21 December 2018

Statistician Rens van de Schoot: from barely passing senior general secondary education to professor

Statistician Rens van de Schoot was not always a star pupil at school. ‘As an infant, I was so bad at spelling that I used to cry during dictation exercises. I only made it through senior general secondary education by the skin of my teeth. Three grades on my final list were barely sufficient.’ Van de Schoot has been appointed Professor of Statistics for Small Data Sets at Utrecht University as from 1 January 2019. ‘I am keen to continue my statistical research as a Professor.’ 

Van de Schoot has a vivid recollection of the dictation exercises he did when he was six and seven years old. ‘My neighbour had given me a nice fountain pen as a birthday present, which I planned to use for my dictations. This idea did not sit well with my schoolmaster, however, as my frequent tears would mix with the ink to stain the dictations beyond legibility.’

I was flying on a one-way ticket, intending to fight the good fight for years to come.

Higher professional education and Tanzania

Despite all difficulty, Van de Schoot managed to graduate from senior general secondary education (HAVO) and started studying Medical Imaging at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven. After he obtained his degree within four years, he migrated to Tanzania. ‘I was flying on a one-way ticket, intending to fight the good fight for years to come. When I learnt that the original teacher of the English classes I gave as a volunteer had been fired on my arrival, I quit. After the 2000 election, which ended in severe riots, I gave up and returned to the Netherlands, a little disheartened.’

Rens van de Schoot

Sleeping in spare time

After heading back home, Van de Schoot landed a job at the X-ray department of University Medical Center Utrecht (UMCU). He soon started wondering whether he wanted to remain there for all his working life. ‘I quickly came to the conclusion that I did not. Instead, the thought of studying psychology appealed to me. I signed up to night shifts at UMCU so I could take psychology classes during the day. Sleeping was relegated to my spare time. My studies showed that I had an accidental talent for statistics. Following my Research Master’s programme in Developmental Psychology, I went on to become first a student assistant and later a PhD candidate in Methodology & Statistics. Now I am thrilled to have my own chair at this department!’

Burn treatment

The newly appointed professor analyses small data sets by looking at existing statistical methods and developing his own. ‘Small data sets are often discarded, as they are very difficult to analyse. I attempt to analyse them anyway – for example, in collaboration with the Dutch Burns Foundation. Fortunately, young children rarely have to be treated in burns units. When they do, this very small group should still be able to benefit from sound statistics in order to answer research questions such as “What developments are there in the quality of life for these children?”’ 

More information
PR for the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, tel. +31 (0)30 253 4027, r.a.b.vanveen@uu.nl