Frits Spieksma new Full Professor Combinatorial Optimization

After more than 16 years of employment with KU Leuven, Frits Spieksma decided to move to the Eindhoven University of Technology, to start in his position as Full Professor in Combinatorial Optimization at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. A conversation about his career, research, ambitions, and his hobby; combinatorial optimization.
After graduating in Econometrics at the University of Groningen in 1987, Frits Spieksma started his scientific career as a PhD student at Maastricht University. During this period of time he was already working on a specific subject within the discipline of combinatorial optimization, namely the research into the optimization of the production process of printed circuit boards. Since then he never stopped working within this research area. Spieksma worked for more than nine years at Maastricht University, with a short sidestep to the University of British Columbia, and eventually became full professor at KU Leuven. And since January 1, 2018, he holds this position at TU Eindhoven.
"Although I really liked working in Leuven, after 16 years the desire for adventure began to grow stronger," says Spieksma. "As a university of technology, Eindhoven offers that adventure, since, unlike Leuven, it is a niche university specialized in technical sciences." The fact that TU/e also has the ambition to offer practical solutions has helped Spieksma decide to move to Eindhoven: "Not only proving a mathematical theorem or finding and describing certain theoretical properties, but also to apply them in practice, I think that is a wonderful combination. People really benefit from it. For scientists this requires a different skill set, which offers new challenges."
In Eindhoven, Spieksma will lead the Combinatorial Optimization research group. "It is a very good group of scientists whose work is recognized worldwide within the research field. I have known them for a long time, and have already collaborated with Cor Hurkens on a publication in the past." As leader of the research group, Spieksma is of course also working on the future of the group.
One of the opportunities that Spieksma sees is to collaborate with researchers associated with the Data Science Center Eindhoven (DSC/e). "When opportunities arise on cooperation within the department, TU/e or outside of our university, I am certainly open to that." He continues: "Real cooperation is not always easy. As scientists from different domains, we have to invest time to learn to speak each other's language. If that succeeds, it often yields nice results. It would be nice to get that off the ground here."
Spieksma has clear ideas about the future of his own research, both in the short and the long term. "Combinatorial optimization is a field in which you can work on the purely theoretical side, but also be very close to practice." What he prefers to do? With a smile he says: "Both. The diversity combined with the unpredictability of research is what I like about my job." However, he does not see his start in Eindhoven as a completely new starting point for his research. ”I will continue the line of my research, although I expect to join my fellow scientists in their research and be influenced by them. But in the end combinatorial optimization is my 'style' and that will not change."
In the short term, Spieksma would like to work with a PhD student on research into the flexibility of solutions. "In a combinatorial problem there is often a kind of hierarchy, in which we solve phase after phase. In such a phase you might actually not want to find the best solution for that phase, but a solution that leaves a lot of room for what happens underneath. Often there is a criterion, which we solve, and that results in the best solution for that phase. But that might impede us to solve the whole problem. So you would explicitly want to have a criterion that specifies the flexibility for the lower-lying solutions."
Spieksma says that this research into the flexibility of solutions can be applied in many areas, including sports scheduling. A topic that is mentioned a number of times during the interview. "That is one of my hobbies," says Spieksma. It turns out that he is chairman of the 'OR in Sports' working group, which aims to bring together quantitative research related to sport. He is also a member of the organizing committee of MathSports International, which brings together mathematics and sports. And in the past, he has helped to optimize the playing schedule of the Belgian football league. "I consider it a privilege that I can combine my hobby and my work."
Speaking of hobbies, in addition to combinatorial optimization Spieksma also mentions teaching as one of his hobbies. "I am looking forward to teaching students as of the next academic year, to contribute to their development, and also to get a good impression of how it really is here at the TU/e."