Healthy Start Stories |
Jennifer Kockx

Making an impact together: ‘How do we create a place where knowledge really leads to change in society?’

Our youngest generation is growing up in a world full of challenges. Think of climate change, increasing pressure on healthcare and growing inequality of opportunity. How do we ensure that children and young people get a healthy and promising start? Not only for themselves, but also for the generations to come. According to Jennifer Kockx, program manager at Healthy Start, this can only be done by stimulating collaboration between different disciplines. But how do you set up that collaboration and how do you ensure that the knowledge that results from it really contributes to change in society?

“Put three top scientists together. Each with a gigantic network and a drive to solve societal problems. Then opportunities arise to achieve something great. That’s the feeling I got when I met Eveline Crone (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Vincent Jaddoe (Erasmus MC) and Maaike Kleinsmann (TU Delft) a few years ago. I remember very well that they talked about their mission to reduce inequality of opportunity by conducting research on children and young adults. And that from three different perspectives: social, medical and technological. Their enthusiasm was contagious and I immediately knew: I want to be part of this. That’s how I got into Healthy Start. In past few years, as a program manager, I have developed a vision and a strategy together with these researchers. In addition, I coordinated the set-up and implementation of Healthy Start. And although I will soon be moving to a new job, I look with pride at the almost 150 people who are now part of the Healthy Start community.”

Put three top scientists together. Each with a gigantic network and a drive to solve societal problems. Then opportunities arise to achieve something great

The urge to build bridges

“The urge to bring different people and perspectives together was present from an early age. For example, in high school I was once told that I thought ‘everything was relative’. By this, the teacher meant that I was always open to multiple possible perspectives and adjusted my ideas and beliefs based on that. After high school, I chose to study Physics at TU Delft. I thought it was an interesting study and decided to continue it with a PhD in mechanical engineering.”

During my work in Cameroon, I discovered how much change you can bring about when you mix different cultures and backgrounds

“However, as my career progressed, I found that I was not a typical physicist. I was looking for something different and decided to live and work in Cameroon for a few years. There I taught physics at a boarding school. The credo of the organization I worked for is still clear in my mind: ‘sharing skills, changing lives’. I thought and still think it’s a beautiful motto. It was the first time I discovered how much change you can bring about when you mix different cultures and backgrounds. That tasted like more.

After this experience abroad, I decided to leave the academy and gain experience at various organizations, including the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). There I was policy advisor and program coordinator, always building bridges between science, business and society. Eventually, I ended up at Convergence, a large partnership between TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Erasmus MC and partners, such as municipalities and healthcare institutions. The aim of the Convergence is to come up with new solutions to complex societal problems, such as the risks in delta areas and the rapid rise of artificial intelligence. Healthy Start was also part of this initiative from the start, which allowed me to make a smooth transition to a completely new challenge.”

What’s special about Healthy Start

”For several reasons, I have enjoyed working at Healthy Start in the past few years. To begin with, I would like to underline the societal mission. There is great inequality of opportunity in our society. These differences can arise very early on. A child who is born with a disadvantage often has to fight throughout life. Within Healthy Start, research is done on both the youngest and young adults. This involves looking at physical, mental and social health. Resulting in a complete picture of how, where and why inequality arises and what can be done about it.

What further appeals to me is the way the research is done. Within Healthy Start, research questions are not determined by science, but by what is going on in society. In addition, we encourage scientists to collaborate with others right from the start of a project. We make a distinction between so-called ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘transdisciplinary’ collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaboration is about collaboration between scientists from different disciplines. Transdisciplinary collaboration goes one step further. This concerns collaborations between scientists and other stakeholders, such as policy officers, parents, teachers, young adultsand social workers. Transdisciplinary collaboration, in particular, requires researchers to have strong communication skills and the ability to step outside their usual frameworks.”

Here, we encourage scientists to actively collaborate with others right from the start of a project

“In addition, researchers are not only concerned with scientific publications. They also contribute to policy documents, help develop apps and create, for example, theatre performances for young children. Internally, we call this ‘Science 2.0’. It’s about researchers playing a broad role, which goes beyond just academic work.”

New and old profiles

“Of course, this progressive approach to research comes with its own challenges. One of the big questions is how do we ensure that young scientists get enough publications to their name, while also spending a lot of time collaborating and making an impact. Fortunately, more and more attention is being paid to this nationally, but that development is not going so fast. The risk of being at the forefront is that we don’t know exactly how the profiles of our young scientists will fit into the more traditional academic setting. That is why it is essential that we continue to talk to each other and provide internal support where necessary.”

Combination of knowledge and motivation

”At Healthy Start, I learned what collaboration across disciplines really means, and what it means to make societal impact. I was already familiar with these concepts, but at Healthy Start it has been taken to a higher level. Now that I’m leaving soon, I will no longer be witnessing up close how everything unfolds. Nevertheless, I can see that we have already achieved a great deal. For example, it is special that nurses – a group that is often overlooked – are permanent knowledge partners within Healthy Start.

To conclude, I would like to encourage everyone involved to keep pushing forward. Of course, there will be obstacles, but try to think around them. If you are truly passionate about Healthy Start’s mission, you will get a powerful combination of knowledge and motivation. I am convinced that this will lead to interconnection and progress.”

Jennifer Kockx’s Healthy Start perspective
“I hope that the community of Healthy Start will become even closer and larger. To achieve this, it is crucial that we all speak the same language. What do we actually mean by terms like ‘co-creation’ and ‘making an impact’? When we speak the same language, working together becomes much more effective. In addition, it would be great if Healthy Start became a place where other organizations can go for help with complex issues. I am thinking, for example, of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. I hope that Healthy Start will become a centre of expertise known for its strong science and positive impact on society. I believe we are already well on our way in that direction.”

Jennifer Kockx is program manager at Healthy Start.

The more people who participate at Healthy Start, the better research we can do and the more children we can help. Do you feel involved in this topic? Then join our community. Volg onze LinkedIn of deel je ideeën per mail: