From childhood on, the College’s new executive dean knew he was a scientist. Now schooled in many disciplines, he brings a deep commitment to faculty and students to his new role.
Rick Van Kooten, who becomes executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in July, knows exactly what he liked about his previous position as vice provost for research for Indiana University Bloomington.
“The fantastic thing about that job,” he says, “is that you work with researchers from all across campus. And when you ask them about their research, their eyes light up and they go on a half-hour tear. That’s why I’ll really miss that job.”
But there is a consolation: as executive dean, Van Kooten, who has always loved to teach, expects that he’ll get to spend more time with students and so will see the same light in their eyes when they discuss their studies.
Van Kooten’s eyes light up too when he discusses his own field, particle physics. It’s true that his work is hard to explain, since the vocabulary involves b quarks and the Higgs boson particle that are studied on equipment like hadronic colliders.
But Van Kooten has learned how to make his work sound very intriguing indeed. For example b quarks sound far lovelier when he explains that among European physicists the “b” stands for “beauty.” (Sadly, among American physicists the “b” stands merely for “bottom.”)
He readily admits that his research exploring the tiny difference between matter and antimatter has no practical application—aside from possibly one day answering that nagging little question: Why do we exist? But purely “curiosity-driven inquiry” like his does have spin-offs.
“While spin-offs aren’t what justify our research, they are very, very important,” Van Kooten says, citing the case of the World Wide Web, which was invented in a building next to the one he worked in while he did postdoctoral research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. “We just used the web as a convenient way to share information with the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center,” he says. “The very first sports website in the world was the one for the CERN softball team. It tracked statistics like players’ batting averages.”
Stanford is important to Van Kooten because he did his graduate work there. A Canadian by birth, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto. His Dutch parents emigrated to Canada after World War II in the atmosphere of warm appreciation for the Canadian troops who liberated the Netherlands.
“I was a weird little kid,” Van Kooten admits, one who always knew he would grow up to be a scientist. He had both a microscope and a chemistry set and collected ostracods (tiny crustaceans one millimeter in size that live in pond water). “For two years, I had a collection of them in pond water on the window shelf in the sun in my bedroom,” he says.