Show me your office – Christina Munk

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Christina Munk, mechanical engineer and associate professor at the Aarhus University School of Engineering, limits herself to the strictly necessary in her workspace. But if you explore her pockets, you’ll discover that she’s a member of a special club. And an exclusive one at that.

2018.06.06 | Marie Groth Andersen

Christina Munk, mechanical engineer and associate professor at the Aarhus University School of Engineering, enjoys a cup of tea and a moment of reflection in her office at Navitas, which looks out over Kystvejen, the old wooden ship harbor and the forest of Riis Skov. And no, the knickknacks and plants on the windowsill don’t belong to Christina Munk, but to her colleague Aage Birkkjær Lauritsen. Because houseplants don’t have a chance in her company. Photo: Lars Kruse

While some AU employees adorn the floors under their desks with Persian carpets, lovingly tend forests of houseplants on their windowsills and decorate their notice boards with children’s drawings and family photos, it doesn’t look as if mechanical engineer Christina Munk spent more than a few minutes decorating her workspace in the open-plan office at Navitas. Apart from the backpack leaning against the bookshelf and the glass of water on her tidy desk, there’s no tangible evidence that Christina is even at work. 

“I’ve never been one for knickknacks or hanging up pictures of my son. Not at home, either. And houseplants don’t have a chance. I love my garden and my greenhouse, but I kill houseplants.”

Before she got her present job at ASE, Christina Munk worked at Grundfos. And a former co-worker supplies her with used pumps and components. Because it’s important to have some physical mechanisms to relate to and touch and take apart if you’re going to understand how things work, she believes. Photo: Lars Kruse

What items here in your office say most about you as a person?

“I don’t think I can answer that.” 

Christina’s colleague Jens Brusgaard Vestergaard gets up to come to her aid. He stands there looking at her workspace, hands in pockets, for a long time. But even he ultimately has to admit that it’s a hard question to answer. His gaze lights briefly on a circulation pump, then finally lands on a picture of a group of students Christina is project supervisor for.  

Photo: Lars Kruse 

“Christina is really good at supervising the students, and they like her – just look at how many hearts there are on that picture,” he says.  

And the enthusiasm is mutual. Her job teaching at ASE is the best one she’s had so far, Christina says. But she teaches 90-120 new students thermodynamics and electrical energy technology every semester, and it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who.

“So I ask all of the groups I supervise to make a list of their names and photos so that I can learn to recognize all the members.”

Photo: Lars Kruse

OK, but what would you save from your workspace if it were burning?

“Definitely my notes, which I use in my teaching. I solve all the problems I set for the students, and I do it by hand. Because it’s easier for me to explain the problems at the board if I’ve done them myself, so I have my thoughts in order. And as long as I have my notes, I can quickly refresh my memory of problems from five years ago and describe them on the board.”

Photo: Lars Kruse 

But it’s actually not true that nothing in the office says more about Christina as a person than about her subject. You just have to look in her pockets. Here you’ll find a rather plain keyring which means a lot to Christina. 

“I got that when I joined Mensa four and a half years ago.”

Mensa is an international association for highly intelligent people. To join, all you have to do is score at or above the 98th percentile on an IQ test – in other words, among the top two percent. 

Christina explains that she has always felt a bit like an outsider and not quite like everyone else. But she didn’t take the Mensa IQ test until she found out that her son was highly intelligent. 

“Mensa is a social club for me. My ex-husband, my current husband and my son are all members, and we’re all introverted types – but here we have a community.”

Photo: Lars Kruse 

And it’s a community the family is deeply involved in: they meet with the local chapter of Mensa every Tuesday.

“If there are five Tuesdays in a month, the fifth is a bonus Tuesday, and we go out to eat. For example, today we’re going to Havnens Perle (popular local diner on the waterfront, renowned for its excellent beef sandwiches, ed.). We go to a cafe on the first Tuesday of every month. And we get together and eat pasta salad on the other Tuesdays, because it’s easy to adjust the amount depending on how many people show up.” 

What’s special about the community you have in Mensa?

“You don’t have to spell things out, things move faster, and communication flows more easily in Mensa. Whereas neighborhood block parties aren’t really my thing.

Why not?

“They’re too unstructured for me, and I just don’t find them that interesting.”

She speaks openly about her membership in Mensa with her students. But it hasn’t always been that way. One of her colleagues got her to start opening up about it when they were giving a talk to some students together.

“She pushed me forward and let me tell them about how I had discovered that I was highly gifted, and what learning that has meant to me. I was actually kind of moved, because it’s so meaningful to me. And I had to pull myself together before I could speak about it. Afterwards, my colleague said: ‘Did you notice how quiet they got?’

Now she always brings up her membership when she introduces herself to new students. 

“Well, it’s not the first thing I tell them. But after all, along with information about my education, professional background and family, it tells them something about who I am, and I think the students should know.”

“In a number of cases when I’ve had students who were clearly highly intelligent, I’ve asked them if they’ve tried taking the Mensa test. That’s gotten several of my students to join.”

Christina Munk with one of the wheels she uses in group coaching sessions. She also has big ones the size of rugs the students can stand on to signal their role in the group. Photo: Lars Kruse

The importance of understanding and recognizing each other’s differences is another thing Christina tries to impress on her students. At the beginning of their first semester, she has all of her students take a personality test, and she divides them into project groups on the basis of their results. She also does group coaching sessions with each group focussed on how students can resolve concrete problems in their groups and make accommodate each other’s personalities and differences.

“That’s so important to learn. As an engineer, you will always be working with other people. And it leads to greater well-being both socially and professionally – and greater acceptance of who the students are as individuals. A lot of the people on this degree programme are kind of nerdy. In a cool way, I think. But it’s good to learn how to acknowledge people for who they are.”

Photo: Lars Kruse 

What is that drinky bird you have there?

“That’s just thermodynamics.”

Got it. And thanks for the lecture...guess I’ll see you at the exam...

Christina tries to explain to Omnibus’ roving reporter how the evaporation of water lowers the temperature, which creates movement – dynamics. The roving reporter changes the subject as quickly as possible... 

There aren’t that many female mechanical engineers. Does the fact that you’re a woman play a role in your work?

No, not really.”

From his workspace, her colleague Jens Brusgaard Vestergaard contributes to our conversation again – this time with some statistics: 

“Despite the fact that so few women are engineers, all of my managers are women. From my section head to the director and all the way up to Queen Margrethe...” Take that, Prime Minister Løkke.

Christina smiles and returns to the issue at hand:

“Maybe I can permit myself something my male colleagues can’t – to be a little more maternal. Once I had a student who was getting ready to take an exam, and from inside the exam room I could hear that she was sobbing in the hallway because she was so terrified of taking the exam. So I went out into the hall and put my arms around her. My male colleagues probably wouldn’t be able to get away with doing that.”

Photo: Lars Kruse 

From their office in Navitas, Christina and her colleagues have been following the construction of the light rail closely. And contrary to what you might expect, the mechanical engineers haven’t been standing up there snorting derisively – on the contrary, they’ve followed the process with fascination and appreciation.  

“For example, one of my older colleagues mentioned that this was the first time he’d ever seen thermite welding in practice,” Christina says.   

Photo: Lars Kruse

How do you feel about the fact that the engineers will probably be moving from Navitas to Katrinebjerg?

“I feel fine about it. It will be good to get all the engineers in one place again, like when we were on Dalgas Avenue. It will give us new opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation.”

What are you going to do after I leave?

“I’m going to read some project reports and prepare for exams. I have three days next week with oral exams of 45 students.”

Translated by Lenore Messick

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Revised 19.06.2018