Professor of Excellence: ‘I’m eager to find out how things work’

Aviation professor Max Mulder won the Professor of Excellence Award 2021. Who is he and what drives him? “My most important challenge is stepping back a bit.”

Max Mulder: “I could just as easily have been a history teacher.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

By Desiree Hoving

During the award ceremony, Rector Magnificus Tim Van der Hagen asked about the secret behind your success. He said that the award-winner not only needs to know everything about technology, but also human behaviour. Is he right?
“I think so. That’s not to say that I spend all my time analysing people, but, without being immodest, I think that I’m easy to get along with. I’m someone who likes to get people involved. I want people to be content, safe and for everyone to be respected.”

How come you’re so good at it?
‘Part of it’s about who you are and your upbringing. But it’s also partly because I have wider interests than many of my colleagues. Loes (his wife, ed.) always says: Max, you’re not really an engineer. And there’s some truth in that. I like doing sums and understanding how things work, but I could just as easily have been a history teacher. I find the Roman Empire incredibly fascinating and have a great interest in World War II.”

‘My discipline faces a big challenge: sustainability’

Does that teach you how people behave?
“Yes, exactly. By not only reading books about maths, but also books by all kinds of writers, you gain an understanding of the many different lives people have led.”

As a professor, you focus on human behaviour and technology. What exactly are you researching?
“My group is working on human-machine systems. We are aware that not everything can be automated in aviation. Humans need to continue to play a certain role as the ultimate problem-solver and supervisor of the whole system. How do you ensure that people are capable of that? We consider what information needs to be provided to the pilot in the cockpit and how and we develop some of the automation.”

Are there still improvements to be made, with hardly any air accidents happening now?
“The discipline is getting smaller, partly because aviation has evolved into an incredibly safe mode of transport. On the other hand, we now face a much bigger challenge: sustainability. Currently, that’s the biggest problem. It’s receiving a lot of research funding, which is something I totally welcome.”

‘I’m not the kind of person who grasps things really quickly’

What is your group’s greatest research challenge?
“In the Netherlands, we have a major airline and lots of people who need to train to fly. That’s why the simulator industry is so big here. With my group, I look at the technology: how can you create a simulator that gives a pilot the same feeling as in a real aircraft? It’s difficult, because a simulator is on the ground, with short supports that can only be pulled out so far. So, you have to do all kinds of tricks to give people the illusion that they’re really flying.”

When starting out as a professor and spending a lot of time managing research, you said that your greatest challenge was to keep up with the science. How are things now?
“My most important challenge is now stepping back a bit. I have younger staff members who partly work with me and partly work on their own research. I’ve always struggled with the fact that you can’t do everything yourself, because I like so many things. I’m always seeing interesting things that I want to become involved in. Obviously, I can’t, because I would get in other people’s way. I try to stay sharp by lecturing and writing my own publications.”

You have a reputation for being great at explaining everything in your lectures.
“That’s extremely important to me. I’m not the kind of person who grasps things really quickly. As a student, I always had lots of questions and wondered if I was the only one who didn’t understand. Fortunately, Delft has really changed since I started studying in 1986. I remember that if I didn’t understand something and went to the lecturer, they thought I was asking a stupid question. If you didn’t understand, you didn’t belong in Delft.”

Has the pressure to perform in terms of research and teaching increased over the years?
“That’s something I’ve never felt myself. I’ve been lucky in that. I usually managed to secure half of my grant applications. Ultimately, however, your role changes and the young people have to submit research proposals. The failure rate has risen dramatically. You now have to write eight proposals and maybe one will be approved, if you’re lucky. Looking at those young people, there are some amazingly clever ones whose talent is wasted because there is far too little money for research. I think that’s one of the biggest problems universities face.”

‘When I became a professor, I thought: what now?’

As a new professor, you said that life is very short. Why did you say that?
“You have to invest an awful lot of time in a university academic career. I’ve done that for much of my life. When I became a professor, I thought: what now? I can continue as I am, publishing more and writing papers, but I also wanted to do other things. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, so I’ve started doing that now.”

How is your piano playing now?
“It’s heavy going. I can just about hit the keys in the right order. But the tempo is difficult to learn, as is the dynamics of every touch of the key. So I can play, but there is little in the way of variation. When my piano teacher played the same piece, I thought: I might as well quit. But the only thing I regret is that I didn’t start sooner.”

Is there anything else you’d like to learn?
“Photography. It’s partly a craft, but at least you don’t need to have precision motor skills. Often, I’ll get really technical taking all kinds of photos with my amazing camera while Loes takes quick snapshots on her mobile. But her compositions often turn out so much better. Maybe I just wasn’t gifted with that talent, but I really enjoy doing it.”

‘Joy Division were the best band ever’

You’ve now worked here 28 years. What gets you out of bed every day?
“We always attract smart young students. That’s inspiring and an unbelievable luxury. Besides, the essence of research is that you’re always doing new things. I just happen to be incredibly curious and I really like figuring things out. What’s more, they pay me to do it. That’s just amazing.”

Where does that curiosity come from?
“In everything I do, I’m eager to find out how things work. I used to be really into music. Not only because I like music, but with some bands, I also wanted to know: where do they get that from? How did they come up with that? So I started looking at what music these bands listened to. Eventually I found music that made me think: that was someone who was doing something totally different! Take punk, for example, although I was more into new wave, because I found punk too simplistic. New wave was more romantic and for the doom generation, which is what I identified with. I thought Joy Division were the best band ever. I thought: wow, this really gets to me, where does this come from, how did they achieve that? I really loved figuring that out.”

In your speech after the award ceremony, you said people should remember that a professor of excellence is not just about your head and the content, but about putting your heart and soul into everything you do. How do you think this award will affect you?
“The first few days were really emotional. Afterwards, it was like I was on cloud nine. I was the friendliest man on earth and kind and lovely to everyone. I’ve put that behind me now. But I do hope to be able to apply my talents even more effectively for others. At the ceremony, I met several people who wondered what makes a good teacher. Perhaps I can help with the things that I think made me a good teacher. That will hopefully result in even more good teachers.”

  • CV
    The Delft University Fund awarded Prof. Max Mulder the title of Professor of Excellence 2021 on Thursday, 3 June. He is professor of Aerospace Human-Machine Systems in the department of Control & Operations at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering (AE). After his PhD (cum laude), he joined AE as an assistant professor, where he received a Vidi Grant in 2005. Nine years later, in April 2009, the Executive Board appointed him to the position of full professor. Prof. Mulder has supervised the graduation of some 330 students over the last 29 years. In addition to other nominations, he was made AE Lecturer of the Year in 2014. As supervisor and promotor, he has supervised almost fifty PhD candidates in successfully completing their research.

This article was previously published in Delft Outlook.

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