Published on: 01 November 2020
Written by: Lelia Erscoi

(but actually written by Jorrit Geels)

As a student in one of the most widely applicable fields, it is easy to lose yourself in the amount of options you are given. But why figure it out all by yourself? There are always others sharing the same struggles, both now and in the past.

I decided to reach out for advice to those who have been able to deal with my struggle in the past, our alumni. These kind people took their time to review their career for me: the choices they made, the problems they had to deal with, and what in the end made it all worth it. 

The format is very simple: they all answer the same 10 questions in their own way. No guidelines, no restrictions: their story.

On https://svcognac.nl/blog/132 and https://svcognac.nl/blog/136 you can find the first eight interviews. Today, on CognACs 30th Birthday, I present you the next four I received. For this special occasion, the two founders of CognAC joined to tell about their careers and experiences! A huge thanks to Ceci, André, Freek and Christie for being a part of this blog series.

The response to this series so far has been overwhelming! Lots of positive feedback, extremely pleasant to hear it is being received so well. Some responses:

Many of you also found it wholesome to read that the atmosphere in the TK has not changed one bit. I could not agree more!

I’m very curious to hear what you, the reader, take away from this blogpost. Please let me know through cogblog@svcognac.nl, so I can include it in the next edition!
Or…, if you are/know an alumnus/alumna (preferably 5+ years since graduating) that would like to participate in these blogs, please email me at that same email.

Enjoy the Lustrum!
- Jorrit Geels

 

Contents:

  1. Ceci Verbaarschot: Postdoc researcher at University of Pittsburgh.
  2. André Linssen: Functional designer at a steel factory.
  3. Freek van Teeseling: Lead of solution delivery team.
  4. Christie Steenbakker-Goetheer: policy advisor in elderly care & project manager for E-health solutions.

 

Ceci Verbaarschot

The 32-year-old Dr. Ceci Verbaarschot is a science enthusiast, tapdancer and an ex- CognAC board member. Even though her dream is to walk through New Zealand, she will travel to Pittsburgh where she will perform research on an artificial sense of touch, hopefully bringing her passion for comedy, music and art along. Keep on reading to find out what advice helped her through her PhD, and much, much more.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

To my surprise, I was the chair of CognAC in 2009/2010. I did not plan to become the chair. It happened quite spontaneously as it turned out that most students had voted for me (without my knowledge) to become the chair during a CognAC meeting. I was quite happily surprised J. The main reason that I dared to take this position was because it would be together with Rob, Remco and Jorn; I could not have imagined a better and fun group to lead CognAC with. During this year, I also took care of external funding, co-organised a CognAC study trip to Oxford and London and was part of the ‘Taarten commissie’ (Cake committee).

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

Rob, Remco, Jorn and me once went to a ‘bestuursborrel’ in Groningen on the wrong date. Funnily enough, there actually was a ‘bestuursborrel’ at the indicated location in Groningen, only not from an AI association, but from a law association. We did not realize our mistake until we faced the law study board in the bar. Regardless, we had a really good time there.

Having this down-to-earth and kind attitude, making the most of any situation, is in my memory typical of CognAC members.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

Enthusiasm sparks enthusiasm: seeing how much enthusiasm Pim Haselager, Iris van Rooij and Jason Farquhar had for their topics, made me want to know more. They taught me that science is like a playground.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

I am a postdoc researcher. Currently I am working in the Brain-Computer Interface lab of Peter Desain, but starting from October I will be working as a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh (USA), working with dr. Robert Gaunt. For this 2-year project, I got a Dutch NWO Rubicon grant to investigate and create an artificial sense of touch in invasive brain-controlled prosthetics. This sense of touch is created by invasive brain stimulation: by stimulation the brain, a touch on the prosthetic arm can feel as if it was a touch on your own body. However, what this artificial sense of touch actually feels like is yet unknown and will be the main topic of my project.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

I think the most important skills are a lot of enthusiasm for what you are doing and being able to work efficiently and independently. I believe the most important thing is to find out what you are really passionate about and go for it, don’t take no for an answer.

Next to that, I am really happy to have acquired both knowledge about the brain (during my CNS master), AI (bachelor) and philosophy (bachelor, master and PhD). I believe that combining viewpoints from different angles is very valuable in finding solutions and creating new ideas.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

I always wanted to travel more during my studies, but somehow it never really fitted in the curriculum until the end of my masters.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

The hardest thing is sticking to what you believe in and don’t be scared. There is a lot of pressure in science: you need to get grants, go to the best Universities, write many papers, publish in high-ranked journals, etc. People tell you that if you can’t get on the ‘right’ track, you will never make it in science. Moreover, everybody else always seems to do better than you (the ‘imposter syndrome’, that is well known amongst PhDs).

However, I refuse to be led by fear. I don’t know if I will ‘make it’ in science, but I will always go to work out of enthusiasm, because I want to find an answer to my questions, and not because I want to score a high rank paper or be the first to publish some new result. I believe science is about working together to find an answer to important and relevant questions. In working together, there is no competition, only cooperation.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

After high school, I actually went to the Music Conservatory in Tilburg to study piano. After a year, I switched to studying AI in Nijmegen, which was probably the best decision in my life.

After my bachelors, I wanted to know more about the human brain and did the CNS master.

I actually never thought that I would do a PhD, but I enjoyed my bachelor and master thesis projects so much that my opinion about this changed. After my PhD, I applied for a grant and was lucky enough to get it.

I always regret not being able to do it all. I would have liked to finish the Music Conservatory, do Art School, study math, study mechanical engineering and be a comedian on the side, but this is simply not all possible.

None of the steps I did, I regard as a failure. Even if things do not work out the way you want, you always learn from it (sometimes only simply that you did not want to do that).

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

You may think that the world will fall apart if you do not meet your deadlines, but actually, nothing happens, the world just keeps on turning and there is always a solution to everything. My supervisor said this to me during my PhD and it really helped my to deal with the stress of the final phase of my PhD. Also, when you feel stressed, it is sometimes best to take a break and do something completely different.

Last but not least: you cannot do more than your best (my mum).

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

Find out what topic you are interested in, acquire all the knowledge you need to work on that topic, and go for it. Do not wait for opportunities, but go and get them: e-mail labs and researchers and ask whether they can use help, apply for grants, etc.

 

André Linssen

André Linssen, 54 years old, graduated from Radboud University 25 years ago (back then it was still called Catholic University Nijmegen…). Over 90% of the current AI students were not even born then! What has André been up to in all those years, and what has he learned from all those experiences?

The participating alumni are always asked to fill in a small form of fun-facts for this introduction, where André said that he wished he knew some interesting facts about himself. One thing is for sure: after reading this, you will certainly know a lot of interesting facts about André!           

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

I founded CognAC with Freek van Teeseling. He was head of treasure and I was chairman. It was great fun and a turbulent time. It was the first year that Cognitive Science started as an independent program for students who passed their first year in IT or psychology. I learned that establishing something like CognAC is relatively easy once you are committed to it and when there are people willing to help you.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

There are a few moments:

•   We (CognAC) had organized a party where a band was playing which was formed by our own fellow students. This whole evening was great fun, there were a lot of people, and the majority wasn’t even studying Cognitive Science. Good PR! Good band, great singer.

•   The fact that so many students supported CognAC always gave me a special feeling about the whole study and its atmosphere. When I studied psychology I was one of many, when I studied Cognitive Science I was member of a small group of very different and enthusiastic people. 

•   The collapse of Tony Jameson’s hammock during a party at his house was also very memorable.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

Stay focused and stay critical, ask questions, evaluate. Don’t believe all the junk around you. Nonsense reduction is a core business of science.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

Nowadays I make functional designs and I am involved in architecture of IT systems. I started as an Oracle developer in 1997 and in 2000 I started to work as a free-lancer. I have worked for a lot of companies, varying from profit, to non-profit, banking, insurance, cable companies, energy companies, government agencies, pension funds and now lately a steel factory.  

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

Try to build a network of people that know what you do and what you are good at. Follow online courses that match your ambitions. Don’t stand still. Don’t specialize too much in one area. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

I wish I had travelled more during my study.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Other people. People are hard to convince, stubborn and sometimes unwilling to change. It requires a lot of patience and diplomacy to get your ideas across the table and into someone’s head.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

I started to work for a big IT company after I graduated. However, after five years I decided to start to work as a free-lancer. That wasn’t always easy, certainly not when the dotcom bubble imploded. However, thanks to my free-lance work I have seen al lot of companies from the inside. It gave me a lot of experience about how things work in different industries. It also gave me a lot of experience in intake interviews. The reason why I started to work as a free-lancer was because I would have to overcome my fear for intakes and adjusting to a different work environment over and over again.

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

I can remember five advises that still linger through my head sometimes:

•   If you don’t take care of yourself, nobody will.

•   Your brains and body are your best friends. (I started to understand the real meaning of this once when I was lost during a hike in northern Finland, close to the Norwegian and Russian border.)

•   Be humble but be good (deliver good results) (Stand out by good work, not by promising it. It helped me in the beginning of my career.)

•   Pick your fights carefully (We live in a world that is inundated by positivity and consensus. However, sometimes you have to make a stand and stick to it.)

•   There are no shortcuts (Ton Dijkstra was my mentor (I still grateful to him) when I wrote my thesis. He said this to me when he was less then remotely impressed about my progression. It pushed me back on track. Sometimes you need a kick in the ass to start moving.)

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

Do not pay attention to people who say you can’t do something. For example, sometimes an employer will try to nail you in one specific work spot so you might become a one trick pony. It’s important to set out your own course. Don’t blame yourself too much for mistakes, just move on. Self-criticism is one of the easiest things to outsource.

 

Freek van Teeseling

Freek van Teeseling also graduated from Radboud University in the previous decade; he did so in 1993. Freek likes looking for new challenges: without one, he gets very lazy. So, one day he decided to take on one of the greatest challenges that have faced him, together with André: start CognAC.

The first treasurer of CognAC has now seen a lot of corners within our field: he worked as a programmer, coach, project manager, sales, …. As was already clear, Freek is not afraid of taking on a new challenge, and pursuing his passions.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

In 1989, there was no CognAC, so both André and I decided to start a new study society for all Cognition students. It took a while, gathering funds, getting others involved, official paperwork, connections with professors and teachers and the faculty, etc.  Besides a lot of fun, it was one of the greatest learning experiences in my life. It showed me to be bold, never stop dreaming, and whatever it is you want, you can find help, and achieve anything.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

It is not just one memory. If I must choose, it will be at least 2 moments. The first one, going to the faculty professors to get funding. At first we were really, really nervous, Standing in the elevator in the Montessori Building, the air was filled with a mixture of remains of alcohol (we had a long night before) and the smell of fear, being the young inexperienced students we were then. But, we did it, we fixed it, got the money and started CognAC, which is still alive 30 years later. Something to be proud of.

The second memory is a very different one, walking around at one the first CognAC Parties, in café ‘t Haantje. Packed with almost 600 people, which is quite a lot when you have only 40 students in CogW. It showed CogW and AI people are very suitable to have parties with.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

Almost nothing is impossible! If you want something, make a plan, and go for it. It has nothing to do with being the smartest, strongest or richest. It is about having a goal and a plan, and not stopping before you reach your goal. Gather friends around you, work together, be nice and then you can achieve your goal, and have a lot fun getting there. And if the plan doesn’t work, change the plan, not the goal.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

I work for a software company, selling and delivering a model-based data platform. I work on business strategy, coach people, provide training, discuss product roadmaps, and “evangelise” our innovation vision to new customers or partners.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

Be a bit technical, learn how to think and solve problems, be the best in whatever you want to do, but also learn some social skills. During or after your bachelor, master, or any other course, invest in communication, learning about yourself, others, and things like group dynamics. Having an AI master’s degree gives you a great start in the world outside, but if you can’t at least sell yourself and work with others, it is all useless.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

I am probably going to counter everything I said before, but I wish I had paid a bit more attention in classes. Use your time to learn as much as possible, about any topic. Although a lot of fun, don’t waste too much time on some silly LAN-game on your mac.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Keeping up with innovation. Doing what you did before is easy, doing something new is a lot harder. But customers and colleagues will need you to keep up with them. So, I keep investing in learning, following courses, both online and in seminars. And occasionally I try to coach some (preferably A.I.) students. I have always done that and they keep me awake.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

I started off as a hardcore programmer, I’ve been functional designer, coach and teacher, software architect, project manager, manager, sales and probably some other titles too. None of these ‘steps’, even those not that successful, have been a mistake. I have always done what was the most fun or challenging at that moment. As long as you keep doing that, it is never a failure.   

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

Never go for the money, it the other option is more fun. My father told me to do whatever made me happy. And if you really want it, you’re probably good at it, and then success (and perhaps the money) will come to you anyway. It did.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

My motto is “Nothing is impossible, … although peeing in the wind is probably just plain stupid”.

 

Christie Steenbakker-Goetheer

Christie already wrote her introduction for me!

In 1997, 23 years ago, I started my studies in Nijmegen and after the first year of speech- language and technology I switched to Cognitive Science. After working in various IT-related jobs (application-manager, Workflow-designer, IT-coordinator) I found my calling in healthcare. I work as a policy advisor in elderly care and love to explore E-health opportunities that make life better for the frail elderly.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

I remember organizing a camping weekend in Lunteren. And playing Risk-tournaments in our favourite cafe Einstein/Funkenstein. Good conversations and tactics for the game is what I still recall.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

In pre-social media times we stayed in touch through IRC or by placing your lines on the “Cognac wall”, an online post-it board, built by one of the cognAC members. I was pleased to be part of this fun and helpful group of people, no matter what year you were in.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

Take matters in your own hands. I arranged my internship (final year of university) at Philips Research Aachen. I attended a seminar of speechtechnology and reached out to the speaker -who worked at Philips - by sending him an e-mail afterwards. This e-mail led to an interesting research on speech driven remote controls. Speech recognition was far from the consumer market back then.

Little did I know that 15 years later, my 3-year old son could “ask” YouTube to show him videos on garbage-trucks by tapping the microphone on our iPad and making a sound more like ‘vagtwaghu’ what Google understands perfectly.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

I work in elderlycare as a policy advisor. Apart from visionary reports on how healthcare is changing from nursinghomes back to living independently as long as possible, I stand strong for using technology as an aid for nurses and doctors in our field.

I am project manager for several E-health solutions like the Smartglass for nurses in the field who can contact a colleague or specialist through video calling on a small camera in the glass. I am also involved in a project on Serious Games with third party developer &Happy gamesolutions. They design games for people who suffer from dementia. While playing the game, the caretaker gains information on peoples personal favourites or dislikes in order to be able to understand their behaviour. My role is to connect the Social Workers with the game developers in sprints and video calls, to create the best product suitable for the field.

Working on the verge of care and technology is fun, rewarding and makes me happy.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

Patience and design thinking are two skills that come in handy when working in (elderly) care. Getting to know your organisation, the people you work with and know who you need to contact to be able to lift your ideas up to the level of Innovation. I was fortunate enough to be part of the first cohort of the Health Innovation School in 2017, funded by the minister of public Health (VWS) and carried out by the RadboudUMC Reshape Center. I would advise students to keep up with the technological developments by attending courses and expanding your professional network.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

No, I think I took on every possible opportunity that fitted my needs. I was chair of a foundation for exchange-students in Nijmegen, as a former exchangestudent in Canada I could still be around interesting people from different cultures.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Time management is a constant factor in my career. Raising a family with my husband (two kids 6 and 11), building a house, volunteering at school and clubs, and working 32 hours a week is a bit of a challenge. But other than that, it is very rewarding to work in public healthcare. I am proud of all my colleagues in the frontline who had to deal with Corona from very close by and who have the patience and the heart to care for our fellow citizens who have become frail and old.  

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

After graduating in 2002 I moved back to Zeeland, the province where I was born and raised. My love had bought his second house there and was in the middle of renovating while we met. His experience as a carpenter came in handy when the bathroom in my studenthome in Nijmegen needed a new floor. Job opportunities for academically educated people are somewhat more challenging in a rural area, but not impossible to find.

In the beginning of my career I took on jobs in IT with a social aspect like teaching or co-creating involved. When working for the local government seemed less and less challenging and I felt the need for change, a job opportunity in healthcare (people with mental and physical disabilities) came along. My last change of jobs – to elderly care- was 5 years ago and I still haven’t got the 5-year-itch. On the contrary, WVO Zorg is a developing organisation with the right mindset on innovation, and my job is fun and rewarding. Please check out our client, 105-years of age who enjoyed having a social robot around: https://www.pzc.nl/video/kanalen/pzc~c357/series/korte-reportage~s990/tilly-blij-met-gezelschapsrobot-buddy~p111022

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

“Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans.” Take on opportunities as they come along and feel comfortable for you. Be ambitious but also learn from others. In my time as IT-coordinator in care for people with mental disabilities I was inspired by prof. dr. Robert Schalock. He states that everyone is able to learn and can develop in life, as long as you have the right state of mind and are open to see it.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

The digital revolution is still growing exponential. If you’re interested in digital health, follow Lucien Engelen on LinkedIn or whatever platform he is on. He’s the founder of the Health Innovation School and a great speaker. https://storyofdigitalhealth.com/

Be inspired and be realistic. Take what fits your career and path of interest to become a happy AI Alumni.

Editor’s note: Christie also answered the bonus questions rather elaborately and with even more interesting fun facts. Here they are!

11.      Biggest achievement: Not AI-related, but a challenge non the less: my husband and I built a large farm-like house together. In 23 months we moved our family to a temporary home, created a wood-constructed barn to live in next to our house-to be. Started building our house from scratch in every spare minute of our time beside a 40-h (him) and 32-h (me) workweek. It is close to a definite finish now.

12.      Unusual hobby, habit, or character trait: I can recall all kinds of exotic paint colour names due to the work I did on the house: soft pearl, denim drift, early dew and sandy beach. You name it, I can combine it.

13.      Interesting fact about yourself: Before I was even graduated, I started my own business and taught seniors in the local library how to use the Internet. Startpagina.nl and search engine Ilse were hot topics back then. I guess I always had a heart for seniors and the elderly in general.

Lastly, she also sent me a link to a video in which she appears; she demonstrates two healthcare robots here. Check it out: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/wvo-zorg_zorgrobot-nooitmeerwerken-robotisering-activity-6713053250364420096-B1B1!