We settle down at Jazzman, a relatively hip coffee shop around the corner from where Koen works. He starts off by apologising to me. “I only got four hours of sleep. It may affect the quality of my answers.” His one-year-old daughter kept him up. “We switch off baby duty: one night on, one night off. Sometimes you get lucky, but usually not.” He’s not complaining, though. “When she smiles at me in the morning, my heart melts. She’s amazing.”
It turns out that lack of sleep doesn’t affect the way he talks about his job: enthusiastically, vividly, and with his hands. Koen is an assistant professor who specialises in the societal implications of emerging technologies, particularly their impact on inequality. “As developments generally cater to Western society, they tend to be less suited to the needs of less wealthy countries. This creates an ever-widening gap.” Fortunately, his research also turns up inventions aimed at closing this gap. “Like mobile phones that support multiple SIM cards at the same time. They’re great in Africa, where mobile phones are often shared by whole families.” He tries to teach his students that technological developments come with a wide range of consequences for society, both beneficial and adverse. “I hope they’ll continue to think critically about it.”
Koen himself is an enthusiastic and critical thinker. He has filled many columns for Dutch newspaper De Volkskrantand weekly news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer over the years, writing about all kinds of peculiar things in the world of research. About the water printer invented in India, for example, which allows paper to be reused as the ink fades away after a few days. “Useful for corrupt regimes, too – no paper trail.” His personal favourite is an article he wrote about Lonesome George, a giant tortoise that was over 100 years old and lived on the Galápagos Islands of Darwinian fame. “He was the last known member of his species. Scientists tried to get him to mate with other tortoises, but George refused to. Since his death, they’ve been trying to resurrect his species through crossbreeding. It’s a long-term project that will take at least five generations.”
His keen interest in research and societal developments comes as no surprise in light of his Observant interview sixteen years ago. As a 19-year-old student, Koen thought of himself as an adventurer with a “what happens, happens” attitude. He didn’t yet know what career he wanted to pursue. He decided to study Arts and Sciences because the broad programme allowed him to acquire knowledge in as many different areas as possible. He didn’t want to buy a house (“I’d prefer to rent and be flexible”) or save money to travel after graduation: “I’m not interested in travelling through India on a shoestring budget.”
Reading the article again makes him laugh. “There’s no such thing as coincidence. This is exactly what I did years later. I was broke when I did an internship at the university in Bhubaneswar, travelling to the farthest corners of the country to research innovative ways to grow rice.” Although he still loves to travel, he did end up buying a house. “At some point it’s nice to have a place to come home to.” His daughter changed his life. “Fatherhood requires more planning. I still try to do everything I want to do, but out of working, exercising, going for drinks with friends, and seeing the world, one thing usually loses out.”
I ask Koen to tell me more about his family. “I met my wife in Maastricht. We were both working on our PhDs and became friends. It wasn’t love at first sight; we lost track of each other for a few years. Sparks flew when we met again at a party.” That’s not to say it was smooth sailing from there on. “We had a few obstacles to overcome. Working in academia took us both all over the place for years. I was in Amsterdam while she worked in Brussels. When I moved to Groningen, she moved to Maastricht. Then I got a job in Utrecht, but she was living in Paris at the time.”
That’s where he finally asked her to marry him, in the city of love. “It was an emotional moment. It’s a cliché, but it was a big deal for me, telling her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.” They were legally married in a quick Monday-morning ceremony at city hall (just like several other couples in this series of articles, for some reason). “My wife is from Turkey. As we have a daughter together, it’s important that we’re married in the eyes of the Turkish law. We’ll throw a big party later.” Although his wife was born and raised in the metropolis of Istanbul, he doesn’t feel like there are any cultural differences between them. “We share the same values.” Which ones? “Jeez, that’s a difficult question. Did I mention that I only got four hours of sleep?”
This seems like a good time to end the interview. Besides, Koen is eager to get back to his students. When I drive away after our interview, I drive past the botanical gardens, the bright spot in Utrecht Science Park. A large sign announces this year’s theme: “Darwin’s Datingbureau”. There really is no such thing as coincidence.