With Subramaniam as new president, the university is bringing in a ‘heavyweight’, says UT professor Albert van den Berg. 'It could not be better. He enjoys great respect in the Netherlands as rector of the VU. The KNAW, NWO and the ministries: they all know Vinod. He brings this broad perspective to Twente. Together with Tom Veldkamp and Machteld Roos (the new vice-president, ed.) he forms a perfect match. To be honest, I immediately thought of him when the vacancy for president became available.’
Subramaniam (54) is an old friend of the UT. In 2004 he became professor of Nanobiophysics in Enschede. In those years, Van den Berg got to know him closely. ‘Our fields of study were close to each other. Vinod is a very amiable man, who values personal relationships: very warm and gentle. I haven't heard a bad word about him in all those years. But make no mistake: he stands up for his cause. Now and then there are discussions about the direction the UT should take. I think that Vinod, as president of the Executive Board, will be able to connect the dots and get everyone on the same page.’
In 2012, Subramaniam became scientific director of the former research institute MIRA. His predecessor, Clemens van Blitterswijk, praises Subramaniam as a scientist and manager. ‘I found it remarkable - in a positive sense - that he made the step to a managerial position so quickly in his career. Talented scientists usually become active in management later in their career. That was definitely not the case with him. It shows a clear ambition in this area.’
'Vinod doesn't approach students as some kind of gray eminence: he speaks their language'
Motivation and ambition characterize Subramaniam according to Van Blitterswijk. ‘I was struck by how quickly he learned Dutch in that time. The playing field of universities is international, and thus the language of communication is English, but at the administrative level much is still done in Dutch. I think it shows how ambitious he was then – and still is.’
Van Blitterswijk and Subramaniam found each other in their views on UT research. As a small university, focus is crucial, Van Blitterswijk knows. 'The UT has to aim for quality. You can only survive by excelling, for you cannot do it all.' On a personal level, the two also got along well, too. This is clearly reflected in Van Blitterswijk's idea to name the research institute for biomedical technology and technical medicine after Subramaniam's daughter Mira, who was born in Enschede. 'At first I was not in favor,' Subramaniams told UT-Nieuws (the predecessor of U-Today) in 2011. 'But by now I really like it.'
Vinod Subramaniam's own roots are in India. Born in Madras, he grew up in the capital, New Delhi, where he was educated at a Catholic boys' school. At eighteen, Subramaniam leaves for the US to study Electrical Engineering at the prestigious Cornell University. In 1996 he received his doctorate in Applied Physics. As a researcher, he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany and at AstraZeneca in the UK for a time. 'I have lived in America, England and Germany. I pretty much feel at home everywhere,' he told in Het Parool (a Dutch newspaper).
Subramaniam also found his home in the Netherlands. In 2015, he even exchanged his Indian passport for the Dutch nationality. 'I want to be fully part of this country, I want to be able to vote during the elections,' he tells De Volkskrant (a Dutch newspaper). He took his first steps on Dutch soil in Twente, where he became a professor in 2004. The research of his group focused on nanoscale protein biophysics. This work aims to contribute to the early detection of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. In 2013, he left Twente for a position as scientific director of FOM Institute AMOLF, and thus making the move to Amsterdam.
Photo: Subramaniam with his daughter Mira in 2011 (by Gijs van Ouwerkerk)
Open and approachable
Two years later, Subramaniam was appointed rector magnificus of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). As rector, Subramaniam proved to be approachable and accessible, says Peter Breedveld, editor of Ad Valvas (the VU's independent news medium). 'You don't have to come to him, he comes to you. He is especially close to the students, who are very at ease in his presence. Vinod doesn't approach them like some kind of gray eminence.He speaks their language, likes to drink a beer with them, but certainly doesn't treat them in a patronizing way. He mixes elitism with the vernacular, and easily alternates a slightly vulgar, typically English remark with a verse from the poet John Donne.'
'It's a relief for him to be back at a technical university, I think'
Subramaniam is a social manager, says Breedveld, not a bureaucrat. 'He obviously likes to be among people. At the VU, Vinod - along with the rest of the Executive Board - has brought a certain detente. Traditionally, there was a bit of a white, Reformed culture at VU. It was not common for people to greet each other in the university's buildings. That culture has gotten much more open under Vinod. Along with the rest of the Executive Board, he has been instrumental in shaping the culture at the VU.'
Breedveld is curious to see how Subramaniam will fill his role as president of the Executive Board at the UT. ‘The rectorate is festive, that role is tailor-made for him. The position of president is more bureaucratic. I am curious how he will deal with this. Be that as it may, for the VU his departure is a huge miss. We are very sorry to see him go.’
Van Blitterswijk thinks that Subramaniam's experience as rector at a 'general university' will be of great use in Twente. ‘It doesn't get much more complex than in Amsterdam. For him it will be a relief to return to a technical university, I think. He is back at the old nest, but thanks to his experiences outside of Twente, he does not suffer from tunnel vision. I think it will be very good for the UT that Vinod will become the new president of the Executive Board.'
There seems to be no doubt about the latter. The unanimous conclusion is that he is a powerhouse in management who has not lost sight of the human scale. A hard worker, as well. Yet also someone who enjoys life. A gourmet, says Breedveld. His greatest hobby is cooking, usually Indian. 'It is nostalgia, but actually it is more than that,' Subramaniam told UT News in an earlier interview. 'Cooking is experimentation. The kitchen is my own lab.'
Albert van den Berg knows of his expertise in the kitchen too: ‘I think he had a cooking club in Twente with Dave Blank and Matthias Wessling. I have had the opportunity to enjoy his cooking on occasion. When he returns to Twente, he is welcome to reinstate that tradition,' Van den Berg laughs.
Next week, U-Today will publish the profile of Machteld Roos, the new vice president of the Executive Board.