Illustration: Simone Golob
Photo: Archive Bart Penders
The second wave: Bart Penders
Bart Penders, Associate Professor of Metamedica at the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML), misses the informal chats at work, with colleagues, but also with students. About how things are going, but also about professional literature. But this period also has positive aspects. Penders spends more time with his daughters (8 and 6 years old) and he has a new hobby: going around the neighbourhood together with his daughter, a cart and a pricker to pick up rubbish.
An interview with Observant. Penders might not have done it a year ago. His list of priorities has changed because of COVID-19. These days Penders takes more time to talk to journalists or for example, to give lectures. At the end of last year, for example, he told a webinar at KNAW (The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) about confidence in science (see below). “That kind of things – these contributions to the debate – I now find more valuable than writing new project applications or articles.” He used to be more critical of such requests from journalists or students, but at the same time these initiatives are now of a higher level, says Penders. “Webinars, podcasts and other online events have become much more professional in a short space of time. There was no other choice.”
Education has also changed dramatically because of COVID-19. “It is good to see lecturers get to work with new ideas and tools, but I myself find this kind of education less fun.” Not because it is too complicated technically; many of Penders’ colleagues at the master’s of Global Health already did a lot of online education. “So, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. That gave peace of mind.” But Penders misses the informal part of the lectures: the questions and chats during lecture breaks or afterwards. “They are very important for the development of students.” Especially in his field: sociology, ethics and the philosophy behind science. “What I tell during a lecture, often has to sink in for a while. That is why talks afterwards are so important.” These days, he often receives e-mails with questions. “That is not the way of having a dialogue.”
Penders also misses the informal chats with colleagues because of working from home. That short chat in the doorway of a colleague’s room, or at the coffee machine. “For example, about (professional) literature. If I read a new book or a new bundle, I have thoughts on that. Talking with colleagues about that sharpens your own thoughts. Those talks may only last a minute and a half. Not something you would plan a formal appointment for.”
In order not to lose those ‘literature chats’ completely, Penders has become more active on social media, mainly twitter. His counter is at more than 8.5 thousand tweets. The odd one is about his footwear at home: his slippers or his #academicslippers. But the majority is about science. For example, about the book ‘The Innovation Delusion’ by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel. “I also get responses to that. Often, they are other people than my UM colleagues, but it is a way to stay in touch.”
How are things?
‘How are you doing?’ To be able to ask colleagues that question every now and again, his department organised digital drinks every Friday during the first wave. It was fun in the beginning, but after a while it became an “extra Zoom meeting. We now take a little extra time during our work meetings. Beforehand or afterwards, colleagues can talk about their birthday, work in the garden, or if they have been ill. The kind of thing that you would normally get to hear.”
Because of the COVID-19 regulations, only thirteen people from Penders’ department can work at the faculty. “I don’t have much teaching in the first periods and at home I have a separate room and a good Internet connection. By working from home, I give people who don’t have that my slot at the faculty.” At least, mostly he has the office at home all to himself. There are days when he works in the kitchen, when his wife is in the study. “We both work part-time and two days a week, when there is overlap of half a day, we take turns.”
A glass of wine and a bite to eat with the neighbours on our shared driveway. That just about sums up Penders’ social life. “We visit friends on a rare occasion, especially when the weather was better, but otherwise contact has become substantially diluted.” The Penders family takes the measures very seriously. “A few family members and friends became infected during the first wave.” Not everyone survived. “Not close family, but we did have intensive contact with them.” Many horrible memories. That is why we were nervous when the second wave started, but “for now, things are going well”.
The rest of the time he spends with his two young daughters. “They also need extra attention. Fortunately, a lot of the things about COVID-19 goes over their heads. So, no existential crisis, but they do know more or less what is going on, especially the eldest. They are also restricted.” Things like the end-of-year performance by the dancing association that has been cancelled. “It is disappointing that it can’t happen.” To prevent infection, there is also a lot less contact with their grandparents. “They don’t like that. Where they used to see them at least once a month, the number of visits this year can be counted on one hand.”
One advantage of the crisis is that there is more time to do things together, says Penders. “You come to depend very much on your own family. You have to make the most of things together.” They play games, do craft projects and he even enjoyed the home schooling. “It took a lot of time, but it is good fun getting so involved in their school work.”
Something they have been doing together since the second wave started, is walking around the neighbourhood with the cart collecting rubbish with a pricker. A new hobby, says Penders. “It was my eldest daughter’s idea. She also decided that there should be buckets in the cart so that we could separate the waste immediately.” Fun to do? Or having such big ideals at such a young age? “She is worried about the climate.” That was not a complete surprise. “We are active in that sense as well, by making our house greener, and she sees that.”
At the end of last year, Penders and three colleagues from Tilburg and Amsterdam gave a webinar on science in times of COVID-19 for KNAW (The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). Penders spoke about the credibility of studies that sometimes materialise at the speed of light.
This speed is a success, says Penders. “In less than a year, there were various vaccines on the market. But speed also has a price. Aside from the work pressure and mental health, it leads to mistakes and sloppiness. Scientists from various disciplines jumped on the subject of ‘COVID-19’, even those without the right expertise. Because of that, a lot of ‘botchy science’ is being produced. The experts can separate the wheat from the chaff, but for policymakers, journalists and the general public, this is often difficult.”
This ever-accelerating academy is not sustainable, says Penders. As far as he is concerned, it is not good for the credibility of science either. For the time being, however, there is no reason to panic. “It always goes up and down a bit, and all in all faith in science is structurally high.”