For me, the human being is the most fascinating machine in the world
In our series of 22 reports, we present a panorama of female researchers from various qualification levels and academic positions, ranging from students to W3 professors. With their individual career paths, the female researchers in STEM subjects act as role models to encourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career, giving interesting insights into their careers to date. The MINT experts also share aspects of their private lives.
Assistant Professor Anne Koelewijn: ‘For me, the human being is the most fascinating
machine in the world’
Professor Anne Koelewijn, who was born in the Netherlands, has a Bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. She also holds a Master’s degree and a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. She has been assistant professor at FAU’s Machine Learning and Data Analytics Lab since 2019, when she was just 26. Now 28, she has already conducted research in the Netherlands, the USA, Switzerland and Germany. The fact that she’s considerably younger than her colleagues, but also than many of her students and doctoral candidates, makes her something of an outsider. But she’s accustomed to that.
Qualified for university at 15
Anne Koelewijn, whose parents are both mathematicians, grew up near Amsterdam and finished grammar school when she was just 15. ‘My advantage has always been that I absorb and understand everything very quickly,’ she says, describing her gift, which she incidentally shares with her brother. But he didn’t work as hard as she did, she laughs. At 18, she already had her Bachelor’s degree under her belt and at 21 her Master’s – she completed both at Delft University of Technology. She then moved to Cleveland State University in Ohio, USA, where after four years she was awarded her doctorate in engineering. After that, she spent eleven months as a postdoctoral researcher in the Biorobotics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL).
To FAU via American supervisor
It was thanks to her American supervisor’s contacts to Adidas that she came to FAU because the sports equipment manufacturer sponsors the assistant professorship which she applied for and now holds. She heads the ‘Biomechanical Motion Analysis and Creation (BioMAC)’ group at the lab and is studying how humans move. ‘Seeing how living beings function so much better than everything created by human hand, such as robots, is pretty cool. For me, the human being is the most fascinating machine in the world. Its efficiency of movement is unsurpassed.’ In her specialist field, she examines and calculates movement sequences for medical technology purposes, but also for developing sports shoes. ‘I believe that to substantially advance technologies such as robotics, prosthetics and orthoses as well as improve other human movements, for example in sport, we need first of all to understand why we walk like we do,’ she says and laughs. “Today, I’m doing a mixture of my father’s current work – mathematics – and of my mother’s: kinesiology!’
‘Being a woman and being young is difficult in STEM subjects’
It was her parents too who have always supported her, even in going abroad alone at a young age. Her age has always been both a blessing and a curse. She recalls some unpleasant incidents with male students in Switzerland. ‘On one occasion, a student I was supervising asked one of his male counterparts a technical question in my presence and not me because he didn’t accept me as his superior.’ That was not an isolated occurrence. She finds it difficult being young and female in a STEM subject. People of her own age are mostly still studying, and her older colleagues often have a family. Nonetheless, she has found friends among the other professors as well as among students at FAU. And she also keeps busy as a player on a lacrosse team (a mixture of tennis and field hockey). Anne Koelewijn manages her time meticulously: ‘Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, two hours sport and six hours of free time.’ As already mentioned, that works for her above all because of her quick grasp of things, as she explains.
Her advice for the next generation of female STEM researchers:
‘Look for supervisors who will support you. I would say that this is much more important than searching for the best topic. Provided that the topic lies more or less within your range of interest, then choose it. The main thing is that your supervisor is good. And you should ideally look for someone who has already supervised women successfully. So talk to current doctoral candidates or alumni and look at where these women have ended up.’ After six years, her assistant professorship, which she was awarded because she completed her doctoral and postdoctoral degrees so quickly, is equivalent to habilitation. Then, in her early 30s, her career can proceed as a tenured associate or full professorship. ‘I can well imagine either staying at FAU or moving to a university somewhere warmer, but preferably in Europe,’ she says. She is pretty relaxed about what her personal life might bring. ‘If I have a permanent job in an academic environment one day, I’ll still be young enough to start a family.’
‘Differentiating between male and female professions has to stop’
That women in STEM subjects are seen as something special irritates her. ‘I think that it’s important not only to recruit women for STEM professions but also men for professions that are classically female. Overall, we should concentrate more on creating value and respect for professions that tend traditionally to be practised by women so that the notion that male professions are
better than female professions is finally put to rest. And if she herself should one day want to switch to another subject, which one would it be? ‘History and literature,’ she bursts out. Politics and sustainability are also important to her. For example, Anne Koelewijn rarely eats meat and doesn’t fly the comfortable way from Nuremberg to Amsterdam to visit her family, but instead takes the train.
This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”
Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”
Diverse, inspiring and innovative, the brochure “The Sky is the Limit” introduces female researchers in STEM subjects from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sciences in a series of varied interviews.
Other interviews are available on the Research website.