Serge Rombouts: ‘It is important to have attention for other people’
‘There’s so much going on, and it’s hugely interesting.’ Serge Rombouts, professor of Methods of Cognitive Neuroimaging, is describing his new position on the Executive Board of the Institute of Psychology. His appointment as a board member is very new. It is only since February that he has been responsible for a diverse portfolio comprising many different facets of the institute, many of them focusing on ‘people’.
‘I have a broad advisory role in the board,’ Rombouts explains. Developing talent, advising on the policy for professorial chairs, academic staff, lecturers in the bachelor’s department: these are just some of the areas he is involved in. And these are all areas where people are important – one might consider this HR work. This focus is perfectly suited to someone who throughout his academic career has worked with colleagues from all possible disciplines, and who has a keen eye for people. In this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration, everyone contributes not only their own academic expertise but also their own individual outlook. ‘That diversity of perspectives is very important.'
The magic of technology
Rombouts was trained as a physicist, but quickly moved into cognitive sciences. ‘I started doing research with brain scans. It was magical! Using technology that was very new at the time, it was possible to see which areas of the brain were active when people performed particular memory tests. I felt completely in my element and knew straight away that I wanted to carry on doing this work. Since then, the technology used in brain scans has come a long way and Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a major role. ‘With the help of AI we analyse the MRI scans of large groups of people. That generates algorithms that we can use to investigate such things as whether it is possible to predict the likelihood of someone developing dementia, or whether we can help recognise the brain disease from which someone may be suffering.’
‘I felt completely in my element in the field of cognitive science’
Cycling and thinking
His appointment is divided between the LUMC and the Institute of Psychology. Both of these are very intense work environments, and now he has board responsibilities as well. So, how does he deal with that? ‘Free time is important for me. I spend a lot of time with family and friends. And if the weather’s good, I’m off on my bike into the countryside. When I’m on my racing bike, my mind is focused completely on cycling. I’m going pretty fast, so I have to pay attention. But if I’m on my everyday bike I can really set my mind free to wander. When I was appointed as a professor in 2009, I worked out my whole inaugural lecture while on my bike. As I was cycling along, I could develop the complete structure of what I wanted to say.’
In 2006 he transferred from the VU Medical Center in Amsterdam to Leiden. It was a big decision: a new city, a new research perspective and a new work environment. ‘I’m someone who needs a change every so often; I thrive on it. For me it’s about having a new challenge, and getting out of my comfort zone.’ He had that feeling even as an adolescent. When he was sixteen he decided that he didn’t want to hang around in Brabant, in Steenbergen, where he grew up. ‘I felt strongly that I needed a change, so I left and went to study in Utrecht.’
"The diversity of perspectives is really important"
What’s important in life
Steenbergen continued to play an important role in his life, not least because his grandmother, who had brought him up, lived there. When she was growing old, he and his family became her carers, which grew more intensive as the years passed. ‘I’m very happy that I was able to help look after her and that I spent a lot of time with her. Going through that time, I really had the chance to think about what’s important in life. For me, it’s about meaning something for other people.’
And at a very different level, that’s exactly what he hopes to do in his board role. ‘I want to have time and attention for people, help support them, give them the space to develop their talents.’
Each month we follow the story of a board member: this is what I do administratively and this is what I am like personally.
Executive Board Psychology