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“Every morning between 5 and 7 a.m., I wrote two pages of my dissertation”

“Every morning between 5 and 7 a.m., I wrote two pages of my dissertation”

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archive Jeroen Janssens

Alumni about their dreams: did they come true?

When he was in his first year at University College Maastricht, then twenty-year-old Jeroen Janssens dreamed big dreams. He wanted to be an astronaut. “Lots of freedom, far away from home. And it’ll make me famous, I’d love that.” After his time in space, he would retire to a farm. He never claimed to have green fingers, though. “The gardener will teach me.” Now, sixteen years later, few to none of these dreams have come true. “I don’t know what I was thinking when I said all that.”

University College Maastricht alumnus Jeroen Janssens

Jeroen admits that he didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life when he gave the previous interview. “That’s why I went to university college. It was a new study programme allowing students to take courses in different fields.” He particularly enjoyed the Knowledge Engineering courses he took, so much so that he eventually earned a PhD in the field. “Eventually” is the operative word here; getting there was anything but easy. “I liked my research topic, detecting anomalies in big data. I’m not a born researcher, though, and I didn’t excel at the PhD game. You need to know what colleagues want to read and be able to write it down in their style. I was bad at that. My articles were always rejected after peer review. It was quite frustrating.”

One evening, he wrote a blog post about analysing datasets using computer language Unix. It changed his life forever. “It went viral. I got a lot of enthusiastic reactions.” By now, the post has racked up more than half a million hits. “It’s so cool. My dissertation will never have that many readers. Let’s be honest, more than ten people reading the whole thing would be a lot. And that number includes my parents.”

Calling

Jeroen had found his calling. “I can communicate complex information in an accessible way. See?” He chucks two books down onto the table. Save for his name, all the words on the covers are written in non-Roman scripts. “My book, translated into Chinese and Japanese”, he says proudly. “Renowned publisher O’Reilly discovered my blog post and asked me to turn it into a book. It’s fantastic. ‘He who writes, remains.’”

Bullied

There’s a parallel here with the interview he gave when he was a student. The main reason why he wanted to be an astronaut, he said in his previous interview, was because he felt the need to prove himself. “I was bullied a lot as a kid. I’d like for people to see me later and think, ‘He’s made something of himself’.” Although he has processed this traumatic experience by now (“it doesn’t bother me anymore”), he still feels the need to prove himself. He doesn’t want to be famous anymore, though. “I’ve actually realised I prefer to share my knowledge in small groups.” That’s why he founded his own company Data Science Workshops three years ago. He offers training courses in the Netherlands and abroad on collecting, cleaning, visualising and modelling data. “It’s possible to study all documented cases of coronavirus, for example. What connections can be made? How can you visualise that information? What conclusions can be drawn from it? It won’t solve this pandemic, of course, but every little bit would help.”

New York City

He would never have completed his dissertation (“it’s the most beautiful dissertation you’ve ever seen. I’m mainly talking about the cover and the layout”) if it wasn’t for his wife, Esther. “I just couldn’t seem to finish it. I’d actually kind of given up on it when we moved to New York City together in search of a new challenge. I’d found a job at a start-up there.” His wife continued to encourage him to complete his PhD. “I wrote two pages a day every morning between 5 and 7 a.m., before I went to work. At some point, I finished it.”

Janssens looks back on their adventure in the United States as a “fantastic” experience. “We lived in Brooklyn, in a house with a garden – most New Yorkers would kill for a garden – and I cycled to work in Manhattan every morning. New York City has an extraordinary energy. And although it may seem like everyone is just minding their own business, they’re very helpful. Everyone wants to help each other get the best out of themselves.”

De Twee Heeren

He met Esther at Maastricht bar De Twee Heeren. Not long after the night they met, he asked her to be his girlfriend. He proposed to her on a weekend getaway seven years later. “I had it all planned out. 11 November 2011 at 11:11. I thought it’d be perfect. But she was tired, and our walk – my search for a romantic square – was way too long for her liking. I decided not to wait eleven more minutes.” He didn’t expect her to react the way that she did. “No, not here!” she yelled. “It turned out that while my view was nice, she was facing graffiti-covered waste bins. It wasn’t the kind of proposal she had dreamed of as a child.”

They complement each other. “I like to take risks; she takes longer to make decisions. Ask us both to cook and Esther will follow the recipe to the letter and be done in time. I will improvise. Sometimes it improves the meal, but it usually doesn’t.” They have two children together. “I really wanted to procreate. I just couldn’t deprive the world of these genes.” He laughs. His son and daughter, aged four and two respectively, give meaning to his life. “Getting up at 6 a.m. to sing along with Frozen at the top of our lungs? I love it. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure they grow up to be two beautiful people. I think of them as two start-ups, with Esther and me as investors.”

Niels van der Laan

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