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Interview with Mark van den Bergh

21 May 2024
Mark van den Bergh is a Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at VU Amsterdam. Born in 1994 in The Hague (The Netherlands), Mark obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s degree in mathematics at Leiden University. He then pursued a PhD in mathematics in the same university. In 2022, Mark joined our department. Raffaella Mulas interviewed him in May 2024.

Thank you so much for taking the time to meet me, Mark! I would like to start from the beginning, by asking you how you discovered your passion for mathematics, and in particular how old you were.

Thank you for taking the time to interview me, Raffaella! I guess I have been enjoying numbers and logical puzzles for as long as I can remember. And people knew this, too: I recall my aunt gifting me a giant sudoku for Sinterklaas as a “surprise” when I was 9 or so. In high school, I enjoyed mathematics, but was also doing some programming on my own. Remaining undecided on what to study, I chose to just start both a mathematics and computer science degree to see how long I would last, and ended up finishing them both.

Nice! You have a very unique position at our department, as you focus completely on teaching. What are your favorite things about teaching? What motivates you?

I really enjoy seeing that “a-ha!” moment in my students’ faces when the clouds clear and the sun breaks through all of a sudden. The enthusiasm that then radiates from them is really contagious. I also enjoy trying to creep into their world to find what motivates them, and what they find interesting. While next to nobody wanted to be at the first session of the study and career block that I taught, over 80% enthusiastically raised their hand in the final session when I asked them whether they enjoyed the course and found it useful, which I’m quite proud of.

This is very sweet! Do you ever encounter difficulties with teaching? And if so, how do you typically overcome them?

Haha, definitely! Before coming to the VU, I had only taught courses to mathematics students. Here, I discovered that every different group of students needs a different approach. This has to do with what they find interesting, but also with the personalities of the students and the dynamics in the group. I try to mingle a bit before the lectures and during the breaks to see how they treat each other and what is on their minds. This really helps with being able to connect with them during the lecture.

I can definitely relate to this, and I have to say that talking to you over the last year has helped me a lot to overcome the “cultural shock” that comes when you no longer teach only to mathematics students. Now, I remember that last year, during one of our department meetings, you talked about how a theater course influenced your teaching techniques. Can you share something about this?

Yes! I loved this course, as it gave me a very fresh perspective on your role as a lecturer in front of an audience. The thing it made me realize most is how important all forms of communication are, such as intonation and body language. Even the way in which you enter the classroom can already make or break your presence in front of a group. A very nice tip that was shared during the course is to embody your favorite stern character from a movie or play when you are asking for silence during a lecture. In this way, you can channel the type of energy that you need while keeping it somewhat distanced from your own character!

Great tip! Which stern character are you?

I sometimes think of Tenzin from The Legend of Korra: calm and composed, but confident.

Tenzin, you are a game theorist. How much does the passion for games extend beyond mathematics for you?

Haha, very much! This also started at a really young age, playing Catan over and over with my parents. During my studies in Leiden, I was an active member of the students games association Het Duivelsei, and in those years I’ve gathered a sizable group of board game lovers around me with whom I still regularly enjoy crunching our minds over a nice complex game. Some favorites include Spirit Island, Dominion, Terraforming Mars, and Brass: Birmingham. In the past year or so, I’ve also discovered a small group of colleagues in Amsterdam who enjoy this type of game, and we play one at the VU every one or two months or so, travel schedules allowing!

This is nice! And how much do you like cooking and baking? I was very impressed when you made a delicious gluten-free cake last year at an event where you knew I would be there too. This said a lot not only about your thoughtfulness, but also about your baking skills!

Aww, thanks, I enjoy catering to people’s diets! I really love food in general and have been cooking a lot for over 10 years, and spend a lot of time thinking about new recipes, searching for cool seasonal ingredients and trying out new flavors and combinations. The obsession with baking started out as a new year’s resolution in 2019, when I decided to bake at least one new thing every month. The year after that, COVID hit, and I think I baked at least a cake a week in those months haha, which was great practice. After that, in 2022, I even baked the wedding cake for a good friend of mine! Lately, I’ve also been very interested in all the chemical processes occurring during cooking and baking, and have found “On Food and Cooking” by McGee to be a wonderful source for this.

Wow! Besides mathematics, food, and games, what makes you happy?

In general, people make me happy, and I enjoy being around my friends a lot, no matter what we’re doing, actually! I often refer to them as my chosen family. I also enjoy music a lot; some time ago, I splurged on a way too expensive set of headphones, and haven’t regretted that impulsive buy for a moment since. I also often go to concerts, at least once a month; for every band I listen to, I know at least one person who always wants to join me haha. My favorite one so far is Bon Iver playing at the Ziggo Dome in 2022, that was really magical! Finally, I sometimes make some music myself, playing guitar or piano, but in fairness, I wish I’d get around to that more often.

Nice! What are you looking forward to in the future?

My partner and I have bought a house, and we are currently busy renovating it! We are planning to move in halfway through June (with the help of Rianne, for which I’m very thankful!), and I’m really looking forward to cooking and baking in the huge new kitchen. Finally, perhaps some news from my side: I’ll be starting a new job as lecturer at Leiden university after summer! While I’m definitely going to miss all of you at the VU very much, I’m also looking forward to this new step, of course.

Double congratulations! In German, “we” say that “one eye is smiling, and the other one is crying”. Do you have a similar expression in Dutch? I am sad that you are leaving our department, but I am very happy for you!

Cool German expression! I don’t think we’ve got an immediate counterpart of this in Dutch. The closest would be to say “met gemengde gevoelens”, which just translates to “with mixed feelings”, but that doesn’t sound nearly as spectacular.

Well, met gemengde gevoelens, thank you for this wonderful interview!