Breeding ground for science, top-class sport, and entertainment

Joint interview with Dirk Lippits and Ralf Mackenbach

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Breeding ground for science, top-class sport, and entertainment

Successfully combining an intensive study programme with a time-consuming career in entertainment or top-class sport? That can only be achieved at a university that is both able and willing to take a flexible approach. Ralf Mackenbach (singer, dancer, actor) and Dirk Lippits (successful Olympic rower in 2000) are grateful to the TU/e for giving them the freedom to find their own way. Finding their way, both in- and outside science, has afforded them unique perspectives: "You bring together various different experiences that hardly anyone else has. That has many benefits."

by
photo Bart van Overbeeke

Heroes Past and Present

The theme of this lustrum year, which marks TU/e’s 65th anniversary, is ‘Heroes like you.’  In keeping with this theme, Cursor will publish a series of double interviews throughout the year with the motto ‘Heroes Past and Present.’ TU/e employees with proven track records, still working at the university or no longer under employment, are matched with their counterparts from today. In all possible fields: science, policy, or student life. This time we give the floor to alumnus Dirk Lippits and doctoral candidate Ralf Mackenbach. 

Dirk Lippits celebrates his 44th birthday at the beginning of May, but along the way he seems to have lost little of his Olympic stature. As a high school pupil from Geldrop, he joined the student rowing club Thêta in 1995. Five years later he made his Olympic debut in Sydney and won a silver medal in the double-four. Upon his return, the TU/e awarded him the university's medal of honour. Dirk directly attributes his rapid success to the TU/e.

"I visited quite a few universities when I was choosing my study. I wanted to study chemistry and that entails laboratory work and tests - more than a little inconvenient if you also want to do a lot of training. TU/e offered me great flexibility. For me, this was perfect and confirmed my choice to study in Eindhoven. I remember I was able to complete all of my science practicals within a week - something that would normally take half a year to complete. I was given everything I needed so that I could quickly continue with my sports training afterwards. That kind of creativity comes in very handy."

Juggling

Ralf Mackenbach's career in showbusiness started long before he graduated from the TU/e. In 2009, he won the Junior Song Contest in Kiev with his self-written song Click Clack. The following five years were very busy indeed for the 13-year-old student from the city of Best. "The Saint George College in Eindhoven has given me ample opportunity to make use of all kinds of arrangements in order to pass my tests. Thanks to the freedom I was given, I was able to combine them successfully. The TU/e awarded me the same level of freedom, because the performances continued - a constant balancing act between science and entertainment. You cannot keep juggling two balls that weigh around three hundred kilos.”

For Ralf (25), this has led to the decision to leave the entertainment world behind for now, and to focus full-time on his PhD research on nuclear fusion. His choice of Applied Physics worked out well for him. "It primarily involved a lot of theoretical work, and that suits me best. Coincidentally, you can also absorb theory on the back seat of a car, on your way to a gig - no problem at all. Maybe I was lucky that it suited me. Or perhaps, it suited me because it was convenient", he says with a wink.

I am very grateful to the TU/e for the freedom I was given to combine study and sport.

Dirk Lippits
successful Olympic rower in 2000

Neither Ralf nor Dirk struggled to make use of these extra freedoms. They were always able to count on support from the TU/e, because their study results were good. "With me it was quite simple," says Dirk. "The faculty staff were very enthusiastic and arranged everything I asked for. Instead of written exams, for example, they would offer me an oral exam if I was abroad for training or competition. I was never forced to struggle. Most people find it an inspiring story and are keen to contribute. They were also very flexible in arranging my PhD graduation."

Ralf nods in agreement. "Yes, that is definitely true. Everyone is keen to cooperate and make concessions. On condition, of course, that you do not fail your studies. If all you get are Ds, I can understand they may advise you otherwise - not to pull in two directions at once, but rather to focus on one. However, as long as things are going well, people are willing to be flexible and make arrangements."

Thoughtful and motivated

Dirk: "Of course, it was all very well-planned. I suspect it will be the same for you, Ralf. People really feel that when you say you will do it this way, you actually will - that you are not just ‘throwing your hat in the ring’ and that you are sensible enough; that if you know something will not fit your schedule, you will not try it. It has to be well-considered. I was very motivated, both for my studies and for rowing. If I said I was going to do something, I did it. Conversely, if I said I was not going to do something, I did not. Do you understand? It is not the same as asking for flexibility because you had a little too much to drink the week before. That makes it different."

Ralf: "Indeed, flexible yet realistic, I would say. If you come up with a realistic estimate, are consistent, and your planning is sound, then nobody will stand in your way."

Stratumseind

They both argue that good planning and goal orientation make you a better student. Dirk: "Having structure is usually already beneficial in its own right. For athletes this is perhaps a little different, as they tend to be more systematic and measured in everything. That did make it more difficult for me sometimes. I was often abroad for a month to do training or competition. That would take a whole month out of my studies. However, because I learned relatively easily, it never hindered me much.”

Ralf: "For me, it works two ways. The fact that you have a busy career in entertainment, and you also follow a great study programme, forces you to plan well. You have to make sure that everything is well organized. Whilst it may sound paradoxical, if I had more spare time, I may well have been less successful. Then you may be more likely to go to the Stratumseind (Eindhoven’s most famous street for student bars, ed.) during the weekend and stay out late socializing. Combining my studies with my career has taught me to plan better. I do not know whether that also applies to you, Dirk?"

"Yes and no. Whilst I did take the textbooks with me on training camps, they always remained closed," says the current DSM director, laughing. "I did have the right intention: I have plenty of time to study for a while. However, during a practice session, you get into such a flow that nothing else fits anymore. So, at a certain point, I decided to leave it at that. You go somewhere to train for a certain reason, and this also means being committed to becoming part of a kind of bubble that ends up conflicting with everything else. After a week of training, there was always a period of rest during which I could continue to push on with my studies.”

Whilst I did take the textbooks with me on training camps, they always remained closed.

Dirk Lippits
director of the DSM Dairy Baking Beverages

Ralf: "I think that is the big difference between sport and entertainment. The entertainment business is, by its very nature, very unpredictable. One week you may be fully booked with performances, whilst the next week, your agenda might be completely empty. It is almost impossible to say what the next month will be like. So, for me, it was different, I really had to use the moments between gigs - often in the car or in my dressing room - to open my study books and do my homework. Otherwise, it would just not happen."

Not lonely at the top

The cliché that it is lonely at the top, turns out to be only true in part. Dirk: "Certainly, I was rarely or never at the university, except to take my exams. Actually, I only attended lectures during the first academic year. So indeed, my contact with fellow students was limited. During my PhD I did have more contact, as I was part of a department. Of course, I was with Thêta, which is quite a large association. I lived in a rowing house with eight students and hence I had no lack of social contacts, and it just seemed so much more logical to live in the rowing world than at the university. Clearly, that is a choice."

Ralf: "Whilst I enjoyed attending lectures and I did make friends there, I definitely did not attend every social occasion. So that way, you do lose part of your student life. Still, I do not consider this a sacrifice. I got plenty of fun experiences in return."

Entertainment is all about presentation and networking. These are skills that are also useful in science.

Ralf Mackenbach
won the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2009

Dirk: "Every experience you gain, helps to build your career, including the things you learn outside your studies. The more diverse these experiences are, the better. I have built a successful career after rowing, partly due to the combination of sport - which is a very different world - and my studies. I have definitely benefited from that link."

Ralf: "I agree. To a certain extent, I am already experiencing the benefits of this myself. Media and entertainment are a very social industry. It is all about presenting, networking, and things like that. Those are all skills that I think are useful everywhere, including in science. You have to be able to present research results at a conference and to discuss inspiring ideas with other scientists, so my experience in showbusiness helps a lot."

Dirk: "I think it is primarily the diversity of experiences that is valuable - combining science with a background that practically no one else has. In the world of business, that can be very inspiring indeed. Your own unique background enables you to come up with innovative solutions."

Ralf: "I completely agree. You have a slightly different approach than other people and that can be of real value."

Career tips

In answer to Ralf's request for tips for a successful career, Dirk does not have to think for very long. "Especially when you are young, it is not possible to make mistakes. Follow your heart, do things you like, and for which you have a passion. As soon as you notice that you are not doing as well as you should, go and do something else. For your career, it usually does not matter what you do until you are about 35. Only then will you be appreciated for a certain expertise or quality. The only thing that you must not do, is continue doing the same thing until you are 35, because then you literally learn very little.”

Ralf: "Yes, that is a good point, also what you say about liking what you do. However, I actually do not mean that I have to ‘skip’ to work every morning. I am more interested in a challenge. It has to be stimulating. If you manage to find the answer to a difficult question, that makes it all the more fun."

Thêta

After his active sports career in 2007, Dirk did not rule out a return as a rowing coach. However, he has adjusted that ambition. "In sport, your age is a defining factor. I have always toyed with the idea of working as a coach after my career, to share my experience with young athletes and get energy from it. Now that I am becoming older, I prefer getting back on the water myself. I am, and will always be, a sportsman."

Does he still visit Thêta? "Yes, I pass by there sometimes. My mother lives near the boathouse. When I visit her, I often have a run and stop by Thêta for a coffee. I now live on the Amstel in Amsterdam, and there I see rowers pass by every day. Then I see those people enjoying themselves in the sunshine on the water, whilst I am having a Teams meeting. Because of the corona pandemic, at the moment, my life is largely taking place behind a screen, so I look at that water with a degree of envy."

Personal recommendation

Both Ralf and Dirk would recommend the TU/e to anyone who wants to combine a study with top-class sport or, for example, a career in entertainment. Dirk: "Large universities can sometimes be real learning factories: You have to keep in line because they have little or no flexibility. By comparison, the TU/e is a small yet innovative university that moves with you. At least that is how I experienced it and from what I hear from Ralf, after all these years, it still is."

Ralf: "I find it difficult to make the translation to other universities, because I simply have not seen enough of them. However, the TU/e has indeed been very flexible towards me and has given me many opportunities. So yes, I would definitely recommend it."

The interviewees

Dirk Lippits (1977) grew up in Geldrop and started studying Chemical Technology in 1995. After completing his bachelor's and master's degrees, he completed a PhD in Polymer Science from 2003 to 2007 and worked as a researcher at DSM in Geleen. In 1995, he joined Thêta and became the most successful rower Eindhoven had ever produced. In 2000, at the age of 23, he made his debut at the Olympic Games in Sydney and won silver in the double-four. His participation in the Athens Games in 2004 in the skiff yielded a sixteenth place. In 2007, he retired from competition because he was not satisfied with the selection policy of the national coach. After a job at McKinsey & Company (2007-2013), he returned to DSM, where he is now director of the Dairy Baking Beverages sector in Delft. During his sports career, DSM was already an important sponsor for him.

Ralf Mackenbach (1995) grew up in the city of Best. During his teenage years. he studied dance and drama. In 2014, he started studying Applied Physics, subsequently completing his bachelor three years later. He then completed the master Science and Technology of Nuclear Fusion, acquiring the title of engineer. In 2020, he began a PhD programme in nuclear fusion. To the general public, he is best known as the boy who won the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev (2009) aged 13, with the self-written song Click Clack. In addition, he created a sensation as a dancer and actor in various musicals, TV shows, and films. He has also provided voice-overs for animation characters.  

 

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