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Hot Seat | “Not everything is predestined; you also have a hand in things”

A conversation with professor Kitty Nijmeijer (47) takes a course that reflects her own nature: open, honest, spontaneous and inclined to go to extremes. “I am usually very cheerful, but if I am angry, then I am very angry.” Five questions answered with a laugh and a tear.

by
photo Bart van Overbeeke

Three years ago professor Kitty Nijmeijer swapped the University of Twente for TU/e in order to head up the research group Membrane Materials and Processes. During the past three years she has come to feel entirely at home at our university.

She has lately been reunited with her husband, having spent three years shuttling back and forth between Oldenzaal and Eindhoven as they pursued their relationship at weekends. They have bought a house in Nuenen, which they can move into at the end of the year. “I like belonging somewhere, knowing your neighbors. That's often easier in a village.”

Kitty pulls out five questions but after a massive burst of laughter one goes back to be swapped. Having read the question ‘Do you find it easy to take a dump in a public toilet?’, Kitty judges it as being “a question unworthy of an interview.”

Does everything happen for a reason?

She laughs. “Oh no, I don't believe that”, is her first decisive reaction. “Although at times I wish it were so. The way I see it, not everything happens for a reason, sometimes things just happen. But I do believe that you can influence the course of things, by thinking ahead of time about what could happen.”

Thus, she often asks doctoral candidates what they want to do after studying for a PhD, where they would like to work, for example. “It's not unlikely that I'll be approached by a company and asked whether I know of anyone for a particular job. Indirectly, practical things like that are within your control.

“If you take it to a higher level, I don't think you are able to influence everything that happens. Nine months ago my mother passed away and that sets you thinking about the why, and you hope there's a reason. That from a cloud somewhere she's sneaking a peak at us. But I don't think that's the case.”

In a conversation, what touches a nerve with you?

“I feel very involved, but that only makes me go the extra mile for my own causes. It is sometimes easier if you can distance yourself a little more. I'll admit I'm jealous of colleagues who are good at doing that. Things prey on my mind, although they never keep me awake at night.

If I am treated unfairly, if I am not taken seriously, or if people show no commitment, then I can get angry. I am a person of extremes. As a rule I am very cheerful, but if you make me angry, I can get very angry.

I also have my insecurities and vulnerabilities. The academic world is very competitive, especially when it comes to securing funding. Rejection is something I find difficult to handle. It gives me the feeling that I am not good enough.” She hesitates a moment before saying, “I don't know whether you should write this down. It makes me sound vulnerable …” Then immediately she revisits this: “This is very difficult to admit, but I feel it is important to show that, like others, I struggle with this. It may help someone, so just leave it in.”

What do you feel embodies freedom?

“Freedom cannot be taken for granted, it is something we need to cherish, it is very valuable, we mustn't squander it. This is why for some years I was the master of ceremonies for the May 4th and 5th remembrance and festivities in Oldenzaal. For me, freedom is about respecting each other and giving one another scope. I don't think you have the right to say and do whatever you like just because the constitution says you can. You can certainly speak critically but always do so with respect. Be aware that 'the other' is exactly the same as you. Like you, that person also wants their children to go to school and wants to spend their evenings at home with their family. At the end of the day, we aren't that different from each other. There's a fair bit of moaning, but we've got it very good here!”

What is your most vivid childhood memory?

“I grew up in Elsloo in Limburg. I have a sister who is three years younger than me. We lived in the countryside outside the town, and if I close my eyes I can see our house, a big garden, barefoot children running around outdoors, having fun. During warm weather our whole family would sleep together outdoors in the open air. I had a wonderful childhood.”

The division of roles within the Nijmeijer family was not traditional. “My father was at home with us children. My mother worked full time as soon as my little sister was a year old. She was an executive secretary. Later my father studied law and he became a lawyer. My mother followed his example and also studied law. That taught me that anything is possible, and brings me back to the first question I pulled out: not everything is predestined, you also have a hand in things.”

“When I was about twenty years old, my parents divorced. For a very long time they tried to stay together and that often gave rise to tension, but that didn't actually impact me adversely to any great extent. Now I can see that my parents weren't actually suited to each other at all.”

Are you fearful of death?

“A year ago I would most certainly have answered ‘yes’ to this question. Until my mother became ill and passed away. It became apparent that she had lung cancer. Her body was making antigens against the lung cancer as well as against her own healthy cells, and that process took hold in her brain. This caused her to become utterly confused and babble absolute nonsense. At other times she would lie, apathetically, in bed. Only two weeks passed between the time we learned she had cancer and her death.

My mother had no symptoms, she did not know she was ill, I am convinced of that. By the time she was admitted to the hospital, nothing more could be done for her.

She remained clearheaded for one day in the hospital. And I thought ‘the only thing I need to do now is lie down with her.' And I did that, and I have the strong sense that this was when she let go of life. Looking back, that was our farewell. I am happy for her that it didn't last any longer than it did, it was enough. Beforehand I was very fearful of being with her when she passed away, but it felt so natural. There was no doubt that I should be with her, it was how it was meant to be. Personally, I am still afraid of death, but this experience was very special, in a positive sense. When she passed, it felt very intimate and close.”

Looking back on the interview: “The questions are intertwined.” Picking another five questions at random gives us much lighter questions. “I wouldn't have enjoyed answering these ones half as much.” This is typically Kitty: openhearted until it is painful, but always drawing to a close with a heartfelt laugh.

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