UM's new rector: Pamela Habibović

Freedom to experiment

On 1 February, MERLN’s Scientific Director Pamela Habibović succeeds Rianne Letschert as rector of Maastricht University (UM). As she prepares to move to her new office, the professor of Inorganic Biomaterials talks about her engineering mind-set, how interdisciplinarity is crucial but far from easy, as well as her dedication to openness, creativity and experimentation.

“The best decisions are taken on the basis of many different views,” professor of Inorganic Biomaterials and, since today, rector of Maastricht University Pamela Habibović says, drawing on her experience at MERLN, where 130 employees from 40 countries work together. “But in order to access these different views, you need to create an open, inclusive space where everyone feels encouraged to speak. It needs constant attention and cultivation.”

She is acutely aware of what that means in practice: “People often underestimate how much concentrated effort and goodwill it takes before people can understand each other’s way of thinking and effectively communicate across disciplines.” At the confluence of engineering, biology and medicine, Habibović’s field is already ineluctably interdisciplinary. “The quality and impact of the research is much higher when disciplines work together.”

As rector, Habibović wants to get to know UM’s different faculties, what they are proud of, what challenges they face. Synergies are the way forward. “We have to define the societal challenges we want to tackle together. In the past years, we have invested a lot in new institutes and a new faculty – I hope in the next years, we can benefit from that through collaboration.”

Empower people to excel

“I’ve never made any plans in my career,” Habibović says, “so it also wasn’t explicitly my ambition to become rector.” After being approached to draw up a vision paper for the application, her resolve and motivation grew. Now, only seven years after having moved to Maastricht to establish MERLN, the Institute for Technology-Inspired Regenerative Medicine, she is making the leap to UM’s Executive Board.

“I love science and working in an academic environment,” says Habibović. However, as scientific director of the institute, her motivation shifted somewhat. “As I took on more managerial responsibilities, I discovered the joys of creating an environment where people can excel. I got more satisfaction from that – the success of the institute as a whole and the people in it – than from my individual successes as a researcher.”

That, primarily, is what Habibović would like to contribute as rector: to facilitate others to excel. “When I first arrived, UM struck me as a dynamic, unconventional institution, where people weren’t afraid to try new things. I loved that – and I still do. It’s something I want to cultivate further.” She thinks this dynamism, powered by an environment where different cultures and disciplines can safely learn to communicate and collaborate is the key to UM’s future.

Dare to try

To that end, creating a culture of daring and experimentation is crucial. “People need the space to express themselves and try things out. A drawing only tells me so much – show me a working model! Overthinking isn’t an insurance against mistakes; at some point, you just have to dare to do things, observe what happens and then decide if it’s worth pursuing further.”

This ethos of collaborative research also informs her vision of leadership. “Obviously I’m not afraid of taking decisions and carrying the responsibility – otherwise, I wouldn’t be where I am,” she says, while also stressing the importance of listening to others and remaining open to better ideas. “That almost goes without saying in scientific research, since every assistant professor, postdoc or PhD candidate will be more of an expert in their specialty than I am, so it would be foolish not to listen first.”

In that spirit, she looks forward to getting to know the whole university. “This curiosity to understand the bigger picture and how things work have always informed my desire to work in science.” Habibović concedes that she has a lot to learn, in particular, when it comes to education, “but I’m really looking forward to it!”

Florian Raith | Photos: Philip Driessen (portrait Pamela Habibović) and Hugo Thomassen
College van Bestuur UM

UM's Executive Board: Rianne Letschert, Pamela Habibović and Nick Bos

Building on strengths – collectively and individually

“UM is obviously one of the pioneers of Problem-Based Learning and that’s a strength worth leaning into. We need to make the most out of the knowledge and expertise we have amassed over the years and what we have learnt from the last two years of forced digitisation. That would allow us to make our education even more attractive and effective.”

While Habibović considers it paramount to guarantee the high quality of education UM is known for, this mustn’t come at the expense of employees’ wellbeing. “The increasing number of students and programmes should not mean that we overburden staff.” Instead, she considers smart use of digital technology and a harmonisation of duty and inclination the way forward:

“I don’t want to squeeze more hours out of people. Instead, I want to get the best out of them by allowing individuals to understand and develop their talents and deploy them to achieve team goals.” Accordingly, Habibović is an ardent supporter of the Rewards and Recognition scheme. “It fits very well with my plans and I look forward to see how we can find the best possible implementations to fit the different needs of faculties and programmes.”

“We’re still a young university, but at 45, we’re also grown up now!” And so Habibović, one year UM’s junior, sets off to learn, experiment and solve problems as UM’s new rector.

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