one else is present. On a computer screen, the committee is ready to begin its questioning of the PhD candidate. Bagheri, who is defending her thesis on black box optimisation problems, is the first Leiden PhD candidate to defend her thesis fully remotely. 

Bagheri is taking everything in her stride: ‘Everything is in lockdown, so I was lucky to be able to reserve a conference room at TH Köln, where I work now. The internet connection here is a bit more reliable than the one at home. It’s an altogether strange situation to be in.’  

For the beadle, it’s also new. After Sanne Willems defended her thesis with  a few members of the committee on a video stream, today is probably the first of many fully digital defences to be held in the coming months. Apart from the beadle, only the rector and a technical aide are present in the Academy Building. Nevertheless, the beadle has donned his toga and is determined to keep the ceremony as traditional as possible: Technology is a great help, but it does take a bit of getting used to.’

The rector sits in an empty auditorium, the committe and candidate behind him on a computer screen

Black boxes

Even though the committee members are not in the same room, their questions are no less challenging. Bagheri has spent the past years studying black box optimisation problems. Black boxes are a type of simulation used to model things that are too complex to be described by a regular mathematical equation, such as airplane wings or car crash tests. 

‘These calculations take up so much time because they have to take a huge number of parameters into account’, Bagheri explains. ‘When you want to simulate a new type of airplane wing, you have to simulate all possible types of material, the shape, the size and so on. That costs a lot of time and money, so there’s a real drive to be able to do it as efficiently as possible.’  

Samineh Bagheri at TH Köln during the promotion.


And that is precisely what she has done. In her thesis, Bagheri proposes several improvements. One of those is an algorithm that builds upon each previous design. Instead of calculating all single possible designs, the algorithm takes a base design and improves it step by step until the outcome satisfies the demands. Bagheri: ‘Instead of letting an algorithm run for ten days, we can check after a day if the result matches the requirements and stop there, saving time and money.’  

After 45 minutes of questioning, the beadle walks into the room and his voice chimes through the computer with the traditional ‘Hora est’. The committee retreats for a short deliberation after which Bagheri is awarded her PhD title. The diploma is to arrive in the mail later. The video link is closed, the computer shut down. It’s time to celebrate, but what can you do if you’re stuck at home? ‘I think I’ll bake a cake’, the new doctor says. 

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