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Crises produce new initiatives – and hopefully a really good new idea

Thirty years ago, he left Denmark to do research with the best scientists in his field. Today, research talents from all over the world come to Aarhus to kickstart their careers by working with him.

“It’s truly fantastic to get to formulate your own ideas and get to make a setup made that lets you bring them to life. That’s what drives research, and that’s what keeps it interesting to work with. Not the next result, because that’s unpredictable,” states Jens Stougaard (Photo: VILLUM FONDEN)

Professor Jens Stougaard has been in the field since molecular biology was still in its infancy. Back then, sequencing a snippet of DNA and cloning genes was a major accomplishment. Today every gene he was involved in discovering has been mapped and a chemical synthesis of a gene is available “practically by mail order,” as Stougaard playfully puts it. Today, he is one of the world’s leading molecular biologists. His publications are among the one per cent most cited worldwide in the category ‘plant and animal science’.

“It’s been a truly fantastic development to be part of. From when the field was practically a craft to modern, advanced molecular biology, where we can combine genes in the combinations we want to study. Our opportunities for exploring our field have more or less exploded. And that’s why it stays exciting. Not least discovering how far we can get with our ideas about the answers we can find,” explains Stougaard.

Heading an international research group

Stougaard heads an international research team of 35 scientists. When he returned to Denmark from the University of Sussex with his PhD, his task was to establish himself as a researcher. His first postdoc years were funded by the Danish biotech fund, something completely new at the time. Biotechnology was a new national research priority, so it was relatively smooth sailing to find funding for this type of research. But like every other junior scientist, Stougaard had to pay his dues while establishing his own research area by living from short-term grant to grant in order to finance his research projects. 

Until he broke through with an idea that no one else in the world was working on, and which led to groundbreaking advances in our understanding of symbiotic nitrogen fixation through his work on the wild legume Lotus japonicus. Today, his research group’s work is currently based on this previous discovery of how legumes such as L. japonicus establish symbiosis with bacteria in the surrounding soil. These bacteria are able to turn atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that plants can use. This means that legumes are able to create their own fertiliser through their symbiosis with these bacteria.

Major grants followed on these heels of this discovery: a grant from the Danish National Research Foundation, an ERC Advanced Grant and participation in a multimillion dollar project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Stougaard’s growing research group became a world leader in the field of plant biology.

“What I’m most proud of is that I’ve built up a very strong group with enthusiastic PhD students and postdocs. And we’re working on some interesting projects that have resulted in some very high-profile publications that prove that we can compete with the best in the world. That’s what makes being a scientist worthwhile. We can look at each other and say: ‘We did a good job on this, and it was fun’,” says Stougaard.

Team spirit and financial security

Two factors in particular are responsible for his success as a researcher, he explains:

“It’s about creating a large enough group with different areas of expertise to allow us to link our results, techniques and methods into completely new ideas. No one can get this far alone, because no individual can keep up with the technological development and manage to read all of the relevant publications. It takes interdisciplinary teams. Another factor is financial security. There needs to be money to hire people – smart people – and create a sufficiently large and diverse group. And there needs to be financial security to be able to take chances and dive into the more risky ideas. Because that’s where you can really create results.”

His own list of results is impressive. But that’s not what he mentions first when asked about his career. Instead, he speaks of the talented young people and the importance of working together – and not least that not everything he’s worked on has been a success. But we don’t advertise our negative results. Nonetheless, they are important in the big picture, he points out:

“It’s not much fun when it happens, but crises produce new initiatives – and hopefully a really good new idea. And when something doesn’t succeed, you’re forced to think long and hard. And that in itself is a good motivator. It may have been a bad hypothesis or the wrong technique, but my approach has always been that we should learn something from that.”

Do not get too focused on your own little world

What fascinates Stougaard and motivates him is not the next result: it’s the process of research.

“It’s truly fantastic to get to formulate your own ideas and get to make a setup made that lets you bring them to life. That’s what drives research, and that’s what keeps it interesting to work with. Not the next result, because that’s unpredictable.”

Stougaard is personally involved in all of his group’s projects, though he doesn’t run his own experiments. There’s no time for that. He spends most of his time discussing, planning, teaching, applying for grants and reporting on the progress of current projects to grantmakers. But he spends his days among his researcher colleagues, and ideas for new projects keep coming to him. 

“I don’t think I could keep them from coming. Maybe at some point I’ll run out of ideas. But I believe that if you establish a good group around you, a productive environment, you will have good ideas. You can’t just sit in your office and have good ideas in our world. They come when you’re part of a larger community and you hear things you wouldn’t normally hear, so that you get new angles on your own expertise, get a different idea or try others’ technologies on your own field. I would say that you have to be good at listening to scientists outside your own field. You have to be careful to avoid getting too narrowly focussed on your own little world.”

Stougaard acknowledges that there is a lot of pressure on junior scientists to establish themselves with their own research specialisations. His best piece of advice for young people with dreams of a career in research is to listen to other scientists and learn a lot. And he recommends challenging yourself by joining research groups at other universities.

“You need to get out there and gain some experience, and you should choose the best possible places that have something to offer in terms of the science, so that you get a different angle on how things can be done differently. Here in our labs, we do things our way, but that’s not the only way to do things. It’s really good to be exposed to that. It stimulates their thinking about the future that they can see opportunities in taking other roads than they would be exposed to when they’re staying ‘at home’ at their own university.”

Stougaard’s own research group is a testimony to this philosophy. His team has thirty-five members, and more than half are international. His office door is always open. There’s always time for science, even though his own days are filled to the brim with writing grant reports and writing grant applications.

“That’s where I am in my career now, and I’m fine with that. And these are the terms we work under. There’s a lot of pressure to find funding, and proposals have to be thorough and interesting. And if you get the grant, you’re quick off the mark, because you’ve already thought things through, formulated your ideas clearly and mapped out the first steps of your path, and you’ve already planned out the first few years of the project.”

More information

Professor Jens Stougaard
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark
stougaard@mb.au.dk – mobile +45 6020 2649