Aarhus Universitets segl

Danish roots in an international environment

The team of researchers at the Centre for Structural Biology consists of more than ten different nationalities. More than half the team come from outside Denmark, still the centre is hanging on to its Danish values.

By Gitte Bindzus Knudsen

“We are kind of world leading,” says professor Poul Nissen from the Centre for Structural Biology modestly.
He and two other members of staff at the centre are trying to explain why some of the world’s best researchers in structural biology have chosen to work in Aarhus instead of anywhere else in the world.
The group has just finished its weekly meeting, at which loose ends and a variety of research projects are presented and discussed.
At the meeting laboratory technician Anna Marie Nielsen pointed out that people must remember to tidy up the laboratory before they leave.
“The people who work here have a wide variety of different traditions and standards, so we have to teach them how we do things in Denmark – and this includes issues relating to both cleaning and safety at work,” explains Anna Marie Nielsen.
Poul Nissen nods and adds: “Of course we’re patient at first, but the researchers who work here are used to a wide variety of different standards. For instance, our safety regulations are very high,” he says.

Good international reputation
The number of international staff at the centre has grown steadily in recent years, and today more than half come from outside Denmark, representing more than ten different countries. The centre has built up an international reputation, and can now almost pick and choose its staff from among the very best applicants.
“Right from the start our goal has been to create an international research environment, and once the first people from other countries had joined us it became easier to find more. Our reputation has also made it easier to attract international funding,” says Poul Nissen.
One of the first people to join the centre from outside Denmark was post-doc scholar Laure Yatime from France. She arrived just over three years ago.
“I definitely came because of the research and not because of the location. The centre has a good international reputation, and I’d heard a lot of good things about Poul’s work and the laboratory,” she explains.
With so many different nationalities working here, English is the dominant language – something which becomes obvious when you attend one of the centre’s meetings, which are held in a lively atmosphere. Everyone speaks English with some kind of accent (the sounds of Eastern Europe, China and Jutland echo round the room), but they all understand each other nevertheless.
They even seem to share the same sense of humour – for instance, they all start laughing during one of the presentations, and the only person who fails to appreciate the joke is your faithful reporter from CAMPUS .

Danish values are important
Poul Nissen believes that staff social events are particularly important when so many different nationalities have to work together. This has not been a problem so far. Each week there is a social evening at which films from many different countries are shown, with sub-titles in a different language each time.
“It’s actually easier to mix socially when so many different nationalities are involved. Nobody has their own social group to hang onto, so everyone is more open to a true sense of community,” explains the professor, who also appreciates the many research-related advantages of the highly international environment.
“The level of our research is stimulated by the fact that we come from so many different backgrounds, and the differences between us are an advantage because they show us how to approach our research from different angles,” he says.
However, even though Poul Nissen likes an international environment he believes that it is important to retain a significant number of Danish staff as well.
“We want to hang on to our national anchor and Danish values. This is why we try to teach new staff how things are done in Denmark – for instance, professors and students normally enjoy a relaxed and easy relationship with each other. I like our Danish research traditions, and even though Denmark isn’t exactly the biggest country in the world we still have plenty of home-grown researchers here,” he says.