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Combining worlds and fulfilling ambitions

Last December, as the year came to a close, one of Dennis Ernens’ transformative projects also came to an end: he successfully presented and defended his PhD dissertation at the University of Twente. ‘It was a great day, and I’m very happy the defence went well. But I’m especially glad my research yielded some valuable results for Shell and helped me develop as a TMC Employeneur. All in all, the project proved to be a win-win-situation for all parties involved.’

Academia and industry aren't mutually exclusive

Getting a PhD had been a long-held aspiration for Dennis. After finishing his studies in 2011, he started exploring the possibilities for a PhD project. Finding the necessary funding proved tricky, however, and after a while he decided on a different path: working as a researcher for companies. ‘I had some interesting and challenging talks at TMC, and soon after, I was offered an assignment at Shell.’

In his new role, Dennis found out the two worlds - academia and industry - weren’t mutually exclusive: ‘The idea for my research took shape during my second year at Shell. Although I’d never quite given up the idea of getting a PhD, the way it happened was rather surprising. In our ‘get-to-know-you’ conversation, my new team-lead asked if the PhD still was on my wish list. When I, after some deliberation, answered ‘Yes!’, he was also the driving force to make it happen.’ Shell, the University of Twente and TMC joined forces to make Dennis’ PhD project possible. ‘It’s still amazing to me that TMC put so much effort into facilitating my research.’

‘I did my research in a field that was completely new to me. I had graduated in Aerodynamics at the TU Delft, but my PhD research was in tribology: the science and engineering of interacting surfaces in relative motion.’ Aerodynamics is a rather specific, narrower field, Dennis explains. ‘Tribology is much broader and requires an inherent multidisciplinary approach. It’s amazing how much is going on in the contact between two surfaces. There are elements of physics to it - as well as chemistry, mechanical engineering and materials science. It’s a good fit with my personality: ever since I was young, my interests have been broad.’

Now it’s time for the next steps: becoming a principal scientist, an expert in my field

For his PhD, Dennis researched the influence of coatings and lubricant additives on the running-in behaviour of metal-to-metal seals and, ultimately, their sealing ability. He also developed an environmentally friendly lubricant. What made the project especially challenging was that he had to do it alongside his other work at Shell, which was quite demanding in itself: ‘For the last year and a half, I have been leading the overarching research project and consortium of industry and academic partners. The deadline for our project was close my PhD research deadline. Luckily, there was overlap in the projects, so I could put some of my research results into practice immediately.’

Dennis feels the combination of academic research and leading a large project helped him develop in several ways: ‘Beside all the field-related knowledge I acquired during my PhD, I also learned a lot about leading complex projects, setting up research collaborations, and time management. I’m happy with the progress I made as an independent researcher and as an Employeneur. Now it’s time for the next steps: becoming a principal scientist, an expert in my field. I’m confident I can fulfil those ambitions too!’

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