/ #Junction #Interview 

Junction: A chat with Chris Zeinstra

We interviewed Chris Zeinstra, assistant professor of the Data Management and Biometrics group (DMB). Most bachelor’s students know Chris from his second-year courses, Continuous Linear Systems and Digital Signal Processing, but there are plenty of other courses he’s working on, in addition to various research topics such as forensic biometrics and embedded artificial intelligence. Throughout the interview, we asked Chris all kinds of questions, from his role in education and opinion on the current curriculum, all the way to what kind of a student he was, and what makes a perfect student in his eyes.

Figure 1: Chris Zeinstra

Figure 1: Chris Zeinstra

What did you want to be when you were young? Did you plan on becoming a professor?

“No, I think actually for a very long time I thought I would become a car designer, so I would be drawing all kinds of cars when I was, I think, between 6 and 12, and somehow, I lost my interest... But I can’t really remember that I really thought, ‘well I want to be this and this when I grow up,’ apart from, let’s say, a car designer - but that’s from a rather early age.”

How did you end up teaching at the university?

“I like the wording ‘end up’. So, I studied Math and also some Computer Science, then I went for a PhD in Math, but I quit because I didn’t like the subject after a year. Back then, the IT business was very much booming, so I joined what is now called PostNL, the postal delivery company, in the IT department. Basically, they said ‘well we want to offer you a fully-fledged 1-year academic course in computer science and then you have to work at least 3 years at our headquarters.’ And actually I did, but then I quit after one and a half years – as many of my fellow classmates did, because it was a crazy market back then.

So, I went from software engineering at PostNL to Ericsson, which is a very nice company to work at, but I kind of discovered that I liked explaining stuff to younger people. Due to also other personal reasons, my then-to-be wife and I decided to live together, and we picked out Groningen, where I basically – I wouldn’t say grew up there, but I studied there, and I grew up in the North of The Netherlands. And that’s why I went to the Hanzehogeschool Groningen, which is kind of the Saxion, but then of Groningen, so the University of Applied Sciences. I did that for many years and I liked it a lot. I actually like teaching and also designing courses, but after a while I thought ‘well maybe I should retry doing a PhD’, and that’s why I ended up teaching you guys - because I did a PhD and became an assistant professor.”

How is teaching at a university different from a university of applied sciences?

“Well, it’s a big difference in the sense of level, but also it’s way more practical - even to the point where you almost need to change courses every year because the frameworks are different. That’s sometimes a little bit annoying because it’s not so much about tool-learning, but you want to teach students general concepts. So, I’d say within a regular research university that’s easier, especially when you do bachelor level topics, because those don’t change so much over time.

So that’s the big difference; it’s more practical at the University of Applied Sciences and the curriculum changes way more often. Actually, don’t forget I taught Computer Science over there, and that’s a topic that changes a lot, especially at the University of Applied Sciences level.”

Did you ever consider going to another university?

“I worked at Vrije Universiteit, and Leuven university, but that was not a success - but actually a very big success in the sense that I decided there that I shouldn’t pursue another Master’s, but rather a doctorate.

So let me summarize it: Groningen and now UT – that’s where I taught. I went to Leiden University, VU, KU Leuven, and I also went to NHL where I got my first degree for my teaching qualifications for mathematics, but that was kind of a hobby. So I went to quite a few institutes, been all over the place.”

What’s your favorite color?

“I think blue.”

What parts of education are you currently involved in?

“Well actually that’s also changing a little bit so maybe it’s good for you guys to know what my teaching history is at the UT. So, I got my PhD in 2017, I helped out with Luuk Spreeuwers on module 2 with the Circuit Analysis course, but you didn’t see me there, because I quit that course two years ago. In 2018 I moved from my current group to the predecessor of the Radio Systems group and became fulltime lecturer. And there I taught quite a few classes, so that would be things like Computer Programming, Statistical Inference and Digital Signal Processing, Embedded Signal Processing - well its too much to remember, actually.

Nowadays, its CLS, DSP, I’m also the module 8 coordinator, SI, and from now on actually, Introduction to Biometrics. Next year there will be additional courses as well, like embedded AI. So, I will be teaching quite a few classes; around 4 master’s courses and 4 bachelor’s courses in total. It’s quite a lot for an assistant professor, I can tell you. "

Lately, you have been involved with many parts of the bachelor programme. How come you do so much for education?

“To be honest if you ask me, if I really have to choose, I would probably choose education over research. I guess if you ask almost any other assistant professor they would choose research, but yeah that’s my preference. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise considering my background in Hanzehogeschool  I guess. The nice thing is also developing courses, not just giving them.”

How do you decide the tradeoff between research and teaching?

“Let’s say the time I spend on actual research is limited; I do spend time on it but it’s way less than some colleagues do. I have some interest in research topics surrounding forensic biometrics and embedded AI, and I have some master’s students doing their theses working on those types of topics. We’ll see what the outcome will be, if that’s a nice entry point for a publication, whether it’s a conference paper or even a journal paper. So that’s the way I do research, and it works for me – it’s not very uncommon actually. Typically, you also advise PhD students, at this moment I have one.”

What’s your favorite drink?

“I can’t really choose between good coffee and good beer.”

And your favorite food?

“I like a lot of different types of food. Nowadays maybe it’s more Asian oriented, and it used to be more Italian. But it fluctuates, so I can’t really say that’s my true favorite.”

What kind of feedback do you use to evaluate your lectures?

“The trouble is normally I would, while on campus, ask people at the start of a lecture how things are going. But somehow this whole covid situation changed that because I find that the overall interaction with students is quite hard if you use this kind of communication channel. Still, I can look into your eyes, but it’s not the same as if I would lecture, for example, or even worse if you have a tutorial class that is run through the internet. So, it’s kind of hard to help people in general. But yeah, I would explicitly ask for feedback.”

Were you happy with the quality of your own lectures when things moved online?

“Well, I think no, I’m not that happy. Although there is one positive side to the whole covid situation in terms of educational support; that we, as a whole group of lecturers, kind of discovered how much tooling is already there that we had ignored. And I think because we had to change things overnight, we had to spend more time investigating what is already there, so that is the positive side. But if you would ask what the effect of covid is, it certainly has a negative impact on the quality of lecturing .”

How do you evaluate the quality of your own courses?

“Well, there are several aspects to this. Sometimes people say I’m a bit too thorough for EE students because I have a math background, but I always try to keep it within their electrical engineering context. Also, we’re studying at the university, so I think I have to be a bit strict here and there, because it helps you learn to think independently. Sometimes I’m very direct and strict in things, but that’s kind of a role I play because I really want people to be very critical.

The fun thing is, I joined in 2013, and I remember talking to some students quite recently and they said, ‘you’re nicer now than I thought you were when I followed module 2 ,’ and I said, ‘yeah but that had a reason, that’s just this role that I’m playing.'”

What would perfect student be like?

“The perfect student is somebody who’s willing to spend some effort on learning something, whether you learn a lot or not. I think the effort is important, and that’s different for everyone. I want to explicitly avoid the obvious answer, ‘the brilliant students’ – well they’re already brilliant. To be honest, I’ve had some talks with students with certain problems, and I found it very rewarding to help them out a little bit. What I’m saying is I don’t prefer dealing brilliant students over helping students with certain problems – it’s kind of equal. So, let’s say to facilitate that students can learn in their own way as much as possible.”

Would you say those kinds of students are present/the majority in your lectures?

“Yeah, I guess so.”

What kind of student were you?

“Once in a while, extremely lazy, but you should realize that when I studied, I started studying math in 1990, so that’s a long time ago. The legislation was also different, so it was easier for us to take a little bit longer. I’m actually part of the last group that could just study for 6 years - the only mandatory thing was get your first year in 2 years’ time, which is kind of comparable to what is done now. And certain parts are a gift; you don’t need to lend anything, and you have the ability to lend some extra money, which is what I did together with a TA position. But this also meant that the equivalent Master of Science Study was just four years.

You can also imagine there are also other interesting things to do during a study. Nowadays, I sometimes feel sorry for some students that they have to study really heard and they have to finish on time due to this financial pressure. Luckily, I was in this position where I could sometimes be extremely lazy, but sometimes I also worked very hard, so I had my periods, I would say.”

Do you have any hobbies?

“Reading, listening to music, currently studying physics in way more details nowadays. Could also be considered as a weird hobby, maybe. I also need it a little bit for my work but it’s got a bit out of hand so I thought maybe I should do it more systematically, and that’s what I’m doing right now”

Are there things you do not really like about your job?

“Well, you could say one thing that is very positive but also has a negative side, in my opinion; you get extremely high level of freedom at a university, so you’re basically running your own show. As long as you generate money – I’m not aware of how much you know about how research is financed - but normally you write a proposal and based on accepted proposals, you get certain amount of project money and can hire PhD students , etc. So basically, you’re running your own show, possibly also in collaboration with fellow researchers if it’s a bigger project.

But the downside of that is that you can make it very individual for yourself. When I worked at the Hanzehogeschool, because the main business is education, by definition you have to collaborate with your colleagues, and this level of collaboration is way higher than at a research university. Sometimes I feel like that is the downside of this extreme freedom.”

What keeps you motivated towards your job?

“Developing courses. Actually, at this moment I’ve finally come up with proper lecture slides for CLS. But also thinking about nice areas of research, such as forensic biometrics. For example, I have a student currently working on an idea of mine, whether that works or not.”

Do you feel that there are topics/material missing from the curriculum?

“Yeah, definitely. At least, I would say, strictly it’s not missing, but I think there should be more emphasis in the bachelor on power electronics. Especially considering the energy transition, I think it’s wise to spend way more time and put effort into power electronics at a bachelor level.

For example, when you look at module 8, let’s say 20 years ago telecom engineering was a hot topic within electrical engineering. Actually, a relatively large number of students would choose topics like this as a specialization, but focuses shift over the years. And we, as telecom/signal processing, have one module in the bachelor. You could argue, why isn’t there a good recognizable part – I wouldn’t necessarily say a full module – where you have power electronics?”

What are your plans for the future?

“To further develop the research part, and also kind of finalize my educational tasks, because I will take over a few new courses next year, and also develop a new master’s course. It takes a lot of time investment, which I don’t mind - I mean if I get paid for this and my boss is happy with it, then I’m happy as well. But it’s a lot of investment and what you want is that the investment gets repaid, so I hope for the near future that this whole educational part is settled, and I can focus a bit more on the research part as well.”

Final question: Do you have a piece of advice for the readers?

“Always try to be open to learning something new, whether that’s when you’re a student at this university, but also in your professional career. Especially as an engineer, it’s very important that you want to be open to new ideas. And I think if you’re already open to that whilst being at the university, whether its bachelor or master, always be willing to learn something new, because that gives you the most fun.”

Author

Ali Sakr

Member of the Vonk Editorial Team