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Passion only takes you so far

Published Dec 21, 2010

He is striving to obtain the perfect combination of new features in a small size, at a low cost to carry out portable tests for cancer, bacteria or viruses. It must produce results in minutes. The newly-fledged professor of Microsystem Technology Wouter van der Wijngaart had to hit the wall to understand that passion alone was not enough to cope with his growing workload. He needed mental training as much as physical exercise.

Wouter van der Wijngaart, newly-fledged professor of Microsystem Technology
Wouter van der Wijngaart, newly-fledged professor of Microsystem Technology

“As a PhD student you are only trained to focus on research excellence in your field. But when you become a researcher, even more so as a professor, you are suddenly supposed to lead people, in my case eight. How can you do this if you have never done it before?" exclaims Wouter at the end of the interview when I am about to leave. So I sit down again and take out my note pad.

For Wouter it was a real wake-up call, going from being a PhD student to being a researcher. He had 15 projects going and everything was spinning faster and faster. One morning he woke up and felt like crying. For no apparent reason. As he had seen other colleagues crash under the pressure and he knew that it was just going to get worse, he resolutely called the nurse at KTH.

“I told her, I’m depressed, I have too many projects and I need to learn how to manage my time."

After two sessions with a psychologist he was back on track and had avoided burnout.

Need for people and management skills

“We really need mental training as much as we need physical exercise to get better at something. I think that everyone should go to the psychiatrist once a month to clear out what is not longer working and learn new ways. I should do it myself…but then the time…"

Today he tells his co-workers when he sees it coming: they seem to be caught in a spiral where they are working more and working faster as they become more and more gloomy.

“I really think that any PhD programme should include training inputs in time and people management skills as a part of the education. It would make students so much more prepared to become researchers or work in industry.”

However, Wouter himself obtained a lot of unexpected management training when he started his own company in 1999, at the end of his PhD studies. In order to launch a successful product – an application that allows people to park their car and pay via their mobile phones – he had to learn how to manage people, quickly. But he also gives a lot of credit to Göran Stemme, Head of Microsystem Technology.

“As a researcher I’m driven by my passion – I have never planned anything in life! – and I didn’t plan my career as much as I focused on developing new, useful systems, Göran was always there proactively guiding me. When I was a researcher he said `but shouldn’t you become a docent´, and when I was a docent he suggested I become a professor and so on. He took me to the next level.”

Loves seeing ideas taking form on paper

As a little boy, however, Wouter already knew he would become a researcher.

“If you asked me what I wanted to be when I was 10, I would have said physics researcher or microbiologist. Now I am microsystem researcher, with a close connection to microbiology and its applications, although I did not actively plan to get where I am.”

Although for the time being he is thoroughly enjoying his part-time parental leave with his one-year-old daughter, he misses work often and feels happy when he gets down to writing a paper or a research application. He simply loves the process of seeing ideas taking form on paper. He was a passionate writer even as a young boy: when his teacher asked for a short piece about his summer holidays, W handed in ten pages.

His passion for what words can create is evident when asked about his research. He spends a full fifteen minutes drawing an illustration on the whiteboard and gives about ten analogies of what microsystem technology is. So what is it that makes him so passionate?

“Developing novel systems that can do things that could not be achieved previously excites me,” he says frantically searching for a paper that has the perfect explanation of the triangle on MEMS, Microelectromechanical Systems, he just drawn on the whiteboard.

Challanges of novel features for diagnostics

MEMS is everywhere. Take a towel for example. It is the micro structures in the fabric that suck the water from our bodies. If the fibres in the towel were bigger, the towel would not dry. Or take the droplets on the ink printer, it is also a micro system shooting droplets into letters on paper. Or movable games in phones. With the next example his eyes widen and fill with excitement.

“The challenge is to take novel features, like a nanoscale membrane, and press water through it. On this scale the water starts behaving differently and exhibits a voltage as it is electrically affected by every molecule of the membrane it is being pushed through.”

What could a membrane like this be used for? He cannot tell as this research is still in its infancy, although his smile reveals he is onto something. Because Wouter has mainly worked on research that is directly applicable in people’s everyday lives: point of care diagnostics, a small portable test, also called lab on a chip, for detecting blood poisoning, allergies or winter vomit disease from, e.g., blood, breath or environmental samples.

In one of his latest projects, within the research consortium Intopsens, Wouter and his colleagues are working on a microfluid effect to filter out bacteria from blood. This diagnostic technology, using optical sensors, has the potential to revolutionise hospital lab testing. Today hospitals have to culture blood for days to be able to test what type of bacteria is in it and how to treat it.

“On a micro-scale we filter out the bacteria from the blood and we get the test results in an hour instead of days. So far we have tested it in theory, now we are realising the theory."

What do you dream of in terms of results and applications?

“I want to make things that are really useful in people’s daily lives. In my case: bringing the strange physical reality of the micro and nanoscale into use in our daily, macro scale life.”

Read more about Wouter van der Wijngaart's biography, projects and publications

For more information, contact Wouter van der Wijngaart, 08-790 6613,

Marie Androv