​New Dean seeks co-operation with TNO

Henri Werij has been appointed Dean of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering (AE) as of 1 June. He aims to lead a faculty that lies at the heart of society and is capable of attracting students from all around the world. "With a degree programme that is not only good quality, but also a lot of fun."

Henri Verwij: “Seek out the strengths of others in order to be stronger together.” (Photo: Rafael Philippen Photografie)
Henri Verwij: “Seek out the strengths of others in order to be stronger together.” (Photo: Rafael Philippen Photografie)

You obtained your doctorate in Atomic Physics from the University of Leiden, conducted research at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) in Boulder, Colorado (USA) and at the University of Amsterdam, and until recently you served as Director of Space and Scientific Instrumentation at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). What prompted your move to TU Delft?

"One major reason is that I enjoy working with young people. It is extremely encouraging to see what is going on within the universities. I am a bridge builder by nature and I want to make a difference. That is easy to do at TU Delft and particularly within Aerospace Engineering, which is an outstanding faculty.

What did your previous role involve?
"At TNO, I was responsible for the business area relating to space travel and large-scale scientific instruments. I focussed on making contacts externally and bringing in new projects, in addition to determining the direction of our research. I was also already a member of the AE advisory council which was established by the previous dean, Hester Bijl, in order to obtain an outside perspective on the faculty and feedback on its trajectory. I was working with Hester on strengthening the relationship between TU Delft and TNO. Both parties stand to gain a lot more from each other than is currently the case."

What are your plans in that regard?
"Sharing facilities: installations for the construction of scientific instruments, cleanrooms. At TNO, we build instruments that are ready for launch, while research at universities is often concept-based; my aim is to interweave these different levels. In particular, I support running personnel exchanges, that is, having TNO staff work as part-time lecturers or professors at the university and letting people from Delft take a look at what is happening at TNO. I want to break down walls – can't stand them. I also consider inter-faculty co-operation to be important. I am not motivated by a feeling of insecurity but by my belief in the strength of our people. Seek out the strengths of others in order to be stronger together."

What challenges do you foresee for the faculty in the coming years?
"There is a huge demand for places on our degree programme. We need to consider how to approach this and how to maintain the programme's high level of quality or even improve it. It's a difficult proposition; we don't want to degenerate to factory model education. I also want to recruit more female students. At present, the percentage hovers between just 9 and 12 per cent. That doubtless has to do with the general image of AE, but I see no reason whatsoever why women shouldn't study here. A further challenge is internationalisation: how do people from different cultures learn to work together? One exciting point I could mention is that TU Delft now has the largest AE faculty in Europe. I aim to preserve this status and improve our position on the global stage. One of our faculty's most significant research themes is sustainability: how do we ensure that our name comes to be associated with this theme in particular? We need to get the word out that we work in a multidisciplinary fashion and throw the doors open so that the outside world is aware of what we're doing here."

Last year, the Public Lecture Series conducted anethics survey in which many AE students revealed that they are wary of ending up in the weapons industry. What are your thoughts on that?

"I think that students have the ability to determine for themselves where they want to work. As for myself, I'm currently up to my ears in space travel stuff and have nothing to do with the weapons industry. New instruments for laser satellite communications are in no way related to that industry. Certainly, data communications also have applications in the weapons industry, but the same applies to virtually everything we do. We set up all kinds of spin-offs based on the faculty's research that are devoted to sustainable concepts such as wind energy. And on the subject of sustainability, I think more in the direction of civil aviation. I realise that is linked to defence because of the air force, but the point is that there is even a link in the name of a major player in the field of space travel: Airbus Defense and Space. This involves space travel as well as a defence mandate, but also peaceful uses of satellites at which we excel in the Netherlands. To be honest, I don't really share the students' concern in this regard. I think that they will find far more opportunities open to them in the peace sector."