Teacher Talk is back! We have a new episode with Dr Ilker Birbil, teacher of Non-Linear Optimisation (NLO) at the ESE. He came to Rotterdam last February.
What made you decide to come to Rotterdam?
Well, I quit my job in Turkey, in Istanbul, and I was looking for a new position. Also the things were not going that well in Turkey, where I was also politically involved. So I thought I’d better search for another position. I already knew about this particular department because I was also a post doctor here from 2002 to 2004. Then I applied to an open position. I like this department because there is always a good combination of statisticians and optimisation people.
Can you tell us some more about your educational history?
I studied industrial engineering in Turkey. After that I went to the United States, where I got a Ph.D. degree concentrated mainly on operations research. In 2002, I came to the Netherlands as a post doctoral research fellow. This was a very fruitful time. I did a lot of research with several people from the Netherlands. In 2004, I returned to Turkey where I taught and did research until 2018. Now, I mainly work on developing new optimisation algorithms. In the recent years I am more interested in data-driven decision making and optimisation problems.
What do you like about teaching?
When a teacher explains something the first time, nobody understands it; the second time, the teacher understands it, and the third time everybody understands it.
I have always enjoyed teaching. There is this saying: ‘’When a teacher explains something the first time, nobody understands it; the second time, the teacher understands it, and the third time everybody understands it.’’ Teaching has also taught me a lot. I had a decent education from good professors and I thought listening to them is enough to know the subject. But only when I started teaching, I really began understanding the subject. In general I like to interact with young people who often ask difficult questions. Over the last decade, people in my field sometimes forget that universities are not only for research, but also for education. I actually think education is the most important part of our job.
What kind of things do you do next to teaching?
I spend quite a lot of time supervising students. I have several graduate students here and also in Turkey. I also collaborate with some of my past students who are now themselves professors. Together, we still develop some new ideas and try to include more people every time. Occasionally, I write popular science columns for newspapers. Additionally, I spend time with my family. We just moved to the Netherlands, so settling down also takes quite a lot of time. I like playing table tennis. I recently joined a table tennis association and now and then I go to competitions.
What has impressed or astonished you the most since moving to here?
Well, I live in Utrecht which is a very nice and welcoming city, and easy to walk around. The life in general impressed me quite a bit, because people are relaxed and spend quite a lot of time for themselves and with their families. That is something I didn’t really observe when I was here in 2002. When it comes to Erasmus University, I see that students are very confident, which is a good sign, but sometimes I am not sure whether they have a lot of knowledge. The ones I had the chance to really supervise, turned out all to be very confident. Also, I observe that the students are very independent. When I tell them to do something, they really work on it themselves and come back with their questions.
What is your favourite book?
Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Endgame.’ I sure like plays in general. I like this book because of its message: When everything seems really dark and miserable, there is always some hope.
What kind of music do you like?
I used to play flute, for which I wish I had spared more time. I like jazz music quite a bit, and also some Turkish folkloric music, not the recent ones.
What is your favourite holiday destination?
Sevilla, somehow I have good memories about Sevilla. I remember I went there once in October, when the weather was getting colder in Turkey. I went there with my wife and the streets were full of orange blossom smell. Early autumn with beautiful weather. I will never forget that.
Do you have a favourite drink?
In Turkey it is Raki, it is a spirit you can also easily find in the Netherlands. I also like beer. There are very good breweries here with lots of brands.
What did you want to become when you were young?
Right before I started university I wanted to become an actor.
When I was very young I wanted to become a fireman. Right before I started university I wanted to become an actor. When I was up to finishing university I decided to become a professor.
Do you have one good advice for new students?
Patience. I wish I also had it. The students can go far if they can just sit at their desk and try to figure out one particular subject. Nowadays, it is very easy to be distracted, since there is a lot of information everywhere. Even though the information is out there, somehow you are then always taking the ideas from someone else. You should be trying and failing. I think if you try and fail yourself, then you learn more.
Do you have a favourite quote to finish this interview?
It is by Beckett again: ‘’Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’’