3 March 2021

Nerd with a calling

Cognitive Neuroscience alum Job van den Hurk works as a data scientist and scientific manager at the MRI centre Scannexus. He is also ‘the prof’ in Brainstorm, a youth television programme on NPO Zapp. His passion: making neuroscience accessible. “We have to teach children to develop a bullshit detector.”

vd hurk

Van den Hurk most enjoys writing complex computer algorithms that extract the information he needs from a dataset. “To be honest, I’m a proper nerd. I get a kick out of learning to understand things from complex patterns of information. Here we do that with the help of the latest scanners. It’s exciting to use advanced computer techniques to produce data from the body—you discover parts of reality that you didn’t know existed.”

Superhero powers

He may be a nerd, but he is one with a calling. Van den Hurk aims to popularise neuroscience. “Even as a student, I used to speak at Open Days on how cool the brain is and what scanners can do. Teaching is one of my passions.” He gives lectures at schools, writes for the online magazine KAF, and co-founded the interactive app and website BrainMatters, which makes the latest brain research accessible to laypeople and students. One thing led to another, and he was invited to make segments for youth TV programmes such as Het Klokhuis and Willem Wever.

Six months ago, Van den Hurk became a co-presenter of Brainstorm, a new children’s programme about the brain. As ‘the prof’, he performs all kinds of brain experiments. Why do we lose our appetite when we see blue spaghetti? Why does the brain function less well in a freezing cold or hot environment? One of his favourite experiments concerns whether humans have superhero-like powers. “There are stories about a daughter who sees her father trapped under the wheels of a car, and lifts up the car by herself. Is that possible? Yes, it is: a boost of adrenaline and stress hormones can give you extra strength.”

Bullshit detector

“It’s important that children are introduced to science at a young age,” Van den Hurk says. “On social media, they’re too focused on what they should think. Instead, they need to learn how to think. What is probable, what is not? Which information can you trust, what’s not reliable? You see how things go wrong in the US, and in the Netherlands too. Fake news, conspiracy theories—these are the greatest dangers of our time. We have to teach children to develop a bullshit detector.”

He believes that scientists have to take joint action. “There are many misconceptions about science. That it’s an elitist hobby for people who get to decide what the ‘truth’ is, when really it’s just about predicting how reality works through models.” This skewed perception is reinforced by the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. Academics cannot let this go unchallenged, he says. “They have a duty to show how fascinating science is and to help society learn to think better. They need to join forces and take a stand against the conspiracy theories on social media.”

Best of both worlds

Does his future lie in the television world and a life of celebrity, or will he stick to the nerdy world of science? “I don’t want to have to choose between the two,” he says. “If I were only a television presenter, I’d miss immersing myself in science, and I’d no longer be an expert. I’d like to combine both worlds. That’s also ideal when it comes to bridging the gap between science and the general public.”

Fake news, conspiracy theories—these are the greatest dangers of our time. We have to teach children to develop a bullshit detector.
By: Hans van Vinkeveen (text), Harry Heuts (photography)