“As I was cleaning at my parents’ house a few years ago, I found an old essay I’d written when I was about 10 years old. That particular essay was about my three biggest wishes at that moment, and my first wish in that list was becoming a professor.”
A KUL alum, researcher of computer graphics and vice-dean of the engineering department, professor Philip Dutré looks, dresses and talks like someone that should be writing book reviews for The New Yorker rather than teaching first year students about the beauty of Quick Sort. As a former student of his, I can’t help but feel awe. Awe at how this accomplished man was once a ten year old with dreams of becoming a professor, instead of a cowboy or fireman like all other ten year olds. I guess with his father being a professor of mechanics here at the KUL, his love of the university campus and teaching must have a genetic component to it.
Seeing as his dad was a professor of mechanics, one would have expected that he would have followed in his footsteps. When I asked him about his choice of field he said: “I think I was always subconsciously interested in the field that I am now. One of my desires when I was younger was creating new virtual worlds, and most people with that kind of creativity usually go into the arts, but since I was a “science kid”, I went down the path of computer graphics. Of course, once you actually start to do research and go into the details of the algorithms and mathematical equations, you see that it’s quite far from the original romantic motivation that inspired you to go into the field in the first place.”
While we were on the topic of him being a “science kid” with an artistic side, I asked him about his taste in art and literature. “My taste in art matured, it never really changed. I’m very interested in late 19th and early 20th century art, because it goes together with certain inventions in technology. Also because it ties into my interest in how you express an idea, be that through a visual medium or through an algorithm. That’s one of the main reasons I’m interested in impressionism and abstract art, because it’s mainly about the idea that the artist wanted to convey. About literature… I’m not a big literature reader to be honest. I mostly read history books and biographies that are usually science-related.” As a person that took the book recommendations he posted on Toledo last year I can attest to that, “Although… My one guilty pleasure continues to be reading Tolkien. I’m even part of a Tolkien book club. I first read Tolkien when I was around 15-16 years old. I was never a fan of the movies though. Those books were really eye-opening for me at the time because it was the first time I had ever read something like that, so I think that’s why it continues to have a special place in my heart.” Having been a geek before it was considered “cool”, he did appreciate the fact that science-based TV shows and movies have started normalizing researchers and scientists in general. After all, movies and TV shows do have an effect on people, as he even says about himself: “I think one movie that really affected me quite a lot was Apollo 13, with Tom Hanks. I’ve watched it maybe 6-7 times, because it made me view the engineering profession in quite a different way. What really affected me personally as a teenager, was the TV show “Cosmos” that was hosted by Carl Sagan. It was a real eye-opener for a teenager in the 80s.”
For a person to be accomplished enough in their career to be a researcher, professor and be working with some of the most famous animation studios such as Disney, Pixar and Adobe, you would expect them to have made a lot of sacrifices along the way. Of course, as is the case with most academics, this is true here. Time that could have been spent on hobbies is always cut short, choices such as changing countries are made. But of course, if someone loves their profession as much as professor Dutré loves his, the work put in it does not count as a sacrifice. A question in people’s minds at this point may be: how much did this man have to study to get here? Well… “Quite a bit, and quite hard. So here in Leuven, engineering sciences is 5 years. For the first two, I studied really hard and barely went to any parties. That changed a bit during my third year, but even then I studied quite hard. I don’t see myself as someone that has a natural genius. In my case it was always perspiration rather than inspiration to get somewhere.”
Even though he was very busy with his studies, he was always active with the student organizations. This makes him understand how much students appreciate him donating his time to them. He accepts invitations to student-organized events, interviews and the like but all within limits. “There should be no artificial boundaries between students and educators, but I cannot befriend students because in the end I do have to grade them impartially. So, I am friendly with the students, but I am not their friend. That being said, I am not going to reprimand a student if they send me a funny email or something related to my hobbies or research field that they thought I would appreciate. But there should be no academic boundaries between students and professors of course. I put a lot of effort in my lectures and I always appreciate it when students ask me questions. Having them have the “AHA!” moment is one of the most rewarding feelings you can have as an educator. But of course, students have to also respect the amount of work I put in the lectures, and not play games or gossip during my lectures. That’s just rude.” As a former student of his, I can attest to the work he puts in the lectures and the planning of the subject. They are always planned out so that the base of the subject is learned during the lecture and exercise sessions and then that base is taken a step further in the exams.
Did you know, you can follow professor Dutré on Twitter? As a private person of course, not a professor even though being a professor is deeply ingrained in him. I did ask him what effect social media had on the expectations people had of him: “I quit using Facebook a few years ago, because I read through the entire User License Agreement and I didn’t quite agree with it,” Let me highlight ENTIRE again here. I doubt anyone has ever even read a full sentence of that thing. “I’m still active on Twitter, and I see that as me posting as a private person, but you can never detach yourself from being a professor. So, I always try and be as diplomatic as possible when voicing my opinions so nobody gets offended. What I sometimes do in a humorous way is give feedback on exams, student life and so on but I’m careful to never do it personally or shame students because I don’t want them to feel bad. Whenever I tweet about the exams it’s always shifted in time, so I always tweet about them one exam period later. What I also do sometimes is combine different experiences in one tweet.”
The pressing question nowadays, why aren’t there more women in STEM and how can we get more interested? “Well, like I tell everyone who asks me this, if you have the magic answer and solution to it you should send it to me. I am involved in the activities that try and attract students to our faculties, but the percentage of women to men somehow always remains the same even though we try and raise the percentage of women. And I honestly really don’t know what the answer is. Some may say that it starts in secondary school but I really don’t think that’s true because when you look at the statistics of people taking science classes in high school you can see that it’s roughly 50-50. But it may be partly because of stereotypes. When you ask people what an engineer looks like, they’ll usually say a man wearing a hard hat and boots and walking around a construction site. Also, maybe there are still some societal pressures. I don’t have the right answer for it, but I do want to be part of the solution because modern society needs more engineers and scientists. The fact that we still don’t have a 50-50 distribution means that we are missing out on a lot of potential. I have talked to female colleagues about ideas and advice, but what we should really do is talk to women who thought about studying engineering and then decided against it, and find out why they didn’t follow through on their original idea. But that is a group of people that’s very difficult to find of course. But it’s also a worldwide problem, it’s not just one or two universities.”
His advice for students and future students? “Have an educated opinion on what the most beautiful thing in every field should be. And just follow what’s interesting for you. As long as you’re a student, do whatever you want, within limits of course. You have a lot of freedom that you don’t always realize you have until you stop being a student and start working. It’s always something I tell my students, as long as you have the time, try and explore different things, also outside your field of study. Keep a broad mind basically. I, myself even still try to do that.”
Research areas include: Computer graphics; rendering algorithms; photo-realistic rendering; image-based rendering; point-based rendering; perceptual-based rendering; material models for computer graphics; 3D graphics; intuitive controls for computer graphics