How HLF changed my life: Relinde Jurrius

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The COVID-19 pandemic forces us all to pause, reflect, and adapt. While the 8th Heidelberg Laureate Forum has been postponed to September 2021, this year’s Virtual HLF will take place from Monday, September 21 until Friday, September 25, 2020. Its motto: Traversing Separation.

An excellent opportunity to review seven successful years of HLF and to follow-up on some alumni and their path since then.

Who are you, where are you from and what is your scientific background?

2th HLF, Heidelberg 2014; Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/HLF

My name is Relinde Jurrius and I live in the Netherlands, where I am also originally from. I had a quite straightforward path to becoming a mathematician: both my studies and my PhD were in mathematics. My field of research is discrete mathematics and combinatorics, inspired by coding theory (see my previous HLF blog post for a longer description).

In which year did you attend the HLF and what were you doing back then?
I attended the second HLF in 2014. Two weeks before the event I had moved from Belgium, where I did a postdoc, to Switzerland, where I had just started as maître-assistante (a position in between postdoc and assistant professor). Also, the week before the HLF I was at another conference, so I vividly remember being very tired at that time!

What inspired you most during the HLF?
The talks of the laureates. Before the HLF I was looking forward to seeing Manjul Bhargava, and he did not disappoint. He spoke very calm, started out with easy stuff, and before we knew it we were deep in cutting-edge research. His talk is still in my top-3 of the best mathematics talks of all time.

What is your best memory you have from your stay in Heidelberg?
The closing dinner in Heidelberg Castle. First of all, because the setting was beautiful. But mostly because I was at a table with Vint Cerf. He is such an inspiring person! Here was this founding father of the internet, wanting to hear all about our lives and discussing our careers: it really felt like we, as participants, were very special people. I must still have Cerf’s signed business card somewhere…

What has happened in your life since then and in which position are you currently working?
I really enjoyed my time in Switzerland. I had a position with quite a few responsibilities in teaching and research, which prepared me well for an assistant professor position. The position was four years and during the last year, I found a position in the Netherlands. Since 2018, I am an assistant professor of mathematics and operations research at the Netherlands Defence Academy. This is not a regular university: our students are officers in training. This means they have periods of military training alternated with periods of classes. They study (military) engineering, so they have to learn a lot of mathematics in their first year, and more if they continue in the direction of operations research. It is a great environment to be in: it is a small institute so I know all my students by name, and you have the feeling that you directly contribute to society.

Picture/Credit: Netherlands Defence Academy

Apart from teaching I am free to do whatever research I like. I can visit conferences and publish my research. (Yes, some colleagues do secret stuff, but my life is not that glamorous.) It took me a while to get my research back on track after my move since there was so much teaching to prepare. But last year I started a great collaboration that kickstarted a lot of projects. It began with a workshop called Women in Numbers. Together with a colleague from Dublin I was a leader of a project group. We prepared a research project and participants were selected and assigned to research groups before the start of the workshop. During the workshop, we started attacking the problems in our project. We already had some results that week and we continued the collaboration afterward. We have just finished our first paper together and have another one in the making. From our group of five women also smaller collaborations formed.

Which advice would you give the next generation of Young Researchers?
Talking to laureates might be a bit scary: I remember feeling uncomfortable asking questions because there was already so much information about the laureates available. I was afraid I would sound like I did not do my homework. But no-one expects you to have remembered their whole CV. You can just ask something very general, anything to get the conversation started will do. Remember: not only are you attending because you want to talk to the laureates, but also the laureates are attending because they want to talk to you!

Relinde Jurrius on her HLF experience.

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your professional and private life?
The Netherlands was in an “intelligent lockdown” from halfway March till the beginning of June. Even though I have a big apartment with a good place to work and no one from my family and friends got ill, this was not an easy time for me. I live alone and it was difficult not seeing anyone in 3D. My partner lives in the United Kingdom (classic case of the academic two-body problem) and we did not see each other for months. We met in August, but travel restrictions became stricter again so next time will be… Christmas?
Having to work from home did not cause too much trouble. I had one class to finish online in the first three weeks of the lockdown, that was chaos, but after that, I had a period without teaching. Most of my research is with international colleagues anyway, so we just continued meeting via Skype. All conferences were canceled, that was sad, but I like that many online seminars emerged. I hope this becomes a tradition.
I started teaching again at the beginning of June, mostly in person. Because of the COVID measures, I had to teach each class multiple times: our classrooms are not big enough to fit all the students if we have to keep 1,5 meter distance. It was great to see my students again, but it was incredibly hard work!
Now I have rested again after some well-deserved holidays. By now, everyone is used to the COVID measures and planning becomes easier. The institute came up with a very good schedule that combines offline and online teaching. I look forward to a less stressful time.

What is the most valuable lesson the pandemic taught you so far?
I have always considered myself an introvert person, but it turns out I only like weekends alone on the couch if the rest of the week was filled with meeting people.
Also, it has become clear to me that organizing things is so much easier if everyone is at the office. You accidentally run into a conversation at the coffee machine that you can contribute to, or you go directly to a colleague with a question. These things just don’t happen online.

You have been organizing the math summer camp Vierkant voor Wiskunde for many years now. What is it that you enjoy most about inspiring children with math?
Actually, it is a bit selfish: talking about mathematics is one of my greatest passions. The kids that go to math camp are the perfect audience for that. They are interested in mathematics already (unlike some of my students…) and they want to absorb as much information as they can. It is great to challenge them to discover new things by themselves and to see their enthusiasm if they understand things.
As you can imagine, most of these kids don’t have a lot of classmates that like mathematics as much as they do, so the summer camp is also a place to meet like minds. Many kids come back year after year: by the time they are in the last years of high school, the age group I usually go camping with, they come not just for the mathematics but also for the friends they made over the years.

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Jens-Steffen Scherer is a neuroscientist, science communicator, and moderator. Besides pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oldenburg, he works for the National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik) and the Südwestrundfunk (SWR). In 2018 Jens-Steffen won the 8th Science Slam of Oldenburg. LinkedIn

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