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'Maths is just plain fun'

Gianne Derks is the MI’s new scientific director from 1 May. She has worked abroad longer than in the Netherlands and, after more than 27 years in Surrey, she dreams in English. Who is this new director and who or what managed to entice her to make the move to Leiden?

Gianne Derks
Gianne Derks

Your career runs from Eindhoven to Twente, to California, Vancouver and finally Surrey in the UK. Why Leiden now?

‘The vacancy immediately really appealed to me. What convinced me was the emphasis on teamwork. That is something I find very important in my work, I like working with other people. And furthermore, I like the fact that this is such a broad faculty, all natural sciences are represented. For my research, I also collaborate with other disciplines and that is very easy here in Leiden. And I already knew Leiden a bit; I have been working with scientists from the MI and LACDR institutes for a long time. In 2014, I was a guest of the MI for three months.’

What are your plans?

‘Step one is to talk to people. First, I want to get to know the institute and my new colleagues. And I am also looking forward to working with the other academic directors. What's going on in the faculty and how can we connect with it from the MI?’

Which discipline is logical for the MI to collaborate with?

‘Traditionally, mathematicians collaborate a lot with colleagues from physics and computer science. Nowadays this has expanded quite a bit, such as to biology and chemistry. For my own research, for example, I collaborate with people from biopharmaceutical sciences. But you can also think outside the natural sciences, such as criminology or art. You can use mathematics everywhere.’

Why did you start studying mathematics?

‘As a seventeen-year-old I went to open days to hear more about the studies physics and chemistry, but I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, we had a good dean at our high school. He asked me what I liked about physics and chemistry and then explained that I was actually saying I liked maths. And that did indeed work out very well during college.’

What kind of director are you?

‘I find it important to talk to people and see if we can come to a consensus together. I think it’s important that everyone is heard before I make a decision. Sometimes I might end up making choices that are not immediately obvious, but then I hope I can make it clear why it’s going that way.’ 

What is it like as a woman in mathematics?

‘When I started studying mathematics, there were very few other women. It wasn't a logical choice for girls at the time either. Fortunately, I am a bit stubborn and dared to follow my own path. At the time, I thought: in 30 years, it will be different, I will contribute to that. But when I look around me at a conference these days, I am still one of the few women present.

It’s not that we necessarily have to have a lot of women or men. But I think diversity is important. It gives you a broader way of thinking. That's good for science.’

Do you like to share some things about your private life? Do you have any hobbies?

‘I love my garden very much. My partner and I are now looking for a house in Leiden and the surrounding area and that house must have a garden. In England, I had a garden with some vegetables and fruit. I don’t know if that will work here, space is limited. But it doesn’t have to be big. Just some plants and flowers, then I’m happy.

And I really like walking. In England you could walk fantastically, so I’m going to miss those hills. But I get the sea and dunes in return.’

How does your partner feel about this change?

‘He’s fine with my move. He will continue to work in London for now. That’s suboptimal, shall we say. Next year he will have a sabbatical so we can land here together. My partner is also Dutch and we like having the Netherlands as a base again. We’ll see how we arrange things later. With remote working, more is of course possible than before and he has more colleagues living abroad.’

How English are you after all these years?

‘I have lived in the UK for 27 years. I think if you meet me in the corridor here, I will unconsciously start talking in English first. That has become standard by now.’

27 years. Then this is quite a change.

‘It certainly is. Of course I’m going to miss my colleagues and friends in Surrey. But I will get new ones in return. And after 27 years, I’m ready for a change. At some point, everything gets so ingrained and then it’s good to do something different. New stimuli, new challenges.’

What do you like about your job?

‘I like all aspects of my job: management, research and teaching. Of course, I have to make choices. So I won’t be teaching at first and will focus on the management aspect of my job first. But I really enjoy working with students, so I definitely want to return in time. I like to transfer my enthusiasm for mathematics and enjoy giving students the confidence that they can do it. Maths is just so much fun!’

Text: Christi Waanders - Photo: Pim Rusch

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