News - July 5, 2012

'Efficient is my pet word'

Arno van 't Hoog

Shoulders to the plough. Work hard, even if it is at the expense of your social life. Between them, Ivonne Rietjens' brains and her cast iron work ethic have brought her international acclaim in the world of toxicology. She thinks it is a pity so many women scientists put their careers on the back burner once they have a baby. 'Hire someone instead.'

Yes, she does think there is such a thing as a glass ceiling. But she also thinks it's the easy way out to blame it for all setbacks. Or for any hostility in the course of your career. Ivonne Rietjens (born 1958) prefers to emphasize the possibilities open to her, and to place the responsibility firmly on her own shoulders. 'That way you can change things too.'
Rietjens is professor of Toxicology. One of Wageningen's few women professors - at less than 9 percent, Wageningen brings up the rear among Dutch universities on this point. Making a career as a woman scientist is not easy, as Rietjens knows from experience. 'Someone on my staff had a baby. I said, I would prefer you to carry on working five days a week, one of them from home. To me working four days just confirms traditional roles. You will end up cleaning the house and getting the shopping after all. Where does that get you? Hire someone instead.'
From her own experience, always having worked fulltime, she reckons the problem is really neither unequal opportunities nor obstacles on the career ladder. 'Women often make different choices and they have a perfect right to do so. But they should acknowledge the fact. Nobody has everything in this life; every choice has its consequences. The fact that I don't have a big circle of friends is a consequence of my choices. Apart from my work, I have my immediate family, my extended family and I look after a neighbour. And that's all I have time for, given that I also want to get some exercise and do some gardening. But I don't mind too much, as I enjoy my own company. The same goes for my husband Jacques, who works just as hard. We are well-matched in that sense. If your husband doesn't support you in this, it can be hard. And I have two very independent sons.'

Rietjens' working day at the university usually begins at eight a.m. The evening meal is eaten together at six thirty in the evening and after that she does an hour on the cross trainer three times a week. 'Exercising at home is the most efficient way.' Jokingly: 'Yes, efficient is my pet word.' She does a lot in a day and is good at structuring and planning her work. 'I can read a PhD researcher's article during a meeting. Some people don't understand that, but to me it's completely normal.' She often has her laptop on her lap in the evening too. The TV can stay on. 'I can concentrate easily. Once I open my laptop I can start work straightaway.'
The older of her two sons left home a year ago to study electronic engineering in Enschede. That happens to be Ivonne's father's field. Leo Rietjens created an international furore at the technical university of Eindhoven back in the 1970s when he developed magnetohydrodynamic energy conversion, a more efficient way of generating energy. Rietjens: 'He was professor and as a little girl at primary school I thought that was really cool.'
When she was choosing her degree subject, Rietjens was not advised or pushed in any particular direction. 'If you wanted to go to university, that was fine, but not because you had to. I wanted to know where I was so I ruled out degrees for which students were picked by lottery. Then I started crossing out all the things I didn't want to do and I was left with the broad foundation year at Wageningen.'
After completing her studies in molecular sciences and her PhD in toxicology, Rietjens worked in biochemistry and toxicology. 'In toxicology, as well as your research work you have duties to society: advisory work on the use of substances. The nice thing about that is that you really need your knowledge of the subject to give advice. Just using your common sense is not interesting enough for me. And I wouldn't like to stay in Wageningen all week. That wouldn't be good for anyone - not for me and not for my PhD students. And there are no complaints about it at home.'
Rietjens travels about twice a month for consultancy work for European and American government bodies, on the use of things like additives and flavourings. She advises on the estimated human health risks and on the research needed to establish whether substances are safe for use in foods. A lot discussion revolves around the low doses of dangerous substances to which people are constantly exposed, and for which the risks of diseases such as cancer are hard to establish. 'You have to extrapolate from animal tests. But there is no agreement yet on the best way of going about that.'
For Rietjens there is no conflict between scientific and consultancy work. When she is travelling she is constantly available to her PhD students. 'I just really enjoy doing it on the side. I supervise about 30 PhD students and now have over 300 articles to my name. Could I have done more or done it better? Perhaps, although I am not sure about that. I just do what I do, and if I have some time left over, I do something extra.' Last year Rietjens became commissioner at the index-linked food company Wessanen.

Over the top
As professor, Rietjens is also a leader and she feels she should live up to the standards she expects of her staff. 'In a previous job I saw how the staff went to a restaurant for extensive lunches. When they got back, one employee was polishing his motorbike. That was not the idea. I am a professor, and I expect my PhD students to work five days a week. So I don't take one day a week off myself. Perhaps I am rather strict about that, but I try to be consistent.'
The big advantage of working at the university is still the freedom. But it is a tough job: that she knows from experience. Only three percent eventually manage to make a career in academia. To succeed as a postdoc you really have to be very good. 'A PhD researcher who is aiming at that should realize that a thesis with four articles in average journals is not good enough. You really have to be a cut about the rest and I help them to do that. But by no means everyone can achieve that, or wants to; you do have to be a bit driven and something of a loner.'
Rietjens' group produces at least four PhDs a year. Together with the income from teaching, the allowance granted for every PhD completed - about 50,000 euros - funds the tenured posts in the chair group. This so-called output-oriented management has been in force for more than a decade. As a system it has its pros and cons, says Reitjens. 'I think we have gone over the top with endlessly measuring and managing all sorts of parameters. It doesn't necessarily lead to top quality. The important thing is whether someone is enthusiastic and energetic and has good ideas. That can get lost if you manage things to death. People can be paralysed by the targets they have to meet: this many PhDs, that many publications.'

Rietjens has a reputation in Wageningen as a critical, difficult person who does not mince her words. 'Managers have sometimes got cross about my criticism. But if a professor doesn't say what is wrong, no one else is going to dare to. It is your duty, I really believe that.'
Yet Rietjens is the first to put problems in perspective and to remind people of their own responsibilities. 'I don't want to be a sourpuss. I was on the university council for some years. You were always preoccupied with problems, shortcomings, management matters. There is always something wrong. If you focus exclusively on that you can easily become cynical.' So she expresses criticism in places where it can have some effect and for the rest, focuses on the opportunities that do still exist.
Rietjens tells students and PhD researchers that it is important to learn to take decisions independently. And to know what is not worth spending time and energy on. 'Many people have asked me over the years why I have never gone into business. Because of my independence, the content and the writing, is my answer. But I don't know if those reasons will remains decisive for the next fifteen years. I am definitely going to carry on for another five years but after that, I don't know. That is the only decision still ahead of me.'

Ivonne Rietjens (Utrecht,1958)
1983 Graduated cum laude in Molecular Sciences at Wageningen University
1986 PhD thesis on Ozone and nitrogen dioxide. A study on mechanisms of toxic action and cellular defense, Wageningen University.
1986 - 1987 postdoc at RIVM, Bilthoven.
1987 - 1997 Assistant professor and associate professor at Laboratory for Biochemistry, Wageningen University.
1997 - 2001 professor of Biochemistry, Wageningen University.
2001 - present professor of Toxicology, Wageningen University.

Prof. Raoul Bino, general director Agrotechnology & Food Sciences Group.
'Ivonne Rietjens knows exactly where she is going with her research. She sets very clear goals. That means she demands a lot of everyone but at the same time she is very people-oriented and stimulating: she takes time for the people around her. The same is true when she is asked to do things for Wageningen UR. She is ambitious about it, even though she doesn't have much time.
I would describe Ivonne as strict but fair. She can be critical and she always speaks her mind. To me, but also to someone like the rector. That is a very positive quality. It is very good when someone who knows her stuff stands up for her opinion. People always listen to her.'

Alexander Rietjens, older brother, COO at Payplaza, Eindhoven.
'In the first place, Ivonne is simply my older sister. There were five of us at home and I am still in close touch with her. She was always extremely driven, from within. It was clear from early on that Ivonne would go into the sciences. Whether she would become a professor you couldn't predict, of course, but you were sure she would go far in her field.
She goes all out in her work but she is also a sociable person; she is not an academic bore. She can easily leave her work behind her when necessary and she takes plenty of time for family occasions such as Christmas and birthdays, or when there are things to sort out. Ivonne certainly has what it takes to do well in the business world, although I think she would have to have a job involving a lot of freedom and subject expertise.'