by Niels Ole Kjeldgaard, the founder of the department
written in 1993 in connection with the department's 25th anniversary
The Molecular Biology Department was established during an especially favourable time for Danish research. Throughout Denmark it was recognized that research and education were central issues for the country’s economic and cultural future, and that the majority of the population should have the opportunity to take an education to the highest possible level. During the 1950s it was decided to expand the existing universities and departments of higher learning as well as to found new universities.
An auspicious start
The University of Aarhus was part of this picture, and during 1960 it was decided that its biology teaching should be broadened to include subjects that were previously taught only at the University of Copenhagen. At the beginning of the 1960s, professorships in Zoology. Botany and Genetics were established so that teaching to Bachelor and Master levels in the Biological Sciences could begin. At this time a typical department’s personnel consisted of one Professor, one Head of Department and two to three Associate Professors. Thus, the faculty’s plan in 1966 was that the biology department as a whole should have 13 Professors, 15 Heads of Department and 39 Associate Professors. Naturally there were also major building plans.
In the autumn of 1965 the Faculty of Science set up a committee to study the requirements for expansion of the Biology teaching at the University of Aarhus. In addition to the Professor of Botany from Aarhus University Dr. Kai Larsen, the committee included four Professors from the University of Copenhagen: Dr. C. Barker Joergensen ( Zoophysiology), Dr. Morten Lange (Botany), Dr. Ole Maaloe (Microbiology) and Dr. K. G. Wingstrand (Zoology). The committee unanimously supported the expansion plan and it was suggested that Professor-ships and Departments be set up in the fields of Genetics, Plant Physiology, Zoophysiology and Molecular Biology. It was a time when the Ministry could meet the financial demands so in 1966 a Professor of Genetics was appointed, followed in June 1967 with the appointments of Professors of Plant Physiology and Molecular Biology.
Biology teaching began with selected students continuing to follow courses in Copenhagen. It was very important for securing a good teaching base in Aarhus that the Faculty recognized that it could be a catastrophic start if the new subjects were immediately overwhelmed by high student numbers. Therefore, an agreement was made that students, even after the new departments were set up, could still, after selection, continue to study in Copenhagen until satisfactory buildings could accommodate them in Aarhus. This decision was an important basis for the successful expansion of our Department in that attention was paid to the development of the subject matter rather than the pressure of teaching when it came to appointing Department staff.
by Erik Østergaard Jensen, Head of Department
written in 2008 in connection with the department's 40th anniversary
MBI at different locations
The merger between the Biostructural Chemistry Group and the MBI in 1996 is one of the most important events in the recent history of the Department. Brian F.C. Clark founded the Biostructural Chemistry group in 1974, and his group’s research has over the years been closely related to the activities at the MBI with a strong focus on the structural aspects of macromolecules. Three new wings were added to the Science Park in 1996 hosting the Biostructural Chemistry Group and two additional groups from the the MBI University Campus. Thus since 1996, the MBI has been divided physically into two equally sized units, the University Campus unit with focus on molecular biology and the Science Park unit with focus on proteins and plants. The structural biological research has now become an important and integrated part of many of the ongoing research projects at the MBI and is an example of a successful merger.
Ever since the housing of the MBI’s research groups in different locations, it has been our dream to get one house for all MBI’s activities including the related study programmes. However, the successful expansion of the activities at the MBI has made the fulfilment of this dream almost impossible since the space available either at the Science Park or at Campus is not sufficient to house the more than 400 staff and students working at the MBI. To be realistic, the move of the University Hospital to Skejby in 10 years will be the only potential possibility to get one address in the foreseeable future. However, during the recent years the MBI has acquired some more space: a whole floor from Geology at Campus, a building from the Cancer Society at the Science Park and a whole floor at the Science Park. However, a very recent investigation of the space distribution at the Faculty of Science clearly demonstrated an urgent need for more space at the MBI, a conclusion the research groups at the MBI have known for years. A take-over of the remaining part of the Science Park by the Faculty of Science will be the most obvious immediate solution to solve part of this problem.
Several new study programmes
The Department has contributed to the education of molecular biology students from the very beginning; however until recently the students were enrolled either as biology or chemistry students. In 2002 the Department became the master of its own house by the introduction of a new bachelor programme in molecular biology with several different flavours, the human biology being the most popular. A total of 37 students were enrolled in the molecular biology study programme in 2003.
A recent initiative taken by the Faculty of Science, the Engineering College of Aarhus and the County of Aarhus resulted in the establishment of the Aarhus Graduate School of Engineering. The MBI decided to join the initiative and agreed to offer a technical bachelor in Biotechnology in 2006 and a Master of Science in Engineering in process technology to be launched in 2009. A group of teachers from the MBI took on the responsibility to develop the new study programme, and in collaboration with the Engineering College of Aarhus, we could welcome 22 engineering students in 2006.
In 2005, the University announced Molecular Medicine to be a focus area. A major part of the research at the MBI is within the scope of molecular medicine. The MBI therefore decided to be an important player in this initiative, and in collaboration with the Faculty of Health Sciences, we established a bachelor and a master study programme in Molecular Medicine. Several of our established courses were remodelled to provide the most relevant background for the new study programme, and new courses were established. The study programme was offered for the first time in 2007, and we got many more applications than the set limit of 60 students.
Very recently the MBI has contributed significantly to the establishment of an MSc study programme in Molecular Nutrition and Food Technology, a study programme offered by the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences.
The recent years have been very busy setting up new study programmes and courses with several different external partners – in 2007 we accepted 165 students in our three study programmes. Thus within a very short period of time, the MBI has increased the production of student study years from 180 in 2000 to 364 in 2007, the highest number at the Faculty of Science! And we have only seen the tip of the iceberg due to the large number of new study programmes. The big challenge for the future is to keep the high standards with an increasing number of students and to optimize all the new study programmes.
The number of PhD students has increased from 50 in 2000 to more than 80 in 2008. More attention has been paid to the education of PhD students over the recent years. Every student is now associated with a small committee of external and internal advisors that regularly gives feed-back on their project. An honours’ programme has been initiated to recruit highly qualified bachelor students who can subsequently be enrolled as Phd students.
Strong research groups at the MBI
The tenured scientific staff has increased from 28 to 34 over the past 13 years (17 new appointments and 11 retirements). The appointed associate and full professors have primarily consolidated and expanded the established research fields. However, one exception is the recruitment of a professor in biotechnology to support the new engineering study programme. None of the four founders of molecular biology and structural chemistry are employed at the Department any longer. Staffan Magnusson died in 1990, Niels Ole Kjeldgaard retired in 1994 and died in 2006, Kjeld Marcker retired in 2002 and Brian F.C. Clark retired in 2007, but is still associated with the Department. Another very important person for the Department, Jens Nyborg, died in 2005. We all owe them a lot for what they started.
The Department is presently divided into the following research fields: DNA Processing, RNA & Viruses, Cellular Signalling & Development, Plant Molecular Biology, Structural Biology, Protein Function, Protein Interactions, and Molecular Nutrition. However, numerous collaborative projects exist between these research fields. The profiling of the Department towards the university has been difficult, illustrated by the fact that until 2003, no professors had been appointed at the MBI except for the founders. However, this has changed over the past five years where seven professors have been appointed. The national awareness of the research at the MBI has also increased dramatically over the past few years. The research at the MBI has always been of high standards, but for a period some 5-10 years ago, we had strong competition from other universities in Denmark. The present state of our high research quality is well illustrated by the fact that the MBI is heading three Centres of Excellence by the Danish National Research Foundation and is major partners in two other Centres of Excellence out of a total of 38 national centres.
The establishment of the iNANO Centre at the Faculty of Science in 2002 has resulted in new - more technology-driven - research directions at the MBI. The MBI has also fostered several spin-off companies during the past 15 years like Borean Pharma, Cobento and Plantic; however the survival rate is low due to difficulties in attracting venture capital, and thus only Cobento exists today. The MBI is also one of the more active Departments when it comes to invention disclosures, last year being involved in 1/5 of all disclosures at the University.
External funding is the basis for all research at the MBI, and for the past 15 years external funding has increased from 25 M DKK to 73 M DKK. Thus, as a whole the Department is doing excellently, but the figures also hide large differences between the individual research groups. The national and international competition have become much more tough, and even groups with a solid publication record can have problems in attracting money for their research and education of Master and PhD students. This might have the consequence that some research programmes must be terminated and new have to be developed in areas with better funding. On a small scale this is probably healthy, but we also face the risk that some - less trendy projects - will die even if they scientifically are potentially very interesting.
On the administrative side we have been challenged by a new accounting system, a database to register publications and activities, and latest an electronic calendar. However, after some years of running-in, the benefits are now becoming evident, and no doubt professional computer systems are required to manage the increasing number of students, staff and funding.
In 2003 the Danish Parliament passed a new law concerning the management of the universities. As a consequence, the Head of Department was appointed by the Dean in 2004 and not as previously elected by the scientific staff. Another consequence was a replacement of the Departmental board with a Departmental Council advising the Head of Department.
The past 15 years can best described as the period where molecular biology has become an integrated part of many different disciplines rather than being a specialized topic. At the Department we have experienced a successful generation shift, taking the best of - but not limited by - the traditions at the MBI. There is a pronouced collaborative spirit at our Department and this augers well for our future when facing the increasing international and national competition.
Staff and students (1976)