‘Leiden has a special atmosphere, almost like a family’
From a lovely blossoming garden in Barcelona, Eduard Fosch Villaronga is talking enthusiastically about his postdoc at Leiden University. Due to the corona lockdown, he is currently spending the 2020 summer at his mother’s place, but he is looking forward to returning to Leiden (and to the Dutch bitterballen).
Before coming to Leiden for a postdoc position at Leiden Law School, Eduard crossed the globe for several research projects. He worked and lived in six different countries. One of them being the Netherlands. ‘When I came to Enschede in October 2018 to do research, I fell in love with the Netherlands. It was an extra motivation to apply for a Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant and send a proposal to Leiden University.’
Robots and AI
The eLaw Center for Law and Digital Technologies at Leiden University received the proposal positively, and Eduard moved to the hometown of the oldest university in the Netherlands. ‘I am researching the legal and regulatory aspects of the use of robots and AI technology, especially in healthcare. At this moment, I am conducting a review of which robots and AI exist in healthcare. Surgery robots, assisting robots, robots that do therapy, supportive robots as an external skeleton. Legislation is in place, but it is not clear what legislation applies to these devices, and whether they are medical or non-medical devices. This overview is going to be valuable for policymaking, as it highlights areas of concern that require further exploration.’
It is a highly relevant field of research. ‘Robot and AI technology pose new questions. For example, some devices can learn over time and adapt to new environments. When you certify something now, will this certification serve for future behaviors? Besides, lots of data and privacy issues are involved. The same goes for companies and experts involved in the supply chain, such as software and hardware developers and service providers. It is a very complex ecosystem that gives rise to questions such as: who is responsible for what?’
Telling from his cheerful smile and positive spirit, one would not say that Eduard is a very busy man – but he is. Recently, he has written the book “Robots, Healthcare, and the Law. Regulating Automation in Personal Care” published by Routledge. And, on an a different yet related topic, a short article in Nature Machine Intelligence on the need for algorithms that account for diversity and inclusion. He is working on a Veni grant proposal, although the selection process has been postponed to October due to the corona crisis. And he has been teaching as well. ‘I really wanted to teach,’ he says. ‘It felt so good to be getting so much freedom to do my research, that I wanted to contribute to society in a different way. I got the opportunity to teach Law and Robotics at the Honours College at Leiden University. That was great. I also went to China to teach, which was very special.’
New postdoc community
Eduard is also helping on a special mission of Leiden University: the creation of a postdoc community. ‘As a postdoc, you have to deal with a lot of uncertainties and pressure. We are working as hard as possible to build our cv’s, network, apply for grants and jobs, write publications, teach, do our administration – apart from our research activities and efforts to become a referent in the field. At the same time, our future is uncertain: once you have found a place, you never know if and how long the position will be available. All postdocs are in a similar situation.
Although academia have several structural problems, Leiden University wants to contribute to start doing things differently. That is why we are currently working on the launch of the Leiden University Postdoc Assembly (LUPA): a supportive, community-building environment for postdoctoral researchers at Leiden University. At LUPA, we will be able to learn from each other, share experiences, help each other and make the most out of this special period. As a postdoc, you arrive alone in a new city, in a foreign country. You swamp yourself in work, and it can be crazy. We are about the same age, we have similar interests, and it is nice to have an easy access to a group of related souls. The community we are building will hopefully help to understand and leverage postdoctoral researchers' impact and potential, and become a hub for forward-thinkers, learners and future splendid academics. I have committed myself to lend a hand to creating LUPA, which is already starting to take shape.’
Eduard thinks postdocs are in a unique position. ‘We are in the middle ground, between Ph.D. students and assistant professors. We are more experienced than the first group and highly motivated to get to the level of the second group. Which is difficult, as the higher you get, the fewer positions there are. That is quite a challenge. But a postdoc position is also ideal to find out if you are the right match for a university, and vice versa: if the university provides the best environment for you and if being an academic is what you really want. It is also a perfect momentum to explore new synergies and to start expanding your own network.’
Living the Dutch dream
Eduard considers himself to be lucky, as in Leiden he is living the Dutch dream, he says laughing. ‘The university and Leiden Law School offer a really stimulating and positive environment for me. There is a special atmosphere, somewhat like a family. For example, during this corona crisis, I have experienced emotional support, received chocolates, flowers. There is no pressure: “crying is okay, take your time, it doesn’t have to be perfect right now, we are doing things as good as we can”. There are also great researchers at eLaw and I feel very much supported by both my research group and the university. It’s actually very nice to see we work together not because we have to, but because we are excited.’
The city of Leiden is inspiring too. ‘I got to love the Netherlands even more during my stay in Leiden. It is a walkable city, alive, with green surroundings. I even see a lot of similarities with Catalans: Dutch people are practical and intelligent with their money. “Gezellig” en “goedkoop”, haha. I am learning Dutch to understand more of the Dutch culture. I like the lunches with “broodjes” – so cute, yet so different from what we are used to in Spain. And the “bitterballen”. They always taste the same, no matter where you order them. I really love them, however. I am getting attached to these slightly quirky Dutch things that make this country so lovable.’