Hot Seat | “A full Coliseum is always chanting ‘maximus, maximus!’”

Ramiro Serra (45), assistant professor at the Electrical Energy Systems Group, draws five cards from the top hat and sets them down. He considers the questions and falls silent. “These are difficult questions.” Thinking aloud: “Most questions are open to interpretation in multiple ways. What are you looking for?” He soon swaps the question ‘What are you unsure of?’ “Too many things to list. Fodder for the shrink,” he says with a smile.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

There seems, however, little to be unsure of: this Argentinian lecturer at Electrical Engineering has already received his department's ‘best lecturer’ prize on several occasions. “At one of these occasions, Prof. Paul van den Hof delivered me the prize saying: ‘So you give lectures on Electromagnetics? Then your own efforts must have won you this prize, since it cannot be the topic itself!’” Ramiro reflects: “It’s a good thing the prize is called ‘best lecturer’ and not ‘best teacher’… Who is a good teacher?”

Ramiro Serra is a passionate man. Passionate about Electromagnetics and dedicated to his students. His enthusiasm during lectures is well-known. This enthusiasm can also be a double-edged sword, as in one occasion: “I was deriving a solution in the green-board, one which took several steps and filled in all the seven boards in one of the Auditorium classrooms. It was evident that the classroom was completely absorbed as I was building up a these calculations with an appealing narrative, working towards the culmination: the radiated fields of the Hertzian point dipole. I was trying to draw the students along with me, to have them experience the symmetry and beauty of mathematics involved, and their link to the physical phenomenon. It was like travelling on a train that is gaining speed, everything was falling into place. At least it was until a student in one of the front rows raised his hand to ask a question. Certainly, I’m normally very happy and in favor of all sort of questions and interaction during lectures, but to be honest, it was not exactly the best moment to divert the explanation with a discussion. It feels like stepping on the brakes on the train and losing the flow, but I thought ‘I prefer to stop and have everybody on board, and perhaps his question can help others’. The student’s question was: ‘Do we have to learn this for the exam?’ My initial response was, ‘Now that you've asked, yes, this will definitely be in the exam.’ But I couldn’t hide my frustration and I told the student that his attitude would never get him anywhere. He shrugged and said that he took a different view.”

Today Ramiro regrets his reaction but can laugh about this story: “By the way, I regularly still see the student in question, he went on to discuss a project proposal with me and I know he’ll be a good engineer. There are no hard feelings, we get along well.”

When did you hold your tongue when you should have spoken up?

“This happens to me all the time. I am a slow thinker, I process my thoughts by saying them aloud or writing them down. I am constantly engaged in an internal dialogue with myself. Five years after giving what I consider to be an unsatisfactory answer at a conference, I can still be mulling over the question and revisiting what I should have answered instead.”

“When I get an unexpected question during a lecture, I know that I have to let it go and come back to it later. I can't think in front of a full lecture theater, I need time to talk and to think things through. This is why I prepare my lectures thoroughly. I plan each word, each example, when I’m going to add a pause and when I’m going to increase intensity, when I'm going to throw in a joke or when I am going to ask a question.”

About humor during lectures: “Essential, an absolute necessity during lectures, but risky. Humor is not universal. I try out my jokes on my wife and friends, because there is nothing worse than a joke that falls flat.”

Who was your first real love?

Ramiro mulls this over aloud: “What do you mean by love? The word has many meanings. I have many loves. I love science, my country, my wife, my children, but also barbeque - that's in no particular order, by the way,” he hastens to add. He simply means there are many types of love, and they vary in significance. It is the context that gives the word its meaning.

It was Ramiro's father who first triggered his love for science: “I remember my father showed me how to make an electromagnet, with a simple nail, a battery and copper wire. I was fascinated to see that this contraption ‘magically” behaved as the magnets I was used playing with. I couldn't stop playing with it and wondered: 'How is this possible?'”

You are going back to basics and can keep one device. Which one?

“Are my primary needs being met? In that case the device must either entertain me or be useful. Amusement gets my vote so I'll take my e-reader with me, assuming that I'll have good wifi.” No smartphone? “No, I am the phoneless guy,” he says, pointing to his rarely used, five-year-old telephone, its case covered in pink stickers. “My daughter stuck those on. You'd have to be heartless to pull them off.”

Do you want to excel or is 'good' good enough?

“I aim for excellence, always. But for me the result is sometimes just ‘good’. I see that it’s very difficult to thrive in our profession of educators and researchers if you don’t try your best at everything. I think you cannot excel at everything always.”

That voice in Ramiro’s head, reminding him to aim for excellence, has a pictorial analogy: “Do you know the scene in the film The Gladiator, where the gladiator Maximus defeats his opponent and waits for the emperor to pass judgment: should he kill the man or let him live? The emperor chooses death, but Maximus refuses. The audience in the Coliseum is on his side and chants his name, ‘Maximus, Maximus, Maximus!’. Maximus is Latin for ‘the greatest’. I sometimes have my own Coliseum in my head. When I am preparing lessons, doing the washing up at home, or doing my dad tasks, the crowd is always chanting in my head ‘maximus!’ to remind me I need to try to get the best out of myself.”

What is the biggest misconception others have about you?

“What I sometimes hear is that people think that as a researcher I am too practical, that I tend to concentrate on doing experiments. By contrast, others say I am too theoretical. Students regularly give me feedback saying that I should be more application-oriented, more pragmatic. That I am too philosophical. I talk about the beauty of the discipline, of math, of the history of the great minds unravelling the wonders of nature. I want to convey the passion I feel for the discipline, for science - the fire. And no, you don't need to be aware of these things for the exam, but this knowledge, as any knowledge, shapes your mind and it is certainly practical for the rest of your life.”

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