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PhD Defenses around the world: Tinkering at a defense in Delft

Today, I am sharing with you a translation that I made of a post by Rolf Hut. Rolf is a scientist at Delft University of Technology. He solves his problems using a MacGyver attitude, builds measurement devices using scavanged parts from consumer-electronics, connects existing online data sources to answer relevant scientific questions and encourages his students to learn by discovering, building and doing. He is a public speaker on science and technology. He writes a monthly column in the Dutch national newspaper “De Volkskrant”. He hosts workshops for audiences ranging from festival-goers to primary school kids. His workshops show, hands-on, that technology is fun and that technology is for everyone, not only for beta-nerds. He calls himself, most of all, endlessly curious.

You can read the original post in Dutch here.

My mom looks at a LEGO-sumo-wrestling robot with frustration, asking out loud: “And why is he now turning in the wrong direction?” Meanwhile, my friends are strengthening a miniature version of a dyke with hairspray, and my colleagues are admiring plasma sparks from a grape in a microwave.

The best moments of the day of my PhD defense were not your regular “hora est” or the commencement ceremony. I must say: I enjoyed defending my thesis, the speech of Prof. van Giesen*, the many congratulations and gifts and great party. But the icing on the cake were the workshops for friends and family.

graduation speech

After my defense and reception, Olivier Hoes, Felienne Hermans and John Cohn gave an entire afternoon of workshops to give my friends and family and idea of the fun parts of my work. In the water lab, Olivier instructed two groups to build a small dike, strengthened with hairspray or gel. Then, he let water flow over the dike, and the dike that remained standing longest was the winner. Fun competition, but also an important observation: breaches start at the polder side of the dike! Felienne arranged a few LEGO-mindstorm robots through the firstlegoleague. She invited all to improve a sumo-robot. Interesting to see that some immediately turned to the software, whereas others to the hardware. John Cohn gave a “Do Try This At Home” presentation in which you showed that you can put steel-wool in the microwave, can make a catapult with pvc, hairspray and a grill-lighter, or a “Harry Potter flame” with boric acid and white spirit.

strengthening a dike with hairspray

In all acknowledgments of dissertations I read that friends and family are essential to finishing the PhD. Therefore, I would like to ask every PhD candidate to give back to their friends and family on the day of their defense, and organize an activity for them, to show them what you worked on for the last 4 years, to show them how fun science is. But above all: to give your friends and family a great day.

dike collapse

PS: My workshops took place in lecture rooms and labs that were vacant at the time. Olivier, Felienne and John participated at no charge because they enjoy showing people more about their work. Except for some groceries, organizing these workshops cost me mostly time and barely no money. The cost for university is at most an opportunity cost, because colleagues participated while they could have been doing “real”** work.

PPS: In encouraging these activities, in my opinion, universities can play an important role on the institutional level. Not by making it part of the policy, not by developing a form for the request for approval to give a workshop – but by sending an email to all employees that says: “these kind of workshops are fun and good for the image of the university. If it fits within your tasks, go and give a hand. “Real”** work has the priority, but if it suits you, we think it is OK if you participate in these workshops.” In other words: universities can help by creating a culture in which these initiatives are encouraged, not punished.

PPPS John Cohn wrote a short blog post about this topic too.

*nice hat!
** research and teaching

electrocution of a dill pickle

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