'Science is so much more than an old, grey-haired man’

8 March 2019

Amber Kerkhofs (32) has spent the last one and a half years working as a policy officer with NWO’s Mathematics and Computer Science department. In her free time she helps give young scientists a voice in ‘ScientistWanted’. Otherwise you will probably find her at the beach.

Amber Kerkhofs. Credits: HucopixAmber Kerkhofs. Credits: Hucopix

Amber and her partner just bought a house together. 'We have moved within The Hague to a place closer to the beach, which I visit frequently to walk, swim, kite-surf or play beach volleyball. I really appreciate being able to live in the same city that I work. I travel to NWO by bike, passing through the Scheveningse and Haagse forests. If it's raining too hard I'll wait a bit and come to work a little later, which is possible thanks to the flexibility of my employer!'

What do you like about your work?

'A number of colleagues and I are organising a major conference on the theme of ICT and computer science on 19 and 20 March. This conference was formerly only intended for scientists, but now we are trying to involve businesses and the government too. Scientists cannot drive the digital revolution alone; their research is the basis for applications that they hope will prove of use to the outside world. This is why we are encouraging more contact between scientists and the industry. I really enjoy organising new activities that mean something to the people who work in the field.'

Isn’t TNO a real man's world?

'It's true that the discipline of computer science and mathematics that I am currently involved in is dominated by men. This is also why we intend to make sure that women are given a voice at the conference. Sometimes it means we have to search a little harder to find a female keynote speaker or host for the day, simply because women are in the minority. I believe that only some 20% of researchers in the computer sciences are women.'

Why are female role models so important?

'The less women you see working in science, the harder it becomes for other women to think: "I can do that too". Ask a child what a scientist looks like, and they"ll probably say an old, grey-haired man. While there are so many fantastic female scientists! And the same goes for young scientists and scientists from other cultures. We can only change the picture that people have formed of what a scientist is by bringing them into contact with the wide diversity of scientists.'

How are you helping to improve the image of science?

'As a PhD student, I always enjoyed telling friends and family about my research, but I could have used more help to present myself to the outside world. When it comes to finding an audience, as a scientist, you are on your own. I decided this needed to change and established ScientistWanted. We help young scientists increase their visibility during a training programme that is conducted in groups of fifteen.'

What is the most important lesson for young scientists?

'Young scientists often tell me that they really like hearing what other scientists think about their research. Surprisingly, it's actually quite hard to talk to other scientists about your own work. You might be so engrossed by your own specific discipline that you forget that not everyone will understand the terminology you use. Take the word "receptor"; it occurred in almost every sentence of my research paper, but the outside world had no idea what it meant. So it's really important to learn to use layman's terms.'

What is your ambition?

'I am continuing to work on the development of ScientistWanted together with two enthusiastic PhD students and am hoping to hear good news from France in the near future; if the funding is approved, ScientistWanted will soon have an international sister!'

Text: Milou Oomens | Doelgroep in beeld

Source: NWO