Omnibus prik


There seem to be several parallels between research and playing handball when you talk to the future Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, chemistry professor Birgit Schiøtt. A competitive mentality, a team spirit and an ability to help each other play better are good qualities in both occupations. And she knows what she's talking about as an internationally recognised researcher and a former elite handball player.

Professor of chemistry, Birgit Schiøtt has been researching the chemistry of the brain for almost 20 years. Together with her research group, among other things she has investigated how anti-depressants affect brain proteins. On 1 May, she will start as the dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences. Photo: Roar Lava Paaske


  • Professor of chemistry, researcher within medicinal chemistry and biophysics
  • Head of the interdisciplinary research centre for quantum technology, Quantum Campus Aarhus, since 2023
  • Head of the Department of Chemistry between 2014 and 2023
  • Member of the Board of Independent Research Fund Denmark since 2019 (has now applied to resign from the board)
  • Former member of the Research Policy Committee under the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters
  • Member of the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences

Birgit Schiøtt welcomes us to the Department of Chemistry, where she began studying chemistry 40 years ago and where she has conducted her independent research for the past 23 years. She leads us up the stairs, round a corner, through a glass door and round yet another corner. Our walk could be perceived as a metaphor for Birgit Schiøtt's career. In her own words, she hasn't taken 'the straight path', although it has always been upwards.

Birgit Schiøtt is a professor of chemistry and she has been researching the chemistry of the brain for almost 20 years. From 2014 to 2023, she was also the head of the Department of Chemistry. Despite this, her office is not close to the department secretariat; instead, she sits with the research group she has led for 23 years.

"I wasn’t yet 50 when I was made the head of department, and I thought I was too young to shut down my research. I decided to keep my office with the group so that we could meet informally at the coffee machine and so they could always catch me for brief chat. I also put a lot of effort into training my postdocs in project management and group management, and we had clear agreements about project meetings," she says.

The corridor is quiet on the afternoon of my visit. And it will continue to be so. After 28 years as an active researcher, Birgit Schiøtt has decided to disband the group and put her research on hold. This is because, on 1 May, she will start as the dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences. When I ask how she feels about ending her research career, she answers calmly:

"It’s alright. I mean it. I know very well it's a consequence of my decision."

Birgit Schiøtt adds that she considered her decision for a long time and she looks forward to being able to facilitate other research initiatives in her new role, such as the interdisciplinary Quantum Campus Aarhus, which she has led since August 2023.

She has helped the PhD students and postdocs in her research group to find new supervisors. The group has varied in size over the years, with 20 researchers at its peak, but is now down to five. The grants expire next year, except for one that runs until 2026. That part has been taken care of, she assures me.



I can’t imagine anything better than when... "I’m somewhere new in the countryside, preferably with good friends. You can have some really good conversations when you go for a walk in the countryside together. My husband has hiked in many parts of the world and he’s got me interested in walking too, so we've always gone walking or hiking at home and abroad. During the corona pandemic, our hobby took on a new meaning because you couldn't meet with friends indoors."

Last time I was angry: "I don’t get angry very often. But it can happen if my children or others I’m close to are treated unfairly."

Favourite app: "I rarely use apps, but I do check TV 2 Sport for the latest sports scores and my weather app before I exercise, which is always outdoors, regardless of the weather. Last winter we were lifting weights in minus 10 degrees and snow."

This year’s summer holiday is to…: "Northern Spain and I hope there’ll be walks in the countryside, trips to the beach and cultural experiences like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. And I’ll have a good book with me!"

Very few people know that I...: "Lived in a vegan community in the late 80s in Ithaca in New York State. We bought food from a co-operative and washed plastic bags to recycle them. I only knew about vegetarian food from Denmark, but black beans with millet, for example, was fine. But I'm not vegan myself. I was graciously allowed to store my milk and eggs in a fridge in the basement, and on Saturdays I often went out for juicy steaks with someone else from the community who was neither vegan nor vegetarian."

Birgit Schiøtt is looking forward to her new role as the dean and she is happy to explain what made her apply for the position.

"I thrive in this type of job - getting people to work together and getting the team to achieve more than they would as individuals. Right now we’re also in an important period for scientific research, and this applies for the Faculty of Natural Sciences too. As a society, we’re facing major changes and these demand new solutions that scientific research can help find. For example, the green transition and in the healthcare sector, where the coronavirus crisis made it clear for the whole of society that answers and solutions don’t only come from the health sciences, but also to a large extent from the natural sciences. I want to keep that pot boiling and communicate that curiosity-driven basic research is highly topical and forward-looking," she says.

She explains that we also have to deal with important dilemmas in parts of scientific research:

"For example, new geopolitical challenges have implications for dual-use research, because they challenge the openness that has characterised the research world in the past, and we now have to create a new culture and reconsider who we want to share our knowledge with."


What’s your vision for the faculty?

"I've been here for many years, so I can't be completely dissatisfied. It's a strong faculty and it delivers world-class education and research, so there's no need for a revolution. But we need to be constantly looking to the future and adapting to the jobs our graduates will be doing."

Birgit Schiøtt also wants the faculty to be an internationally attractive research and study environment for researchers and students.

"The labour market is red hot in several scientific fields at the moment, so we have to be a pleasant place to be, have good facilities, a good infrastructure and generally good conditions."

Birgit Schiøtt believes it is particularly important to ensure good conditions for new researchers when they establish their independent research groups.

"I always say that you have to be comfortable before you can work. Early in your research career, you need to have good conditions and facilities with skilful expert advice. This lays the foundation for you to develop so that you can later help create good conditions for others and for the community."

Birgit Schiøtt herself is an example of just that. When she looks back on what has steered her career in the direction it has taken, it has largely been her encounters with inspiring personalities and international research environments with opportunities to develop and learn new things.


Birgit Schiøtt's father was a physicist at Aarhus University, and there were both pharmacists and farmers in her family. Maybe that is why the young Birgit wanted to be an architect - until she had an "excellent" chemistry teacher in upper secondary school. 

"She made the subject exciting and meaningful for me. Chemistry gives us an understanding of why things are as they are. You get to understand something fundamental about the world when you learn chemistry," says Birgit Schiøtt.

She remembers a company visit to Novo Nordisk back in 1982-83, when she and her high school class saw a computer visualisation of a molecule for the first time and she became fascinated by the possibilities of 3D graphic visualisation of chemistry.


After upper secondary school, there was no turning back either. Birgit Schiøtt began studying chemistry-physics, as the Bachelor's programme was then called. On her Master's, she focused solely on chemistry, and in rather exclusive company in her final year. Through her supervisor, she had the opportunity to become part of American Professor Roald Hoffmann's research group at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Hoffmann had received the Nobel Prize for chemistry seven years previously. 22-year-old Birgit from Elev, just outside Aarhus, was humbled by the opportunity and a little nervous about travelling so far from home.

"I didn't really have anything to compare it to. I just thought that’s how things are done, and in the end I didn't see much of him that year because he was filming a TV series. But being a part of his group, and at 22 years old standing on my own two feet in the US in a time without the internet and mobile phones, was educational and fulfilling," she says.  

After her Master's degree, she began her PhD and this took her back to the US, more specifically the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she joined an international research group led by Professor Stephen L. Buchwald, who was among the most cited researchers in the field at that time.

"In his group, I experienced how, by being constantly attentive, you can run a happy and cooperative group with a spirit of helpfulness, " she says.

After her PhD, she worked as an upper secondary school teacher for a few years until her husband took a postdoc position in the US. 

"I wanted to go with him, but not as an accompanying wife. So I was lucky enough to get a postdoc position myself, but I had to learn biochemistry."

Birgit Schiøtt joined a research group led by Professor Thomas Bruice at the University of California in Santa Barbara. She points to him as one of the people who has helped shape her professionally.

"I learnt a lot from him - also that you don't have to work 24/7, but can easily have a life alongside your research. He loved surfing and went surfing often," says Birgit Schiøtt, who also found his personal background inspiring.

"He came from a poor background in Southern California and couldn't just go to university. So he joined the Navy and served during the Second World War, after which he was able to get a university scholarship. He went on to become one of the leading researchers in his field."

Back home, the Department of Chemistry once again became the setting for Birgit Schiøtt's work. With her newly acquired background in biochemistry, she was involved in organising the then new medicinal chemistry programme, especially within computer aided drug design, or 'television chemistry', as it was called in more down-to-earth Danish. She was not a permanent employee, but applied for various career grants at research councils. It was not until 2007, 14 years after her PhD, that she became a permanent employee at the department.

"It took a long time for me to become a permanent employee. But the head of department at the time saw me, listened to me, and saw a need for my field. He cared about other people and about the community at the department, which had a strong sense of togetherness rather than envy," says Birgit Schiøtt although she stresses that she thrives on the element of competition that is part of the research world.


She also enjoyed community and competition in her spare time, when she played handball for Skovbakken for 12 years after she finished high school until she left for the US as a postdoc. At elite level - and yes, even while writing her PhD.

"Back then you couldn't play professionally, so I was an amateur. But we played in the top flight and qualified for the European Cup. We trained four times a week and played matches once a week. A lot of us on the team came from university or other higher education - actually pretty much all of us did. Coming from a very, very male-dominated field - at that time there were about 100 men and four women in the first year physics course - it was nice to be part of a female universe, and I also liked the competition."

When Birgit Schiøtt describes her achievements in both science and sport, it's tempting to wonder what she eats for breakfast. Perhaps she has some biochemical secret?

"Freshly baked rolls. I have dough in the fridge and bake two rolls while I'm in the shower, so it's not difficult. But that's not what does it," she smiles.

"I've grabbed all the chances that have come my way. And I haven't been afraid to take on something I couldn’t do and practice until I learnt it. Of course with an understanding and supportive family and husband."