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Raf Bocklandt

Who? Raf Bocklandt (1977)
What? researcher and lecturer in the Bachelor's and Master's programmes in Mathematics.
Studied: Mathematics and Physics
First job: when I was a student, I programmed a computer system for an auction company that could show the current prices.
Favourite place at the UvA: Science Park is nice for a walk. The buildings have an interesting interplay of lines and perspective because they are so streamlined.
Essential: a chalkboard and a piece of chalk, or a pen and paper

Raf Bocklandt (1977) is a researcher and lecturer in the Mathematics Bachelor's and Master's programmes. He once programmed a digital solar system on a Commodore computer as a child and is fascinated by the fourth dimension. At university, he studied both Physics and Mathematics before choosing a career in the latter and carving out a niche for himself in the field of algebra and noncommutative geometry. After taking his PhD in Antwerp and working abroad as a postdoc and lecturer, he found his dream job at the UvA.

Which qualities are essential in a Mathematics student?

'To study Mathematics, you have to have a certain passion for it. Enjoying the calculation aspect of it is not enough. There has to be curiosity about how something works and why it works that way. There is an entire world that exists unbeknownst to non-mathematicians. Think of four, five or even ten-dimensional spaces, or spaces full of holes; these are all things that you can really only discover and explore if you're a mathematician. The downside is that you also have to know mathematics in order to enjoy them. It is similar to being a mountain climber who has seen a distant landscape after reaching the peak of a tall mountain. Although you can describe it to everyone, it's hard for those who have not stood on that peak to understand and to appreciate it. The same goes for mathematicians. Take this chalkboard covered in writing, for instance; whereas you may only see some scribbling, I see things happening that you can't even imagine. That is actually one of the most beautiful aspects of mathematics: there is an endless jungle of things for you to explore.'

Mathematics makes it possible to add a fourth dimension to the three found in our everyday world.

How would you describe Mathematics at the university?

'Well, it's vastly different than mathematics in secondary school; the contrast is quite sharp. In secondary school, mathematics mainly involves calculating things, while at university, it is about proving things. You learn what represents good evidence and to justify the steps you take. You can't expect first-year students to decide ahead of time which direction they want to take, so you take a lot of general courses during your first year as a Mathematics student. Students subsequently tend to notice what they prefer, which could be applied mathematics, pure mathematics or geometry. There is more room for electives in the second and third year, and students can focus on the desired direction. At the same time, they continue to take electives in the other directions in order to maintain a broad basis. By the time they are ready to pursue a Master's programme, students know where their strengths and interests lie, and they can make a well-founded choice for a specific Master's programme.'

The UvA offers a good atmosphere, that much is clear.

What makes this your dream job?

‘I am free to lecture on the things that most excite me to students who are keen to learn. That's it. We have good students who hold each other to high standards, who enjoy working together and who are motivated to learn outside of the fixed programme. I see that I am a good match for Dutch students, because they are open and provide a lot of feedback. My teaching style is visual: if I can show something, I will. I also like to incorporate a philosophical component in my classes. Why do mathematicians do this exactly, and what is the reason? And why is this an interesting position, whereas that one is not? I try to elaborate on questions that are not in the syllabus and I like to include some historical context. In a subject such as Geometry, for example, I talk about the ancient Greeks and the French Revolution, when a lot was changing in the field of geometry. Mathematics is embedded in a historical and social context; it is good to convey that to students, and it is highly appreciated at the UvA.'

Mathematics is a degree programme that offers a lot of job security, because mathematicians are flexible and highly skilled in abstract thinking.

What is the best thing about Mathematics at the UvA?

‘There is a lot of room for electives in the Mathematics degree programme at the UvA. Students often take more courses than they actually should. Sometimes, we have to reel them in a bit, when they are too enthusiastic. Most courses have an honours option. If a student is interested in something and is able to handle the material, I can offer them an extra topic that is related to the course. They do a number of exercises, work out the topic and develop a theory on their own. There are work placement options within the programme as well, for example at a company that needs help with a certain problem. Students gain some practical experience in the process. Mathematics is a degree programme that offers a lot of job security. Mathematicians are flexible because they are good at thinking abstractly, which you can apply in a wide variety of environments. There's a fantastic climate of friendly cooperation within this department, too. We work well together as a group and colleagues interact a lot with each other. There are many different specialisations in mathematics: pure mathematics, applied mathematics, statistics, algebra, geometry. Yet the Mathematics programme is fairly small-scale, which makes working here fun. We know the students personally. Every year, we host a music evening featuring performances by students and lecturers alike, for example. There is a good atmosphere here, that much is clear.'