‘It's time to shine, for me and the faculty’

| Rik Visschedijk

Jennifer Herek succeeded Hans Hilgenkamp as dean of the faculty of Science & Technology (TNW) about six months ago. After a period of different roles within the UT, she enjoys the full attention that she can give the faculty. ‘We are in good shape, I can concentrate on making connections, letting colleagues shine and looking for cooperation within and outside the faculty.’

For the interview we meet in her house on the Langenkampweg in Enschede. She bought the house for UT employees two years ago, rebuilt it and moved in half a year ago with her husband and two sons aged 15 and 12. ‘Unlike the faculty, we are not yet completely in order at home,’ she points to bulbs without a lampshade and a moving box covered with a rug that serves as a table. ‘But that doesn't matter, we do everything in a timely manner.’


Everything in its time, it could be the leitmotif of this period in her life. ‘Last October I turned 50,’ she says. ‘That kept me busy because I felt that I was entering the autumn of my life. I thought a lot: what do I actually want, what do I find really important? In recent years I have had different roles, professor of Optical Sciences with my own group, dean at UCT / ATLAS and dean at the honors program. But also supervisor at the Student Union and member of the DesignLab Research Fellows. All fun to do and I learned a lot, but it was difficult to focus.‘

When the vacancy for dean at TNW was first released a year ago, she did not apply. ‘I was in my thinking process. Yes, I was asked to write a cover letter. But I wasn't ready for it yet. Moreover: if I aspire to this position, then it really has to come from myself instead of being asked for it.‘

The new dean for Applied Sciences was not found in that first round. A second round came after the summer. ‘Then I was ready,’ she says. Herek decided that with her experience as a professor, excellence programs and educational innovations, she had something to offer the faculty and that it would also be good for herself.

‘I walked in unplanned and said: Hans, I want your job’

Yet she spoke with almost no one about her plans, not even in the family, Herek says. ‘When I finally knew that I would be applying? In the Carré building I walked past Hans Hilgenkamp's room. He sat there alone. I walked in unplanned and said: Hans, I want your job. Then it was final, I'm going for this opportunity. In the run-up to my application, I only talked to the TNW secretary Anneke Kolhoop. From her I wanted to know if she was keen on working together. Her blessing, so to speak.‘

Herek gradually became convinced that the position would be good for herself, but also for the faculty. ‘We are in such good shape,’ she says. ‘And with the money from the sector plans we can set up new initiatives. I want to commit myself to making connections. This has already been set in motion with the clustering of TNW: chairs work together more. But there are more challenges. I want to bring people together, even where that may not seem logical and really make the crossover between chemistry, physics and health. In addition, I want to pay attention to personal development at all levels and create a more diverse and inclusive community.‘

Because of all those different roles at the UT, Herek now knows the tricks of the trade and played a role in it herself. ‘I thought it was important to give the Honors Dean position a prominent place at the cortege - the solemn procession of professors - during the dies natalis,’ she says. ‘Yes, I had that position myself. But I didn't do it for that. I think it is important for the UT if the deans and leaders of Pre-U, the Graduate School and DesignLab are given a visible place. That starts with official occasions.‘

‘I would like to write the letter on my birthday. That is the right time.’

Herek applied on her own terms. When she called the external recruiter about the position, she dared to ask a favor: ‘The deadline is a day before my birthday, but I would like to write the letter on my birthday. That is the right time.‘ The answer: ‘Good, but do it early, the application committee meets at eleven in the morning.’ The letter arrived on time, albeit with a typo in the first word. ‘When I saw it, I was frustrated. Subsequently, acquiescence followed: I am only human and that typo does not detract from the content.‘

Now, in the summer garden on the Langekampweg, she has finished her autumn process. For the first time in a long time, Herek can concentrate one hundred percent on one role: to further expand the faculty TNW with its collegiate board. ‘I have always found autumn the most beautiful period of the year,’ she says. ‘Certainly in the American state of Wisconsin, where I grew up, the colors are so beautiful.’

Time to shine

The season was a source of inspiration. At the start of her scientific career, Herek did research into Carotene, the molecule that for example gives a carrot its typical color and is also found in leaves. ‘In the summer it is dormant,’ she says. ‘Carotene is pushed into the background by others. But in the fall, when the molecules dabble around Carotene, it is time to shine and it brings out the typical autumn colors: yellow, orange, red and purple.‘

Here Herek sees an analogy with her own career. She did a lot and everything with passion, but never really sat at the table where decisions were made, or prominently in the cortege. ‘Now it's time for me to shine,’ she says. ‘I want to give that glow to the faculty: I want to hear from colleagues what they really want to do and help them achieve that.’

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