The Dynamics of Youth programme committee has representatives from all seven Utrecht Universit faculties. Who are they, and what are their roles? In this series of interviews, we introduce the committee members. Representing the Faculty of Humanities is linguist Frank Wijnen. He is enthusiastic about what Dynamics of Youth is doing: ‘There is a lot of talk these days about the impact of the ageing population on society, and it’s something many universities are focused on too. It’s important and raises new challenges, but here in Utrecht we’ve chosen to focus on children and young people. After all, investing in youth means investing in the society of the future.’
Dynamics of Youth programme committee member Frank Wijnen
"Investing in youth means investing in the society of the future"
When asked about the added value these strategic themes offer, Wijnen’s answer is clear. ‘I’ve gotten to know people from other departments at our Faculty that I might never have met otherwise. And beyond the Faculty too, because this strategic theme enables you to connect in ways that would be difficult or unlikely in other circumstances. We have also been given the means to specifically make those connections. So now we’re working with people from a wide spectrum of disciplines, from social sciences to veterinary medicine.’
Wijnen has plenty of good examples of multidisciplinary collaboration at UU in which the Faculty of Humanities is involved. Such as a study on the effects of microaggression on Dutch LGBT youth by Gender Studies specialist Rosemarie Buikema and developmental psychologist Marcel van Aken. And the work done by linguist Ao Chen and UMC psychiatry researcher Hugo Schnack to investigate whether vocabulary development could be an indicator of heightened risk of dyslexia in two-year-olds – part of a larger research project on the predictors of dyslexia. Using machine learning, this prediction can now be made with 70% accuracy.
Leaving the ivory tower
Recently, hubs were launched within each strategic theme to actively unite researchers with social partners. Wijnen sees this as a great step forwards. ‘It’s good to leave the ivory tower. Connecting academic research to societal issues pays off and seems like common sense to me. My work is about language development, so I try to link that to practical questions about problems related to language development and to multilingualism. Listening to people in practice and the issues they’re dealing with is essential. Often, that also fuels advances in science, by revealing new angles.’
A good example of one of the University’s social partnerships is a project under way with the City of Utrecht, bringing together researchers from UU and officers from municipal youth healthcare services. The municipality wants to learn which factors contribute to developmental delays in children. ‘We know that children from less affluent environments and with immigrant backgrounds tend to have more difficulties. Lots of factors are involved – language, diet, cultural differences, habits related to media use and health issues, to name a few. What’s great about Dynamics of Youth is that it lets experts share insights from a wide range of perspectives and join forces to research these problems together with people working in the field.’
Where do I belong?
As a committee member, Wijnen’s responsibilities are diverse. ‘We lay out the general parameters. What direction do we want to take the programme? Which ideas from practice have potential? Which ideas need a stimulus?’ Wijnen is also a liaison between the committee and a research team at the hub Child Expertise Center working on a project called Where do I belong. The project is studying children of divorced parents who have chosen to coparent, meaning the children divide their time between two homes. ‘How do these kids cope? How are they faring and to what extent are they able to develop a sense of belonging?’
“Good things are happening”
Money that the Executive Board allocates to the strategic themes does not go to the faculties. That is a policy decision, says Wijnen, and one that has several advantages. ‘It really accomplishes something. Now, researchers are teaming up to work together, and I don’t know if that would happen without these funds. It has sparked new ideas for research and new lines of research. Good things are happening.’
Dynamics of Youth
In dealing with social problems, you need to start with the children. Utrecht University invests in resilient youth. Within the research theme Dynamics of Youth, scientists from all fields of expertise work together in order to better understand child development. How can we help young people to grow and thrive in our rapidly changing society?