Ten leading ladies

A case of discrimination or not? That was the question asked when TU Delft announced that it was going to look for talented women: scientists who would get the chance of a tenure track in Delft in order to accelerate their careers – the aim being to raise the dismally low number of female researchers in Delft.

The university found ten women who are positively bursting with ambition.

Outside, there is snow, sun, and freezing temperatures, while a crackling hearth fire and a modest group of networking TU employees generate warmth indoors. In the Art Centre on Rotterdamseweg, seven of the ten female scientists that the university has recruited for a TU Delft Fellowship are ready to deliver their brief pitch.

The atmosphere is relaxed, and the newly appointed academics are talking with their mentors and the members of the selection committee who appointed them for a tenure track leading to a permanent position as assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor. Among those who sat on the committee were rector Karel Luyben, dean of the Faculty of Architecture Karin Laglas, chairman of the Dewis women’s network Isabel Arends, and head of human resources, Nynke Jansen.

HR programme manager Johan Verweij was also a member of the committee. At Jansen’s request, he can tell us the actual percentage of women of the total academic staff. He mailed the information the next day: in 2012, women accounted for 24 per cent of all assistant professors, eleven per cent of all associate professors, and eleven per cent of full professors. The TU Delft scores in this area are notoriously low (although it is not the only university of which this can be said).

Helping hand

This was ultimately the reason that the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (the former Dutch Equal Treatment Commission) ruled that TU Delft was not discriminating illegally when recruiting for the fellowship. The ruling was in response to a complaint. In practice, the degree to which women lag behind is so great that giving them a helping hand is a matter of necessity. Verweij explains, “It was not that simple, though. On two occasions, we had to hand over a huge amount of information to the committee before they came to a decision.” It is intended that all this effort will mean that at the end of this year, twelve per cent of the full professors, fifteen per cent of the associate professors, and thirty per cent of the assistant professors will be women.

Of the ten women who have now been appointed, two are full professors, two are associate professors, and six are assistant professors. They are spread across seven faculties, all except Aerospace Engineering. As well as their salaries, they will be receiving three hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, and one hundred thousand euros respectively to set up their research projects. It is notable that only one of the women has the Dutch nationality. Their average age is 36.4 years, the youngest fellows being 33, and the oldest 49. Half of the interviewees preferred not to state their age, which explains why they have all been omitted.

Two-thirds of the costs of the fellowship are being paid by the Executive Board, with the remainder being made up by the faculties to which the scientists have been appointed. Depending on the level at which they enter, the university will be making between 10.5 and 14 million euros available for a total of twenty fellowship participants. Another ten (at the most) female scientists will be appointed to the fellowship in 2014.


Heike Vallery (assistant professor at 3mE)

Nationality: German

Researching: robots that can help people walk and that do so in as unobtrusive a way as possible. For example, Vallery is researching a device that helps people retain their balance. The device should preferably fit into a rucksack and only start working if when people are at risk of falling. The researcher spends eighty per cent of her working hours in Delft and twenty per cent in Abu Dhabi, where she started work at the Khalifa University in July 2011.

Maria Santofimia (assistant professor at 3mE)

Nationality: Spanish

Researching: the characteristics of metals at a fundamental level. “At the micro-level, metal consists of different components. I am conducting research into how these components are formed and how they influence the characteristics of a metal.” Together with industry, Santofimia is using this knowledge to develop new metals. “Tell me what characteristics you need and I will tell you what structures to use.” In the past, the researcher has won a Vidi grant and an ERC starting grant.

Philomena Bluyssen (Full professor at Architecture)

Nationality: Dutch

Researching: the quality of the indoor environment in buildings and the possibilities of improving it by taking the wishes and needs of users as her starting point. Her published work includes the book, ‘Indoor Environment Handbook: How to make buildings healthy and comfortable’. Bluyssen is married and has two sons, aged 13 and 9.

Hayley Hung (assistant professor at EEMCS)

Nationality: British; her parents come from Hong Kong

Researching: how machines can be used to understand human behaviour. “For example: we want apps that can tell us whether someone really is being friendly, or just pretending.” Hung talks to architects about positive behaviour and well-being in public spaces. How can machines identify and affect particular types of behaviour without eavesdropping? Until recently, Hung was working at the University of Amsterdam and intends to continue living in that city. “I have come to Delft because there are a couple of female role models here I can look up to. And of course the one hundred thousand euros for research helps too.”

Wioletta Ruszel (assistant professor at EEMCS)

Nationality: Polish; grew up in Germany

Researching: as a mathematician, Ruszel is creating models of processes on random structures at the fundamental level, such as the communication between neurons in the brain. Neuroscientists are able to use the models in order to understand certain dynamics in the brain. The researcher came to the Netherlands in 2006 and first worked at the University of Groningen.

Elisa Giaccardi (full professor at IDE)

Nationality: Italian

Researching: “Social media are intolerable and non-sustainable,” said humanities specialist Giaccardi in her pitch. What did she mean by that? “Social networks have a great deal of potential, but the way in which the current interfaces have been designed means that they actually disrupt the flow of everyday life. That has to change.” The researcher spent the last three years working in Spain, and before that in the United States and Great Britain, always in computer science departments. One of the projects Giaccardi is now working on is with Volkswagen, the aim being to design a shared car in which users can leave their personal stories so that the car connects people.

Rafaela Hillerbrand (associate professor at TPM)

Nationality: German

Researching: the philosophy of science and technology. Examples of Hillerbrand’s work are computer simulations of everyday scientific and engineering practice. She is also working on uncertainty in climate models and the relationship between energy-related technology and (social) life cycle assessment. According to Hillerbrand, this latter term cannot easily be explained in one sentence. Hillerbrand has obtained two PhDs, both summa cum laude – in philosophy 2003 and in physics in 2006. She already held a position of junior professor at Aachen University. In addition to other duties, in 2011 she was an advisor to the ethics committee of the federal government, which deals with safe energy provision.

Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam (assistant professor at AS)

Nationality: Canadian

Researching: the movement of proteins in membranes. “Important processes take place in membranes. The toxins from bacteria are transported through membranes by passing proteins. This is how toxins are injected into our cells. If we can understand how that works, we can use the same strategy for introducing medication into cells. There are always new methods needed for doing this.” It sounds complicated; however, Aubin-Tam believes her greatest challenge in the next few years will be to successfully combine her work and private life.

Nuria Llombart (associate professor at EEMCS)

Nationality: Spanish

Researching: how the number of photons that end up in the detectors of teraherzt antennae can be maximised. That increases the sensitivity of the antennae, which can be used in space and for security purposes, to detect weapons for example. Llombart has already worked in the Netherlands, as a PhD student at TNO. In recent years, she worked at the American Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which carries out research for NASA. The Spaniard is pleased to be returning to the Netherlands. “The Netherlands offers a good compromise between work and private life. You do not have any holidays in the United States. I have a one-year-old child. Employers here recognise the importance of this.”

Miren Vizcaino (assistant professor at CEG; starting on 1 March 2013)

Nationality: Spanish

Researching: the relationship between continent-sized glaciers and the climate. Vizcaino would like to ensure that these ice caps become a standard part of climate models, as the water melting off them will cause sea levels to rise. She is currently working for the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research of Utrecht University. Vizcaino got her PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. She then worked as a postdoc at Berkeley.

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