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Sense Jan van der Molen new scientific director LION: ‘We strive for scientific excellence as well as a healthy work-life balance’

As a student he was mainly interested in history, but an inspiring teacher persuaded him to choose physics. On March 1, Sense Jan van der Molen will start as scientific director of the Leiden Institute of Physics (LION).

What kind of director are you?

‘I feel responsible. For the people in my research group, but also for the institute. I have always been interested in policy. For example, I’m part of our faculty's core team on academic freedom and the sparring group on cooperation with fossil industry. I like to look beyond my own field and enjoy thinking about where we want to go as an institute and faculty. So the position of scientific director is an exciting challenge.’

Sense Jan van der Molen at his experimental setup in the measurement hall.

What is important to you in the work environment?

‘Research can be demanding, we need to be open about that. Of course we want to perform at the highest level. Excellence is not a dirty word, that’s our goal. But performing is only possible if people feel good, I am convinced of that. I try to guide people in such a way that they are motivated and creative. Working from home or temporarily working less hours can help, or simply accepting that sometimes your performance is down. Combining the scientific directorship and leading an active research group will be challenging. I’ve had a burnout, I know what it is like to go beyond your limits. But also how to get out of it.’

What direction are you taking with LION in the coming years?

‘The cohesion socially and in research is already good and I want to keep it that way. We could invest more in showcasing Leiden physics, though. Both within the university and to other Dutch universities. Those contacts have weakened a bit after Covid. I also think it’s important to keep our education small scale. The first year of the program is tough and we are actively working to make this a welcoming place. Every student should feel at home here.’

What makes the LION such a special institute?

‘You get the freedom to do your own research in a very harmonious atmosphere. We celebrate successes together. People with similar research topics reinforce each other instead of competing, which is not a given. As a fundamental researcher at heart, I also appreciate that the question of whether something has an application is not asked. And finally, the tradition of physics in Leiden. It is a privilege to stand in the tradition of great physicists like Lorentz and Kamerlingh Onnes and to continue it.’

Ivo van Vulpen and Sense Jan van der Molen with one of the wall formulas in Leiden.

That Leiden physics is reflected in the wall formulas throughout the city. How did that come about?

‘It’s simple really, I like talking about my field. In 2014, the wall formula idea was born and the first one was painted a year later. Ivo van Vulpen and I had to convince the city council and Stichting TEGEN-BEELD, that resulted in a fantastic collaboration. I enjoy helping with the graphic design of the formulas. The tenth formula is currently in the pipeline, about radio astronomy. And there are even wall formulas in Utrecht, Vienna and Prague. I am proud of the history of Leiden physics and like to promote it.’

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