Learning From Chemistry


The comedian Danny Kay once said that everyone ends up where they should--initially, he had wanted to become a doctor. Similarly, although I have studied chemistry, I have ended up doing something that I was already good at as a child: organising and communicating.

Since December 2002 I have been head of Communication Services at the University of Amsterdam, one of the largest universities in the Netherlands. The department of Communication Services is a new venture. It employs about 40 staff members, who provide the university with support in all areas of communication, such as congresses and information events, printed media, Web sites, campaigns, and the like. We are currently part of the Service and Information Centre and in the middle of the process of turning the department into an independent unit.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a penchant for organising. My earliest effort was at the age of 10. Together with a number of classmates, I set up a club, which even had a committee, statutes, and--of course--long meetings. However, a club without a purpose is a bit of a lost cause and so we decided to go and do something useful. We therefore approached the two retirement homes in our village and asked if we could organise an afternoon of entertainment for the residents.

Much to our disappointment, neither director was interested. However, that changed when one of the homes got a new director. Before long we were on the stage in the lounge of the retirement home giving a complete show. After the show, we were enthusiastically showered with bars of chocolate and envelopes of money. We felt a bit uncomfortable because we had not done it to get a reward. We had simply wanted to do something useful.

However, for me the funniest aspect of this story is that, in retrospect, it is highly illustrative of my career to date: thinking up something new, working out how to achieve it, organising everything down to the finest detail, not working alone but in cooperation with others, persevering until you reach your goal, and above all else, doing something useful.

And then there was also the science part. At school I was fascinated by how the human body works, by mathematics, and by laboratories. However, as a girl I had to fight to be allowed to study the hard sciences: in the mid-1970s that was still not the done thing.

At the end of my high school education, I looked for a university course that combined all of my interests, and so I ended up studying chemistry or, to be more precise, pharmacology, an area that develops new medicines. I was of course free to pursue my interests in organising and writing in my spare time. What I most enjoyed about my studies was explaining exactly what I was doing in plain language, for example, writing a lucid dissertation about new medicines to combat AIDS.

In a nutshell, my passion was communicating everything I had learnt and was so enthusiastic about. During my studies, I also obtained my diploma in education because I enjoyed tutoring and I wanted to keep my options open. Despite the great pleasure I took in chemistry, I decided not to undertake a Ph.D., which, at that time, was a precondition for a job in research.

When I was nearing the end of my studies, I saw a job advertisement in the Chemisch Weekblad for a position at the office of the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society (KNCV), the professional association for chemists. The position involved organising congresses, writing pieces for the Chemisch Weekblad, setting up new activities for young members, and supporting various committees--it seemed to be my perfect job. To my surprise I was taken on and I had a job before I had even finished my studies; this was quite something because at that time the employment market was particularly bad. I completed my degree on a part-time basis.

I learnt a tremendous amount at that office: writing letters, organising complex activities, operating strategically, and most important moving in political and managerial circles. The society's board was drawn from the top people in Dutch chemistry. At the age of just 24 I had access to the research directors of Shell, Unilever, and Philips, university professors, and the like.

Thanks to my work in the PR committee of the KNCV, I also had regular contact with the then-information officer of the Chemistry Faculty at Utrecht University. I had been at the KNCV for 3½ years when his position, which also combined my interest for organising and communicating on the one hand with my interest in chemistry on the other, became vacant. I applied for the post and was accepted, even though I knew almost nothing about public relations at the time. I followed evening classes for more than 2 years to brush up my knowledge in this area. As it was a solo position, I was entirely free to determine the form of the faculty's communication.

After 4 years as information officer at the Faculty of Chemistry, I was asked to become Head of Course Information at the university's central department of Internal and External Affairs. Then, a few months later, I was asked to help realise a reorganisation and subsequently to become director of the new Communication Services Centre. After some hesitation--after all I had only been there for 6 months--I said yes.

It was a case of jumping in at the deep end. Despite having almost no management experience, I was thrust into the position of deputy director and shortly thereafter became director of a department of 40 people during a particularly turbulent period. I had to acquire many new skills in a very short space of time: Managing personnel, managing a budget of several million euros, handling accommodation issues, coaching people, communicating changes, and restructuring a culture. And while all of this was taking place, it was of course business as usual. What's more, in this period we also rigorously evaluated and improved many of our activities.

All of these experiences developed my management skills and sharpened my ability to communicate within a very short period of time. Furthermore, I learnt a lot about myself. I am no longer so easily deterred and have acquired enough experience to cope with the odd knock.

Maria's Career Tips

  • Learn from others, but keep on being yourself.

  • Know what you want and go for it.

  • Persevere, even when the going gets tough.

  • Make sure that you always have an activity which inspires you, especially during less favourable periods.

  • If you want to get into PR, then do a course in it as soon as possible. You can do this alongside your university studies.

  • Only 5 percent of people work in the field for which they were originally trained. In a nutshell, nobody can map out his or her own career.

  • And last but not least: Take an occasional step back to see things in perspective!

To my surprise, a headhunter phoned me last year. He wanted to know if I would be interested in setting up a department of Communication Services at the University of Amsterdam. This university was in exactly the same process of freeing up more time for communication and advice as the University of Utrecht had been 6 years before. This, added to the fact that I live in Amsterdam and was looking for a new challenge, led me to discuss the offer and I eventually landed my new post.

I feel very much at home in my new job. There are so many people with boundless enthusiasm and determination who are doing research, who beam when they explain their research, and who are passing on knowledge to a new generation. I am glad that I can contribute to this important social task. In my present position, I can do justice to all of my interests. On the one hand I can once again build up a new organisation and on the other I can fully devote myself to communication activities. And on top of that I have fantastic colleagues. Step by step, I can see processes improving and people developing. This gives me a real sense of satisfaction.

Although I'm not active in chemistry any more, I can say that I still benefit from skills I learnt during my chemistry studies. Analysing complex problems and a good feeling for numbers are essential for managing a department. Analytical skills are also a great asset for tackling communication issues.

During the New Year's reception at the University of Amsterdam, I met an old classmate who had also been a member of our childhood club. I had not seen her for about 25 years. "This job really is made for you," she said. Funny she should say that. I had clearly ended up in the right place.

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