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I’m only as good as my students

Research funding should focus on research projects that are unique to Denmark says professor Peter Ogilby. Meet the professor who some people think is even more Danish than the Danes themselves.

Photo: Lars Kruse

Excellent, inspiring students, good colleagues, and a laboratory with plenty of advanced equipment. So no, Peter Ogilby has no regrets about pulling up stakes and moving from New Mexico to Aarhus 16 years ago – encouraged to do so by his Danish wife, whom he met in New Mexico. In 1996 she wanted to move home to Denmark with their two young daughters.
Peter Ogilby is a professor at the Department of Chemistry, and has won international recognition for his research in physical chemistry. He investigates events that occur when light, organic molecules and oxygen combine.
This mix can produce an excited state of oxygen called singlet oxygen, capable of breaking down polymers, plastic and paint, for instance, but also biological molecules. The latter can hurt healthy cells but can also be used to kill bad cells such as cancer cells.
“Understanding the processes involved is the key to controlling them. This research  is important in treating cancer and extending the lifetime of materials,” explains Peter Ogilby.
Ever since 2005 this research has taken place at the interdisciplinary Centre for Oxygen Microscopy and Imaging (COMI), which is one of four Centres of Excellence at the Department of Chemistry. The centre was  established based on 10-year funding totalling DKK 50.2 million from the Danish National Research Foundation.

More Danish than the Danes

The American professor came from a similar position at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where the instruments in his laboratory were becoming out of date.
“At that time in the US it was hard to get money to upgrade instruments, so the easiest thing to do was move to another university where I could get some start-up money,” says Peter Ogilby. In 1995 he visited Aarhus to hear about the opportunities at the university.
“There was a vacant position, so everything fell into place.”
But the move from New Mexico’s desert, mountains and sunshine to a dark and cold Denmark in November wasn’t entirely painless.
“We lived out in the country and didn’t have a car, so while standing by the side of the road at seven o’clock in the morning waiting for the bus to Aarhus in the snow and rain I wondered what on earth I  had done.”
However, these days some of Peter Ogilby’s Danish friends say that he’s more Danish than many Danes, and he’s pleased that his two daughters have gained a good education here in Denmark.
“I’m absolutely delighted that they grew up in Denmark,” he says. He doesn’t even mind the much-despised Danish Jantelov.
“I don’t remember the entire Jantelov, but I actually like the bit about not having too high an opinion of your self. A lot of people think that the mentality of “me, me, me …” is what we need here at Aarhus University if we want to progress. But I think we need to change gears and stop shouting so loud. Aarhus University has good momentum. We also need to remember that Rome wasn’t built in one day, but that it could burn down in one day,” says Peter Ogilby.

Copycat research

He also thinks that Aarhus University should be careful about becoming a copycat university.
“We shouldn’t try to be like Oxford or Berkeley – instead, we should create an Aarhus profile. We have already achieved a high standard, and what we need to do now is to capitalize and build on things that are unique to us.”
Peter Ogilby also thinks that Denmark needs to make some changes in the way research money is allocated.
“Everyone knows almost everyone else in Denmark, and I think there’s a lot of politics involved when research funding is allocated – at least in the world of chemistry research. Some good researchers who submit good applications don’t receive any money. On the other hand, a lot of people are given major funding for doing flavour-of-the-month science,” he says.
Peter Ogilby believes that better peer review of applications is the way forward, and that the people awarding the funding should focus on research projects that are unique to Denmark.
“Lots of people think we should be taking our lead from the kind of research they do in Germany, the UK and the US – in short, what scientists in these countries perceive as important at the moment. But it’s already too late to start that kind of research; the scientists in those countries have the head-start. So I’m worried that we’re still seeing too many examples of copycat research. We ought to dare to take a chance on our projects a bit more often. Denmark has plenty of good researchers who are looking for their own way forward. Of course, as with everything, it may be risky to give them funding, but if their projects succeed the rest of the world will have to start copying us. Naturally, these are difficult decisions to take,” acknowledges Peter Ogilby.

The students are great

Peter Ogilby is happy with the research environment he works in alongside physicists, medical researchers, molecular biologists and others.
“I also think we ought to be pleased with our department – we’ve got a number of prominent research scientists who have made their own distinctive mark. Of course we have some problems; but Oxford, Harvard and Berkeley have problems too, so the world isn’t perfect. Compared with many other universities, we’re very fortunate here in Aarhus. I’ve got good colleagues and I’m lucky to be able to work with a lot of very good people.”
The chemistry professor is just as pleased with the students.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have plenty of excellent students in my own research group, and they all have a great sense of commitment. They see new angles and get ideas for good experiments. A lot of students in the US have to be guided, even at a top-ten university. But many of the students in Aarhus need no such assistance. What I always say is ‘I’m only as good as my students’, because even excellent researchers find it difficult to succeed without good students. On the other hand, average professors can achieve good results if they have good students,” says Peter Ogilby.
He thinks that teaching is an important part of the job.
“Talking to the students is part of my own education,” he says.