Curiosity is my main driver – University of Copenhagen

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17 February 2016

Curiosity is my main driver

Research profile

A teacher in secondary school discouraged Lene Juel Rasmussen from studying chemistry and mathematics at university level. Today, she is a professor at the University of Copenhagen.

Chemistry and mathematics were Lene Juel Rasmussen’s favourite subjects in school. Which is why she thought it would be a great idea for her to study both subjects at university, and because she did not really have any ideas about what else to do.

“But then my secondary school teacher told me that if I did, the only thing I’d aspire to be … was a secondary school teacher …  And when you are still in secondary school, being told something like that is like having a bucket of cold water thrown in your face,” says Lene Juel Rasmussen with a smile. Today she is 53 years old and a Professor in Molecular Ageing. She also heads the Center for Healthy Ageing (CESA) at the very university her teacher discouraged her from studying at.

Instead, she studied civil engineering at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This, however, was not an instant success.

“Basically, I thought it was really boring. But I persevered and then I was able to choose a main subject, and that’s what turned it around for me. I studied biochemistry and learnt about genetic engineering for the very first time. It was incredibly fascinating. The mere thought that you are able to alter an organism. To modify genes in a way that would make organisms change their behaviour … wow!”

Why did you become a researcher?

“I like doing things that do not include a predetermined result, and in research you definitely don’t know what that’ll be. To me, one of the most boring things we had to do at DTU was conducting experiments with a given result that the teachers had been teaching for years on end. However, if you were placed in a lab and asked to conduct an experiment that had no fixed result, it was fantastic. Maybe you’re able to guess what the outcome will be; but only if you’re really clever. And no matter what, you have no certainty. Now, that is exciting. I was curious, and curiosity is still my main driver. I am thrilled to be generating new knowledge.”

Why is your research important to society?

“Research on ageing is important because populations live longer and grow much older. The share of elderly people is rising. They’re in the second half of their lives and ensuring that they stay healthy as long as possible, is a huge challenge.

“We conduct biological research on ageing. What happens to a human being as we get older – on a purely biological level? And it’s not all about genes; it’s also about external influences. And about how society reacts to an ageing population.

“We’re also trying to find out more about the effect of our surroundings, e.g. pollution and lifestyle. Everything affects the biology in our bodies – even social relations. Good social relations affect the ageing process in a positive way – and reversely.

“It’s exciting, challenging and incredibly important that we attack the problems in a positively and across disciplines,” says Lene Juel Rasmussen.

Talk about a career high

“There have been different kinds of highs. The first one was being chosen as one of the few who were allowed to study in the US. Studying at the University of Massachusetts and later Harvard was quite something.

“I had applied for a grant at the Research Council and hoped that I’d be going, but I’d also decided that not going was not going to be the end of the world. I wasn’t exactly nervous, and I was actively looking for work at the same time. When the letter finally arrived, I sat looking at it, drawing the agony out. Then I ripped it open – and then I needed a beer.

“The next high was my first appointment in Denmark, establishing my own research group. But also becoming Head of CESA – it’s a big challenge and an incredibly exciting job.”

What is the best part of your job?

“It’s the freedom to be creative. Which is NOT the same as not doing anything, because one’s publications are reviewed according to very high standards. But there’s nobody to tell you what you should or should not do. You decide what you want to research and the direction you want to follow. Research includes freedom and creativity, and that’s what keeps me in that world.

“I sometimes miss spending more time in a laboratory, but that can’t be helped right now. What I do is terribly exciting, and the two cannot be combined. But when I retire? That’s another good thing about my job. I have a personal interest in producing good results at CESA, as this will allow me to go on working for longer,” says Lene Juel Rasmussen with a smile.

What do you do when you are not researching?

“Not much really, I relax. I used to play handball and I’ve been on the national cricket team, but now I just go for a run from time to time and I do a little yoga. I’ve had to slow down on account of injuries. Now I relax while watching sports on TV. I love watching women’s handball, and I also enjoy watching football – when they play well that is. I also like watching skiing, especially down hill, because of the speed and excitement.”