'A lot of women inspire me'

8 March 2019

Maaike Damen became interested in the cosmos while at secondary school, and the magic of outer space has fascinated her ever since. As a policy officer with NWO, she is the link between NWO and ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. What does this job involve? And what can she say about the inequality between men and women in science?

Maaike DamenMaaike Damen

Maaike's passion for space was triggered when she read the book 'The Discovery of Heaven'. In this book one of the principal characters, Max, develops a theory about the origin of the cosmos. 'I was fascinated by his way of thinking and so started reading more about it and visited a few university open days, and so I became intrigued by images of colliding galaxies. I wanted to know more! And that’s why I decided to study astronomy.'

What is your job at NWO?

'I am a policy officer in the Earth Sciences and Astronomy team. I form a link between NWO and ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, who carry out ground-breaking research using telescopes. They recently discovered 300,000 new galaxies using the LOFAR low-frequency telescope. It was such a unique discovery, it made the news everywhere.'

Policy officer... its sounds a little dull?

'Not at all! I regularly travel to the beautiful village of Dwingeloo where I ensure that the people at ASTRON are kept up-to-date about the latest developments at NWO and vice versa. I am also helping NWO to rethink its core activities, which involves questions like: Can we afford to fund high-risk ideas? What is the best way to reward scientists for their work? How can we redesign our processes to make them faster, more efficient, more transparent, etc.? This has brought me into contact with many new colleagues which has been both fun and educational.'

What about the number of women in astronomy?

'I see the number increasing, especially among young researchers. When I started studying, about 10% of the students was female; when I graduated this had increased to 25%. It could be that more young women today are daring to take the leap and study science. Both men and women scientists make important discoveries. Maybe that, together with more visible role models, is what gives women the confidence to choose a career in science. Men and women are different and that is a good thing in lots of ways. However, if this leads to women and men being treated differently then that's something we need to be aware of. Events like International Women's Day can help to increase this awareness.'

Talking of role models... Who is your heroine?

'A lot of women inspire me. More women than men in fact! There is a fantastic series of posters of women who have achieved great things in science. I would like to add two women to this list who recently inspired me personally. The first is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish girl who has given legions of people a wake-up call with her message about the threat to our climate. She is so incredibly brave, especially if I compare her with myself and what I thought was important when I was 15.

The second is Zanele Muholi, as African artist, or visual activist as she prefers to call herself. She makes intense, personal photographs that pose critical questions about our society. Her bravery and the power of her photos make her a real hero in my eyes.'

You act too?

'The time I do not spend at work is precious to me, which is why I am very aware of how I spend it; with my sweet husband and children and my hobbies: reading, hockey and theatre. I'm a member of Imperium, an amateur theatre group in Leiden. I really enjoy getting under the skin of a character and being able to trigger people's emotions with a story. I'm currently on stage in the role of Agnes, a woman who is doing her utmost to preserve the balance she has carefully constructed for herself. But one day, due to all manner of external factors, she loses control. Agnes is certainly no role model, but I have come to love her nonetheless. I understand her need to maintain a balance. But it's also good to do something crazy occasionally. This applies equally to scientists, which is why I am so glad that NWO is becoming increasingly open to out-of-the-box ideas.'

Text: Milou Oomens | Doelgroep in beeld

Source: NWO