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Alumna Sytske Besemer on living and working abroad

This month's flash interview is with alumna Sytske Besemer, Criminologist, who works at a startup called Cradle. Sytske has specifically chosen to work for a company with societal impact. And she is about to move again, this time to Zürich.

What did you study and when? What made you choose Leiden?
In 2001, I started with Psychology. To be very honest, I started out studying Civil Engineering before that, but that wasn’t a huge success for a number of reasons. After that, I started following my guts a bit more. I've learned not to let your choice depend on the Open Days. Those days are meant to sell a study, not to base your choice of study on. To help me make the right choice, I tagged along with several people working in different places. Eventually, I went with Psychology, but already with the intention to follow Criminology in the 2nd year (you need your first-year certificate in either behavioural sciences or law). I was very interested about why people commit crimes.

Did it live up to your expectations?
I’m not really sure. You never really know beforehand what to expect. What I enjoyed most from Criminology is learning how to write papers. With Psychology, your knowledge is tested based on multiple choice questions, not a good way to motivate students to really acquire knowledge.

Which expectations were fulfilled and which ones weren’t? What type of student were you?
I was a serious student who wanted to spend her time effectively. I didn’t want to waste my time with resits. So, I studied really hard. I just didn’t feel like not making the most of it. I was really frustrated because there were a lot of students who weren’t very motivated, it was especially annoying when we were having to work in groups. That was mostly with Psychology.

What was your favourite restaurant/bar in Leiden back then and why?
My favourite place in Leiden wasn’t a bar. I was on the rowing team at Asopos de Vliet. So that’s where I spent a lot of time. I’m still close friends with some of them.

Knowing what you know now, is there something you wish you could have done during your studies? Like a specific course that wasn’t taught back then, or an internship or something else that you missed?
I would have loved to learn how to programme code. With that knowledge I could have done a lot of things differently. I’m certain that being able to programme code is a valuable skill.

Internships should also be stimulated more, especially internships at corporate businesses. It allows you to experience what it's like to work there. In the United States, it's much more common. There were always a lot of interns at Facebook and Uber, it really helps students find a job.

Can you give a quick recap of your career so far and has this always been your intention/goal?
I’ve never really been focused on having a career. I want to do something I find interesting and important and challenging. In my family, having a career wasn’t really seen as something important. I’m the first in my finally to have obtained a PhD and, from my mother’s side, the first to have gone to university in the first place. When I started university, I didn’t know what a PhD was. I ended up doing a PhD in Cambridge and have since completed a postdoc. I’ve left the academic world behind since then and am now working in the corporate world. I felt it was very difficult to be able to see the impact of my work when I was working in academia. I didn’t feel as if I was directly contributing to society. While I was doing my postdoctoral degree, I started working at Uber as a criminologist. With the idea in the back of my head that I could always return to academia, but I enjoyed the corporate world too much. In that environment, I was able to collaborate more with different people with different areas of expertise and strengths. At university, in my experience, your work is a lot more solitary. Sometimes, I spent hours by myself looking for a solution or making an analysis. In the corporate world, in a manner of speaking, you simply turn to the person next to you; ‘do you know something about this, and can you help me?’ Which makes it a lot more fun.

Where are you working at the moment and do you still make use of your Criminology degree?
After Uber, I worked at Facebook. I was part of the integrity team, the team that provided security at Facebook. My team monitored to make sure that people didn’t break the rules and were responsible for creating as few security issues as possible. My criminology background came in very handy in this work. I recently started at Cradle, a startup in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Here, I don’t really use my criminology background. At Facebook, I was what is known as a user researcher: a researcher who looks into the users of the products. Those products can be anything you use in your daily life. Cradle wants to create software that biologists can use to design proteins. The idea is that you can create a great many things from cells: milk, meat, leather, palm oil, silk without needing spiders, cows, or tropical forests. Although it’s a really slow process. Cradle hopes to speed up the process with machine learning. My task as a user researcher is to talk to biologists and find out what the problems are that we need to find solutions for and to find out what those solutions should look like.

It’s tricky that the academic and the corporate world are so separate. It would be very good for both is there was more collaboration between them. I just spoke to someone about that. They told me that you use your brain in a different way working in science. It’s absolutely not true that there are only intelligent people working at universities! There is a certain pride within the academic world that they have the smartest people and that you’ve sold your soul when you’re working in the corporate world. It would be so much easier to turn your back to the corporate world in favour of science than vice versa. I know it would be very difficult with a system that is based on how many articles you've written. You simply don’t write that many articles when working for a corporation.

Has something from your studies proven valuable/applicable in your current position?
Not so much the subject criminology itself, but conducting research is very applicable.

Your alma mater would like to have more of an impact on society, your drive is to have a societal impact. What would be your advice for us?
The recurring thread in everything I have done and do, is that I want to do something that is good for the world.
A good example is the volunteer work I used to do in the United States. I taught statistics classes in St. Quentin prison, north of San Francisco. It was while I was doing my post-doc and it really gave me the feeling that I was contributing something to the lives of others. It was extremely motivating. In the Netherlands, I ran holiday camps with Heppie, an organisation that organises vacations for vulnerable children who have no means for vacationing. 

If I understood correctly, you’re not living in the Netherlands? Did you move for work? Was that a big adjustment for you? And what has been most surprising/enjoyable about living abroad?
I come from a small village near Leiden, ter Aar. Ninety percent of my family still lives there. In my family, it’s quite unusual to move. Cambridge was my first experience abroad. I felt relieved that there it was okay to be interested in your studies. It was actually cool to be motivated! When I got the opportunity to do a PhD, I just went for it. Although I did sort of plan to try it for a year to see how things went. The idea of living abroad for three years seemed rather intense. I ended up finishing the term and the PhD and even went on to follow a post-doctoral degree in the Bay area (Berkely University). Again, with the idea of staying a maximum of one, maximum two years. Eventually, I ended up staying seven years, and even giving birth to two children. In the end, we did return to Europe because we didn’t want our children to grow up in America. We also wanted to be closer to our family in the Netherlands. I was offered a job at Facebook in London at the time and now we’re about to move to Zurich for Cradle. A big adjustment for me was the language. It’s really difficult to express yourself in a different language. The best way to learn is to live there.

What’s funny also, is that outside the Netherlands I’m really tall. I’m 1.83m. In the Netherlands, that length isn’t uncommon, but abroad you really stand out. At concerts, I’m able to see over everybody’s heads. You’re also able to break free from obligations and expectations. If I do something that isn’t really appropriate in this culture, I’m able to explain it because you’re from a different culture. In the Netherlands, people tend to plan everything, even months ahead sometimes. It’s much nicer to have an open diary. In the Netherlands, everything is so structured and organised. I like spending time here, but after a while it always gets on my nerves.

The disadvantage of living abroad is that you live far away from your family, especially with young children. But when you do meet up with people, it's much more concentrated quality time. Instead of having a quick cup of tea, you sometimes spend the entire weekend together. I think you also become more flexible living abroad. It becomes easier to adjust and you learn that there are different ways of doing things. Even for the children. You can pick what you like most from each place and continue to do that and discard the rest.

Finally, to get to know you even better, a very personal question: what's your guilty pleasure?
It’s funny, I really had to think about this question. I have many, perhaps quirky or unusual, pleasures, but I don’t feel guilty about them at all. I really don’t care what people think of me. I looked up the meaning of ‘guilty pleasure’ and looked at what other people said about them. They often mention television series people liked to watch, but were ashamed of. I talked about it with my husband and came to the following guilty pleasure: I get a kick out of spending as little as possible. For instance, I have all these clothes with holes in them and all kinds of things in my home that I found on the street, such as toys and furniture. I hate throwing things away; it seriously breaks my heart and I believe it isn’t good for the world. We’re about to move from a home with a large number of rooms to an apartment, so that’s going to be a challenge ...


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