“The sky is the limit for Laurent at TU/e”

They are glowing with pride, the parents of nine-year-old child prodigy Laurent Simons. He came to study at TU/e in early 2019 and hopes to complete his Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering in December. In the intervening period, he has lost his heart to TU/e and finds it “really fun” here. Laurent thinks before he speaks, keeps his answers short and first seeks plenty of eye contact with his father Alexander and mother Lydia. His parents answer our questions more quickly and at length: why has Laurent chosen to study here at TU/e, how was he able to meet the admission requirements? And, what's next?

Father Alexander Simons: “In June 2018 Laurent completed his pre-university schooling (which included Greek and Latin) in Amsterdam and after that he took a long summer vacation. A medical or engineering study was going to be his next step. We visited a great many universities all over Europe, from Norway to Spain, but I don't think it would be appropriate to name names. He could have gone anywhere, but once he met with professor Peter Baltus, who likely would become his mentor, and Dean Bart Smolders, Laurent felt very much at home in Eindhoven. By Christmas he had set his sights on his goal: to study Electrical Engineering at TU/e. The distance isn't an issue at all. We now drive from our home in Amsterdam to Eindhoven most days of the week. We would also be prepared to move to another country. And, in fact, we will be moving house; as of January we are going to be renovating a house in Belgium, in Antwerp.”

Engineering

Laurent's interest in a medical program came as no surprise to his parents. “In our family 95 percent of us are doctors,” says the dentist, who together with his wife runs a practice in Amsterdam - (only one day a week in the present circumstances. “But his choosing an engineering study did surprise us. It was only by chance that Laurent discovered that this is something he enjoys. It happened while he was taking a computer science course - run specially for him - in high school. He also really enjoyed math and physics, and Electrical Engineering is very broad, it opens doors in every direction, he continues in the next breath. “Ha! From now on you can help with our recruitment activities,” jokes Sjoerd Hulshof, who in his role as Program Director of the Bachelor's of EE has joined the conversation.  

Click

We are in the office of Peter Baltus, Laurent's mentor. “I was happy with the idea of being Laurent's mentor as soon as they asked me. Supervising a child is a new and special experience,” says professor Baltus, who himself has no children. “It clicked between Laurent and me. We have a shared interest and share the same sense of humor.” They both have a fondness for a scientific approach and practical solutions. The evidence is sitting on the table: a mixing desk and a set of microphones. This is Baltus's work, designed to put an end to the poor sound quality of conference calls. “The lousy sound annoyed me. I decided that the cost of a good system was nothing compared to the time being lost. With the budget that I won with a teaching prize, and my parents' old speakers, I put this system together one Sunday. Drilled some holes in the desk and I was done. The first few times we met up, Laurent couldn't keep his eyes off it. Making things for the sheer fun of it is something else we both enjoy.”

Bespoke program

The Bachelor College introduced in 2012 trains the ‘engineer of the future’ who is capable of collaborating in interdisciplinary teams to seek solutions. At TU/e Laurent is taking a special program of courses devised by EE and approved by the Examination Committee. His BEP is on electronics, coincidentally the specialization of mentor Baltus, but he could just as easily have chosen a different discipline. He has been able to complete his program at an accelerated pace.

“Laurent doesn't need to take nine weeks of lectures for a course,” says Sjoerd Hulshof. “He has taken thirty-four courses, most of them in one week. On a Monday he would have an introductory meeting with the relevant course lecturer and on the Thursday there would be an opportunity for feedback. On the intervening days he studied hard at home and did assignments. The practical component, in physical labs or the MatLab assignments, was spread out over a couple of weeks. Laurent used car journeys to watch video lectures. When the lecturer thought he was ready for the exam, he could sit it, with our secretary Margot acting as invigilator.” The nine-year-old boy has had no contact with his fellow students; both he and his parents found this preferable. For group work and USE courses, the program director sought an alternative. “We made sure he was given a different assignment by which he could achieve the same learning objectives. We are asking the Examination Committee to grant him an exemption for the collaboration objectives,” says Hulshof.

The nine-year-old boy has had no contact with his fellow students; both he and his parents found this preferable. For group work and USE courses, the program director sought an alternative. “We made sure he was given a different assignment by which he could achieve the same learning objectives. We are asking the Examination Committee to grant him an exemption for the collaboration objectives,” says Hulshof.

Sammy

No student life for Laurent, instead an adorable guide dog. Sammy, a nine-week-old German Shepherd, is ambling about in professor Baltus's office. The plan is that Sammy will stand by Laurent's side as his protector, once she is a little older. Laurent's parents can't spend all their lives accompanying Laurent to his meetings. The current thinking is that Laurent will do a PhD jointly at TU/e and an American university, no factual agreements have yet been made about this.

What is his own dream? Laurent: “Life extension”. “Making artificial organs,” he explains. His mother laughs that he would prefer to make a whole heart, not just a heart valve, before talking about their own dreams as parents. “We want him to be happy. To be able to develop. He is a real researcher. We hope that he will never have to take a job because he needs a salary, but instead that he can fulfill his dream.” The dream is there, what they're seeking for is the way to fulfill it.

Media attention

Something that could help with this search is media attention. Laurent and his parents don't see many disadvantages. They maintain Laurent's contacts with the media and manage his Instagram account. “He has over 36,000 followers! Isn't that great”, says mother Lydia. His father: “Laurent is proud of his abilities, just as an athlete is proud of his or her achievements. This year we've let him study here in complete peace, but now he is almost finished so I have been in touch with the Belgian press agency Mediahuis and DPG Media and told them 'If you want to speak to him while he's still a student, you'll have to be quick'.” This didn't fall on deaf ears: Laurent has recently appeared in and on all kinds of media, both national and international.

The media attention opens doors that his parents are keen to see opened. “We are getting all kinds of offers from universities, but as before, we aren't naming any names.” The publicity has its less pleasant aspects, such as nasty comments, but these they don't let Laurent see.

What is Laurent like as a person? One question put to several people and the answers come back as quickly as they are different. Mother Lydia: “Headstrong.” Sjoerd Hulshof: “Modest”. Lydia: “We have three rules at home. Laurent goes to sleep on time, he is polite and he eats what he is served.” Hulshof: “In my experience Laurent is modest. When initially there was a minor error in a manual, he asked politely whether it shouldn't have been worded differently. He has discovered more errors, but he always points them out nicely.” Father Alexander: “Laurent is so special, for him the sky is the limit, certainly here at TU/e. The community here is international and there's no narrow-mindedness. This university is also held in high regard worldwide. I never need to spell the name, and that says something.”

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