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Staff profile: Philippe De Wilde
Philippe De Wilde joined the University as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Research & Innovation in July 2014. He describes what he did before, why he chose Kent and what he’s hoping to achieve here.
How did you start your academic career?
In Belgium, where I was born, it is customary to go to university in your home-town so I studied Mathematics at the University of Ghent. I was always fascinated not just by the use of mathematics, but the insight it gives us into how people think. I also did a teaching qualification, but it became clear that I was good at research. I did a PhD in quantum mechanics alongside a Master’s degree in Computer Science, before becoming a post-doc in a government-sponsored lab in Leuven, Belgium, developing advanced micro-electronics.
In 1989, I moved to the UK, joining Imperial College London as a lecturer in its electrical engineering department. During my 16 years there, I also did consultancy for British Telecom in the 1990s looking at how the switch to mobile devices and apps would affect phone networks. In 1999, I did a sabbatical in Berkeley, California at the height of the dot.com era so it was a really buzzing atmosphere.
In 2005, I moved from Imperial to Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, where I was Professor of Computer Science and then Head of Maths and Computer Science. There is a lot of university collaboration in Scotland so it was really interesting to work across three departments and to get involved in several collaborations in engineering and computer science.
Why did you choose to come to Kent?
I am a very committed European so the University’s European profile and its location close to both Europe and London were very attractive to me. I also liked the fact that it has a rounded portfolio of social sciences, humanities, sciences and engineering – I profoundly believe in the Renaissance ideal of being both artist and scientist – it is important that our students have the full experience.
I also knew Kent very well already as my wife Janet was born in Medway and we lived there for seven years while I commuted to London.
What does your PVC role involve?
Basically, I lead on research and innovation. I’m also a member of the University Executive – I don’t see myself as a lone leader, but part of a team. I’ve been impressed by the quality of research at Kent and this was underlined in the recent REF (Research Excellence Framework) national assessment. We can be very proud of our results, particularly in research impact and research power, but there are always areas in which we can improve and that’s where my role comes in. I would like to improve research at the University, in terms of its international reach and the volume of income.
I have two words in my title – research and innovation – and they are both equally important. Part of my mission at Kent is to raise the profile of innovation, which I define as interaction either with industry or charities including the arts, museums and music festivals.
The Graduate School also reports into me and, as the University has ambitions to increase its numbers of overseas and Master’s students, there’s a big task ahead.
What are your interests outside work?
I love gardening and nature. I have a large garden in Ashford, which used to be part of a Victorian arboretum. It’s completely overgrown and more like the ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ at the moment, so that’s a big project for me.
I also enjoy sailing – I used to be a sailing instructor and had a boat, but I stopped when I lived in Scotland as the weather was too bad.
What is your idea of a perfect day?
It would start relatively late – I’m not a morning person. I would listen to Belgian news on the internet and then it would have to be a working day. I enjoy driving through the Downs on my way to work – they’re really beautiful. At work, I enjoy meeting people and being with interesting colleagues. In the evening, I’d like to go to an inaugural lecture or scientific seminar – that would be the perfect end of the day for me.
If you could change a single thing what would it be?
I’m a committed European so my life would be improved if British society was more open to European culture and ideals. It would also be beneficial if other European cultures were more open to British ideals.
On a personal level, I would like to get rid of my beard as it makes me look too old. But it’s too difficult administratively as I would have to change my passport, ID card and driving licence.
How do you celebrate good news?
I like to celebrate with good food and drink. It usually involves Trappist (Belgian) beer, but I’ve recently discovered Kentish wines…
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
The inventor of ‘fuzzy control’ – one of my research areas – at Imperial told me ‘Don’t let your environment determine who you are’ – in other words, make your own life, don’t let your environment take over.