“When we’re on the right track, great things happen”

The true value of knowledge lies in its practical application, says Alex Sangers. Using mathematical models to solve real-world problems is absolutely fantastic.

“Maths is a great discipline, especially when you can use it to tackle social issues and optimise business processes. That’s why I decided to study applied mathematics. With mathematical models, you can say a lot of very useful things about reality. Maths is puzzle-solving – it makes you think all the time. That’s what I loved about my degree, and it’s what I now do at TNO every day.”

Robust networks and systems

“I work in the Cybersecurity & Robustness Department. Through our research, we’re helping to improve the reliability and security of complex networks and systems. Together with IT specialists and other mathematicians, we develop models to provide an insight into risks. For a computer network for financial institutions, I’ve been working on a mathematical model to detect advanced cybercrime attacks before they’ve actually been completed. A very different kind of customer with a very different kind of data network is [Dutch rail infrastructure operator] ProRail. For them I’m investigating factors influencing the reliability of the railways. Things like the technical condition of the equipment, the state of the track bed and how frequently trains run over a line. Our model predicts when a stretch of line will need maintenance, so that ProRail can intervene before failures occur. A lot of our projects are interesting because we work with a varied group of people, not just mathematicians. When we’re on the right track, great things happen.”

Technical innovator

“My role in the department is ‘technical innovator’. I make a scientific contribution to projects, I’m involved in client acquisition and I do consultancy work. That mix is perfect, because even though I love conducting mathematical analyses, I couldn’t do them all day.”

With the customer

“At TNO, I’ve learnt a lot in a short time. Project-based working, for example, and aiming for a specific result with a deadline and a budget. You learn to interact with people from other disciplines, who speak a different scientific ‘language’. You also work closely with the customer, because a big part of the job is to brainstorm with them about what they need. And also to guide them through complex material, so that they know what steps have been taken. That brings us back to client acquisition, because they may have other issues we can suggest a solution for. Only recently, I teamed up with a project leader to compile a proposal for a telecoms provider. Simply because I was keen to learn how to do that. Which is typical of TNO: there’s so much room for personal initiative. You can very much steer your own career and build your CV. For example, I’m now traineeship co-ordinator for my department, keeping in touch with the universities so as to interest students in temporary placements at TNO.”

Right balance

“In the future I’d like to do more consultancy work, but always with a solid technical component. At TNO I can develop on both fronts, keeping the right balance between them.”

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