We visited Jurriaan Schmitz, professor in Semiconductor Components and head of the research group Integrated Devices and Systems (IDS). He leads a group of around 35 people working on MEMS devices, diodes, and basically anything using semiconductors. The group does research on the hardware related to these devices. Questions such as ‘which materials should you use and combine to make something?’ are commonly addressed by research within the group. With their research, the group is always looking at ways to make transistors faster, cheaper or smaller (preferably all three).
We started the interview with Jurriaan’s background and asked him if he could shortly take us back to his youth.
‘I grew up in Amsterdam, we moved there when I was five and I’ve stayed there from kindergarten until I finished my promotion. I did, however, make a little excursion to Italy where I lived for a short period when I was nine. When I was finished with my promotion I thought, “if I don’t leave Amsterdam now, I might never leave again”, so I decided to start working for Philips at their NatLab (from Dutch: Natuurkundig Laboratorium ‘Physics Laboratory’). I was lucky, everybody thought Philips was not hiring people back in the days, but I didn’t know that. I just handed in my letter of application and got in easily because I was one of the few to try.’
How was your time in high school, and how did you choose what to study?
‘I really liked math and physics, a lot more than all the other courses. Thanks to a few of these other courses I almost had to stay behind a year, haha, I actually passed a year with barely the minimum grades. Choosing between an alpha and a beta direction was therefore very easy for me. I really liked physics, so I started studying that in Amsterdam without thinking about it too much. During my studies I actually realized I enjoyed the electrical engineering part most.’
Did you already have some experience with Electrical Engineering from high school?
‘Electricity and magnetism actually were a large part of physics in my first years of high school. When I arrived in 4th grade, a new computer room was opened at my school. We learned to program in Basic with those large vintage arcade screens. My teacher asked me if I wanted to teach the lower grades, because he was slightly overworked, and I had a decent understanding of the matter and from one came the other and I had my first experience in teaching. I also tutored to earn some extra money, but I really enjoyed writing computer instructions.’
How were your studies?
‘I’m not sure if I should be too honest about this, haha. I worked a bit less than average and got higher grades than average. I had a great method: before the first lecture I read the notes, and during the lecture I checked if the teacher had anything to add. You very quickly realize that many teachers were just reading out loud their own lecture notes. I quickly stopped attending those classes, which saved me a lot of time. You also had teachers who told a broader story about their subject, which helped the students in their understanding. We had a phenomenal lecturer for astronomy. He was so good that half the students decided to take astronomy classes, even though the subject hardly offered proper job opportunities. When exams were coming up, I often started studying full-time, something like two days in advance. I wouldn’t do anything else those days and almost always passed. There was one occasion where I didn’t pass an exam. I followed summer courses in CERN at the end of my studies, so I went to Geneva for three months to work in a research group there. Back in those days, people were just starting to use emailing and I knew only 4 people that actually had an email address. One of them sent me an email saying “Hey! You failed your basic differential equations course”. So, I had to come back from Geneva to do a resit. I actually spent slightly longer on my study than necessary, but that was very common at the time. My master was scheduled for four years, and I finished it in five. I also followed a few weird side courses that the exam committee didn’t agree with from a content perspective, so they were removed from my list of results.’
What was the most extraordinary thing you experienced during your studies?
‘I clearly remember an important learning moment for me. During a practicum, we had to determine an integral to calibrate a device. We had to do 50 measurements as a function of the frequency and calculate the area under the curve. I told my teacher, “why don’t we just make a device that sweeps over the integral with an integrator?” The teacher said: “Sure, go ahead.” It was lots of fun, and he helped me out by sending me to a few people who could help and really stimulated me to think for myself. My courses often had a fixed system, but here I realized there was still quite some freedom, which helped me a lot. I think it’s called empowerment these days, right?’
What did you enjoy most during your work at Philips?
‘The NatLab had a large number of great scientists and great engineers working there. Something you could call the crème de la crème. I especially enjoyed working with these intelligent people the most and I still look back upon this time with a lot of joy. Well known are also the Bell labs, like the Philips NatLab. There’s a few of those labs around the world, with a unique atmosphere of innovation where no idea was out of bounds and NatLab really was one of these places. What I didn’t like so much was that my contract with Philips also said I had to move when Philips deemed it necessary. Unfortunately, they suddenly decided to move to Leuven, while I had just had two children so there are other things on your mind than moving to Leuven. I ended up travelling for 1.5 hours each day from Waalre, which was far from ideal. That’s why I was so glad I could start working in Twente and if you’re going to move, it’s nice to also start a new job. Here in Twente, a group was working on semiconductors. When the leader of the group retired, they were looking for a successor and that is how I eventually got here.’
Were you immediately involved in education and teaching with the start of your new job at the UT?
‘Yes, even already at Philips I taught part of the internal training programme where I explained how the MOS transistor works and how to make it. When I arrived at the UT, I received a crash course on teaching for professors, but it was relatively easy. During my studies I also followed the education course, which helped a lot.’
What do you like most about your current job?
‘I enjoy the education and contact with students the most, that really makes me happy. I’m also in the honours programme, which allows you to have more contact with individual students because of the small group sizes. This week is coincidentally the busiest week of the year with regard to education. I have to teach 22 hours of lectures and seminars this week. On average it’s closer to 3 or 4 hours a week, which is very little, but I teach three courses and they are all in the third quartile. Next to that, I’m working on a few graduation projects but elsewise my educational task is not that busy. This really is one of the main reasons I wanted to leave Philips and come work here: the chance to teach. And I’ve been doing it for over 16 years now, since 2002.’
What do you like about the university?
‘The University of Twente is a small university, which I like a lot. You get to have direct contact with everyone within the organization. I can, so to speak, walk in on the CvB to discuss something if there’s a real problem. I also have very direct contact with students and other employees. The campus also really has a nice atmosphere. When the sun shines, the O&O square is filled with people eating their sandwiches, which is really fun to see. I studied in Amsterdam, where all the buildings are distributed over the city. This gives you much less of a group culture. Also the entrepreneurial side of the UT makes it very interesting. Here in Twente we find it important to work together with industry. At the UvA, they didn’t have an interest in this at all. I come from the seventies, and back in the days, companies had a bad reputation thanks to companies like Shell, helping the apartheid regime in South Africa. A lot of stories went around about how you couldn’t expect anything good from companies and industry. That really defined the atmosphere I grew up in. Former Rector Magnificus Van den Kroonenberg changed this aspect in Twente. He has been announcing for ten years that it’s important to work together with companies in our research. At first, he met quite some resistance, but in the end he managed to create an entrepreneurial spirit in this university. I like that, because I also worked in the industry and know what it’s like, you can expect good results from cooperation. I also like this area and the opportunities it gives for biking and jogging. That’s something you don’t want to try in the center of Amsterdam, haha.’
Do you combine your job with any other things?
‘Actually, only with my hobbies and my family. I don’t have another job. When you’re a professor you get quite a few ancillary activities, like joining a few committees, visiting congresses and working in editorial offices of magazines, but there isn’t much time for other things.’
What do you like less about the university?
‘I’m sometimes bothered by, how do I put this nicely, the management of this university. Sometimes it really worries me how some things are handled. This makes it cost quite a bit more energy than I would want it to.’
Then some more personal questions. What are your hobbies?
‘As I already said, I like jogging and biking. I’m also into music and theatre. Oh, and movies. You can spend quite some time on those already. I often go to the theatre in Hengelo, which is comfortably close, so you can crawl back home. I go to both the Metropool and Schouwburg Hengelo and it’s quite relaxed.’
Is there a destination you’ve always wanted to visit?
‘Yes, I have always wanted to travel through the Amazon rainforest but haven’t gotten the chance yet. I’ve seen quite a few places thanks to my work. They send you to almost anywhere, except for the Amazon, since they don’t seem to organize congresses there. I would love to take a boat trip on the Amazon river and see everything up close.’
What is the most interesting congress you’ve been too?
‘That’s a tough choice, because I have two I really enjoyed. The Future Trends in Microelectronics is only for people who get invited. These people have some sort of authority in the field of study and get to talk about its future. These congresses get organized on an island in the Mediterranean. I’ve been invited three times, to the islands Sardinia, Corsica and Mallorca. I wouldn’t have visited those island myself, so it was really fun to combine a congress with such a visit. The other congress is about measurements on chips, which has the most interesting content. It’s a place for specialists who only do chip measurements. So if you want to know about how a transistor works and what the best ways to measure are, you have to go there. The people who come know exactly what the problems are when a measurement tool gives wrong values and how to solve these problems. Actually it’s a bunch of nerds obsessed with doing measurements that talk about it all day long. A nice group of geeks having a really good time with a good atmosphere and high quality content.’
What’s the most interesting research you have done at the UT?
‘I received a personal grant from the Dutch government for doing research. You can do really wild things with those, so that’s what I did. We built all kinds of things on top of a chip, like a radiation detector and a solar cell. The last one means you already have the power source for the chip. That was really fun, but quite a while ago, already back in 2005 to 2010.’
What’s currently the most interesting thing you’re working on?
‘Unfortunately, I can’t talk much about that. But I can tell you something about another topic. We’re working on a really interesting project to see if we can make chips that repair themselves if they get damaged. Self-healing chips, so to say. That’s really exciting research because it introduces a different way of thinking than people normally have. Usually people look at the expected lifetime of a chip by measuring how long it survives when damaged. But if a chip can repair itself, it can go on for much longer and be part of more sustainable electronics. It’s a very difficult subject, if it was easy it would have been done already, but it’s very fun to work on.’
What do you think your field of study will look like in ten years?
‘We’ve recently stopped with the miniaturization phase and transistors are not really becoming smaller anymore. The field is moving in a different direction to try and improve the performance by making smarter architectures, but that has not proven to be very useful. People are looking for something completely new, like a new semiconductor with better properties. I think that’s going to have a large impact on the chip industry. We’re also looking at chips that don’t produce exact results, which is also a very interesting field. Normally we’re putting a lot of time and money into moving data so that a chip makes absolutely no errors. Many amplifiers are used to make sure a 1 stays a 1 and a 0 a 0. We’re using a lot of resources for two things: data is in the wrong place, which requires lots of power to move it, and, on a more philosophical note, we really want the chip to make no errors. Approximate Computing is a new approach, which says the outcome of chips for certain applications can be approximately good, but doesn’t have to be perfect. These chips can produce results close to normal chips, but with a much lower power consumption. My group is a very small part of this research; we only make the components. It’s really fun to solve this problem as a community.’
What do you think is the biggest challenge in the near future?
‘I think the energy problem the world is facing. There’s a quickly growing need for energy and a decreasing availability. We really need to do something about this, and EE is a prominent field to contribute to this. I’m looking at you, do something! That’s also why I think it’s really important to train people in this field, because you might be the people who think of a solution. Not all of you, but certainly a few of you are going to make an important contribution to the solution we need. I really don’t know anything more important than this. You could say it’s more important to prevent war, but war is mostly caused by scarcity. Energy scarcity is definitely about to be a problem on Earth, so let’s do something about it.’
What’s the most important advice you want to give students?
‘I’ve always had the luck that I could do what I was interested in, that helped a lot to achieve what I have. So if you can, follow your curiosity. Of course it’s important to earn a living and that kind of stuff, but if you can combine it with doing something you love that’s totally awesome. I always realize: if you’re curious about things you’re working on, it’s way easier to keep on going. At least for me, that’s been my main drive.’