Beneath the surface

Niel Hens: 'We calculated our way out of the crisis'

4 min
Text Alexander Delport
Image Dirk Kerstens, Video: Alexander Delport

In 'Beneath the surface', we deep dive into the mind of a UAntwerp researcher. Stroom digs for experiences, interests and motivations, in order to discover: what makes a scientist tick? This time, we put Niel Hens in the spotlight. Hens develops and uses mathematical and statistical methods to solve epidemiological questions, at UAntwerp and UHasselt. This is how he provides insight into the spread of infectious diseases.


I really like Kafka’s books. I find The Trial very interesting, especially from the point of view of the pandemic. Things that happen for no reason and then again for a reason... I think Kafkaesque situations are quite applicable. They call me crazy, but sometimes I take a book on mathematics with me on holiday on Fermat’s Last Theorem for example. I would love to have a lot more time to delve into such literature.  


Love of statistics 

There is a lot of beauty in mathematics. The fact that mathematics can offer insights is something I find amazing. In secondary school, I paid more attention to basketball than studying, but I still got high marks. When I wanted to study mathematics, the CLB (Centre for Pupil Counselling) did not see me doing that, which motivated me even more. After my studies at KU Leuven, I held an assistant position at the Centre for Statistics at UHasselt, and infectious diseases were added in the final phase of my PhD. Today, I use mathematics to provide solutions to real-world problems. 

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They call me crazy, but sometimes I take a book on mathematics with me on holiday – on Fermat’s Last Theorem for example.

Niel Hens


How a dynamic develops in a group is something I find very fascinating. In basketball, I was often the captain, I was chair at Herentals and now I lead people at UHasselt and UAntwerp. I am not an authoritarian leader; I prefer to facilitate. For example, I did not always score points in basketball, but the coach said he wanted me on the team anyway because I made things possible for someone else. That is not always appreciated in the same way as when you score the most points. It’s not something that frustrates me, I just find such dynamics immensely interesting. 


Corona times 

Everything my colleagues and I had done before proved very useful during the corona crisis. It felt like we were calculating our way out of the crisis. In the beginning, I spent about sixteen hours a day at my computer. Afterwards, I crawled into bed on time to get enough sleep and stay efficient. With the models we had, we turned out to be right after all, in retrospect. In Belgium, we have had quite some influence on policymakers. We gave the insights, they took the decisions.



People are usually surprised when they see me because I am 2m04 tall. I used to play a lot of basketball, at a decent level. I am from Olen and played at Herentals, Lier, Wilsele, Geel and Stevoort. With Wilsele, we become champions in the third national division. I could have gone to the second division, but that might have been too intense, as I am quite injury-prone. It was also a pivotal moment in my PhD. I am not sad about prioritizing my studies, but I am happy that basketball is still part of my life. For instance, I regularly go to watch my daughter’s basketball games.


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