The Human Side of STEM: Professor Jos Vander Sloten

“The goal of this project is to break down the stereotypes about people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM, especially the stereotypes of the professors teaching in STEM. They may have very high expectations of their students, but at the end of the day, they are human, just like everyone else.”

As I walk to the office, I can’t help but feel like a high school student going to the principal. Of course, I’m some years out of high school, and the man I’m meeting today is far from just being the principal of a school. 

Born in 1962, professor Jozef Vander Sloten is a researcher in the field of biomechanics and a professor of applied mechanics in the department of engineering at the KU Leuven.

The goal of this project is to break down the stereotypes about people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM, especially the stereotypes of the professors teaching in STEM. They may have very high expectations of their students, but at the end of the day, they are human, just like everyone else. They have feelings, thoughts, ideas and have had experiences that some of us may never get the chance to have.

I clearly remember professor Jos Vander Sloten’s enthusiasm when he was teaching us applied mechanics. It was infectious. He could make a buzzing lecture hall quiet down without ever raising his voice. With his salt and pepper hair, soft voice and kind face, he resembles a man that works in the medical field rather than a professor of mechanics.

I sat down to ask him about his home life, his hobbies and interests to which he replied:

“I’m happily married, and have two children, who are well into their twenties already, which means they are out of the house. What I like to do in my spare time… well, as a professor sometimes there is not really much difference between the time you spend as a private person and the time you spend as a professor, so there’s not that much time left for hobbies. But I like to work in the garden, I have a garden of 6000 square meters so that’s quite a surface. I like to fly radio-controlled model airplanes, time-permitting, which of course is going down as the years advance. And there are 3 or 4 cats around the house, and I say it in this way because they are neighborhood cats.”

There are so many stereotypes for engineers and professors, and this person does not fit any of them. Except of course, for not having much time left for hobbies. Although this is a common complaint amongst people once having started their academic career. It’s not just professors that have a lack of time for hobbies. When you become a university student, there comes a moment when things have to be prioritized. Hobbies often fall to the bottom of the list.

I was personally surprised to learn that throughout his academic career professor Vander Sloten had never had a burn-out, or any kind of illness. He chalks that up to preventing illness, and to being able to manage his stress. As he said himself “No good decisions come from stressful thinking”.

As a professor, there are never moments where he gets sick of his job. There is always a new way of teaching to be discovered and tried, there are always new research fields that he can discover. There are however, moments when he has to deal with rejection, when projects he had been working on are not approved. “Sometimes, when you get a project proposal refused, yeah it gets quite difficult, but then when you look at the success rates of a project getting approval for funding then you start seeing that it’s not the end of the world and you get back on your feet and start again. There are always other chances after that.”

I asked him if there were any experiences that he particularly valued which had been open to him because of his job, his reply was simple: the international experiences. “…working internationally, when you go somewhere you have the possibility to meet locals, and have them show you the places that the tourists don’t get to see. When you go and visit new countries, you go see the laboratories of your colleagues and that’s something not a lot of people get to do. I remember some years ago, on a trip to Malaysia and Singapore, when the local people took me out on the countryside and the rainforest. Also the south of Thailand a couple of years ago was a marvelous experience, both scientifically and socially. I was working there with the biomedical engineering group at the Prince of Songkla University in the south of Thailand. They took me out to eat to the mountain-side, to a place that no tourists would go, and only locals would. There was a marvelous view of the city of Hat Yai and then they took me to the coast, to the islands, the mountains that come out of the sea.”

As a person that puts working internationally as one of the best experiences his job offers him, he also points out the importance of the local students having more contact with the international students. “This university is an international university, you have students from around the world studying here. But I think that we should strengthen the contact between the bachelor students from here and the international students from other faculties, countries and embedding the students more into the international atmosphere. We are living in a global economy. Students have to learn that there are different methods, and that they are able to bridge the difference between the methods.”

I’m not a big movie buff myself, but I do try to keep up with the current movie trends. Seeing as science has been coming more and more into the spotlight I wondered if it had had any effect on professor Vander Sloten’s career. When I asked him, his optimism was palpable. Finally, movies and TV shows are showing that science is not done in an ivory tower. They are finally showing scientists as real people, with lives outside of labs, not just as people who live in their offices and write down funny formulas and publish articles in journals that nobody reads. The movies are showing that science is not just funny formulas, but it’s the solution to real-world problems that we are facing today.

Of course, movies have also affected the way people perceive his research field. People that have watched “The Terminator” or “I, Robot” must be curious whether or not they’ll ever get robotic parts, and more broadly what they can expect from a future that is often labeled as belonging to adavanced A.I. and cyborg technology: “JVS: It’s a question that I sometimes get when I go and speak to organizations in the socio-cultural sector. The organizations for elderly people, for women, the university for the third age “Universiteit van de Derde Leeftijd”… it’s one of the questions that I often get from them. How much is that affecting our lives? Will medicine in the future be completely robotic and computerized? We will see that mechatronic devices and humans will work together more than now. We see it already in surgical robotics. The idea behind it is not that the surgical robots develop into completely independent surgeons themselves. It is a synergy between the human and the robot. The knowledge of the human, and the abilities of the robot must be combined more and more in the future. Humans can do some things way better than robots, so merging the two is the way to go in the future. That’s the way it should go. I would like to add that I really enjoy those presentations I make for the socio-cultural sector. The appreciation you get from them is amazing.”

One of my last questions to him was the topic of women in STEM. With his experience in the field, I inquired what he believed the reason to be for the unequal distribution of men and women in the STEM field. “I think it’s a general issue of perception. Perception from different sides. 17-18 year old boys and girls think that engineering is a male world, and medicine is a female world. These perceptions are sometimes affirmed by what they see around them, by the people in movies in TV shows and movies, and they continue the cycle. We had a project funded by the European Social Fund, about gender issues in STEM. One of the exercises was to ask 17-18 year olds to describe an engineer. The majority described an engineer as a man with a helmet and boots on. It’s the stereotypical positioning of engineers that is the challenge to overcome. If as a young woman, you think that you are quite good at mathematics, think about what problems you can solve by studying engineering. You’ll be able to solve problems in energy, transport, health, climate, rather than say you’ll just be able to build a bridge, program a computer etc. So maybe link engineering more to the application fields, and the problems, the societal problems you will solve by becoming an engineer rather than the direct outcome. But that’s just one of my ideas.”

Finally, I asked him whether he had any advice for students that are thinking of going into engineering. “It’s one of the best choices you can make. (…) The satisfaction you feel by being creative, that is something a common factor for most engineers. Don’t just do it for the money. I still remember one of the first days I was coming to the university, the infodagen, then called the “abituriënten dag”, the day for people who are leaving secondary school, and there was a speech by one of the professors, who was saying “Well my dear boys and girls, if you think you made the right choice in coming to engineering for the money I have to disappoint you. For that you have to open a frietkot nearby the station of Leuven. That’s the way to earn money. Not by studying and becoming an engineer.” Even then, money should not have been the primary motivation for a student, the satisfaction they feel when solving problems and helping a greater cause, that’s the real motivation for becoming an engineering.”

After having talked to him for about an hour, I finally left his office in the Arenberg Castle. I felt that I got to know this man who has achieved so many things and who strives to achieve even more a lot better. I got to learn that professors aren’t as closed-off and cold as people say and that they are always trying to improve themselves. Even though this man is busy doing research, and teaching and being the vice-dean for internationalization, he still found some time to be a part of this project. Teaching, hobbies and research weren’t his only passions though, making the campus more international was one of his passions and goals too. Hopefully, he won’t just be “that professor”, or “that guy” anymore, he’ll be professor Vander Sloten, human first, professor second.

Kondelina Zegali