What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Carole Jackson, General and Scientific Director at ASTRON in Dwingeloo (Drenthe). ASTRON is the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, which includes both the WSRT and LOFAR arrays: which spread across many kilometres of the Dutch countryside.
By Thomas Ansell
ASTRON grew out of an organisation called SRZM (Stichting Radiostraling van Zon en Melkweg), which began in 1949. Since then, and despite being located in one of the smaller countries in Europe, it had become a world-leader in radio astronomy. And, despite its worldwide reputation, large number of staff, position in the centre of international collaborations; and its kilometres of radio telescopes, ASTRON is located in an exceptionally pretty, quiet village in southern Drenthe, Dwingeloo. Perhaps even more surprising is that the General and Scientific Director, Professor Carole Jackson, is British and Australian. So, what led her to Dwingeloo?
“The discipline in terms of population is quite small, and the Netherlands has been a leading country for a very long time”, says Carole, “There are only a few foreign Director-Generals of a scientific institute in the Netherlands, and ASTRON really does stand out in the national picture”, she adds.
Whilst Carole may be in the minority as an International director, ASTRON’s staff in general is getting more international as well: though researchers are about 80% Dutch at the moment, the currents of the sector are shifting. “When there’s only 3 or 4 people in the world that can do a job, you find a way to get them involved”, says Carole. “All our positions are open, and we advertise internationally, so we are really open to more people coming and joining us.” Since ASTRON is involved in projects across Europe, in South Africa and Australia, and in global networks, it is perhaps unsurprising that people are drawn to Dwingeloo from a diverse range of places.
So, what brings them to ASTRON, aside from its reputation? “Lots of people are attracted by the mission”, says Carole, “but also because of our working environment. There’s a community aspect here, and a shared understanding of what we are all working on. Plus, we have unusual water-cooler conversations!”
And, before you think of endless rooms of white-coated scientists, ASTRON is actually somewhat diverse. Carole herself initially went into the corporate world, and says that ASTRON really values diversity of experience. Indeed, half of the staff at the institute are not scientists in the theoretical sense, but have applied knowledge. “They can come from any background”, says Carole, “at the moment we need software personnel, and to be able to help us in this field you don’t have to be an astronomer or physicist.”
So, as ASTRON continues to attract people from around the world, how can the North be more welcoming? “People do move a lot”, says Carole, “so when you do come to a country that seems friendly towards you, that’s a huge plus. But often spouses get forgotten about and have no social network to fall back on.” And how could that be improved? “There are more opportunities for networking and mentoring needed. More events where, perhaps even if there aren’t jobs available, you can meet people and expand your network.”
For more information about ASTRON, just visit their website, whilst for more about the innovative and sometimes ground-breaking organisations in Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe, head to www.makeitinthenorth.nl