"Sooner or later you’ve got to cut loose…"

This year, 52-year-old Lars Bo Nielsen could have celebrated 30 years at Rigshospitalet. That is, if he had not applied for the position of dean at Health – and landed the job. So now he is putting his own research on the back-burner, selling the house at Furesø and getting a one-way ticket to Aarhus.

[Translate to English:] Den kommende dekan for Health på AU glæder sig til at indtage Aarhus, men lægger ikke skjul på, at det er vemodigt at skulle sige farvel til sit netværk i København. ”Men i disse tider, hvor vi har så travlt med at være internationale, kan det jo ikke passe, at det er et problem at flytte os 2 ½ time væk,” griner han. Foto: Lars Kruse
[Translate to English:] ”Jeg tror, jeg vil kunne lære en del af at komme til AU, men jeg kommer jo også ind med nogle idéer, der forhåbentligt kan være med til at udvikle AU, så det bliver et endnu bedre universitet.” Foto: Lars Kruse

Lars Bo Nielsen opens the door to his office at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Rigshospitalet. Patients mull around on the ground floor below his office as relatives go in and out of the main entrance, while the noise of rotor blades shows that the helicopter landing platform on the roof is not just an architectural detail. He has spent three decades working at Denmark's biggest hospital.

"I've almost become part of the walls here!", he says with a laugh as he spreads his arms.

From research director to researcher in his spare time

But as he also says:

"Sooner or later you’ve got to cut loose if you want to do something else." 

READ MORE: Researcher into the most frequent cause of death in the West 

Which is what he has done. The past few weeks have been spent shutting down his research activities and leaving the 16-strong research team that he started in 1999. At the same time, he is passing on responsibility for the Department of Clinical Medicine which he has headed since 2012. But he is not turning his back completely on the group and its results.

About Lars Bo Nielsen

52-years-old and professor of functional genomics.

Comes from a position as head of the Department of Clinical Medicine at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

Has conducted 30 years of research into cholesterol and hardening of the arteries.

Married to Lise Leth Jeppesen, who is a neurologist. They have two sons aged 24 and 20.

Played basketball in his leisure time until recently and still an active sailor.

Lars Bo Nielsen takes up the position on 1 April. 

Five quick questions for Lars Bo Nielsen

My favourite app is: The app I use most at the moment is the one for the ferry between Zealand and Aarhus! But my favourite app would be DriveNow. It’s a scheme for loaner cars where the app lets you quickly see where there is an electric vehicle nearby. Here in Greater Copenhagen you have hundreds of small BMV i3 electric vehicles available. It's really clever if you need to attend meetings in the city, because you’re also always sure of finding a parking space. I probably use it about once a month. 

Very few people know that I: … was Frederikssund yo-yo champion back in 1977.

I can't imagine anything better than when I: … am together with inspiring people.

The last time my blood pressure went through the roof was because: … I can't actually remember … (thinks long and hard) No, I can't remember. Okay, I get angry when people can’t stick to their agreements. 

Your favourite place at AU, if you have already found one: Well, now I’ve not yet begun at the university, but I think the University Park is a fantastic place, with the feeling of a campus that the park gives and the sloping terrain. 

"I will still follow the group's projects from a distance, and I will also be involved in the finalisation of the manuscripts in so far as my spare time allows," says the coming dean.

How do you feel about having to do most of your research in your spare time after thirty years as an active researcher?

"I’ve thought a lot about that and it’s been a difficult decision. This is the first time I’ve taken a real decision to change direction in my career. I’ve gotten the managerial positions I’ve had at Rigshospitalet and the University of Copenhagen because there has been a need for someone with my profile. They were positions where I was able to support an organisation that I was already part of," says Nielsen, and continues:

"But applying for a position as dean when you’re already head of department is a natural career move, I guess. And to have the chance to do that at AU, which has really good traditions in the health sciences, is just fantastic."

A healthcare system in a time of upheaval

There were several aspects of the job advertisement that led him to write an application. Among them that he finds motivation in being able to influence the development of the healthcare sector.

"The universities play a major role in how our welfare society develops in the healthcare sector. The healthcare sector is in the middle of an upheaval, because we’ve now streamlined things right to the limit of what’s possible. If we want to make further gains, then they must be found in research-based innovation," he says.

How do you see Health in those developments?

"We must ensure that our research is communicated to the general public. We need to be an active partner in addressing the challenges that exist in the system. Then we need to think internationally and look at how the university sector is developing in other countries, and how we as a university should respond to these developments," he explains.

He doesn’t wish to be more specific at the present time.

"It's a well-functioning faculty, so now I need to hear what dreams and visions people have. I’m not coming to start a revolution".

Important to give students research experience

It’s difficult to overlook Lars Bo Nielsen, not least because he is almost two meters high. He leans back in his chair, using words like 'fun' to talk about research and cannot conceal his excitement when he talks about the students.

"They’re so talented! Sure, perhaps they can’t do as much maths as students could thirty years ago, but they can do so many other things. They have a self-confidence and an ability to work in groups, so they can start initiatives and organise. Both the social things, but also innovation. They’re fantastic. They also have some things they have to learn." 

What for example, apart from maths?

"I think it’s important that there is room to be a student. It shouldn't just be a school for learning skills; the academic aspect is important. We must give them an opportunity to immerse themselves in a research project and give them an international aspect."

That the students gain research experience during the study programme is important for the coming dean.

"I think we need to do everything we can to hold on to the research year within the given financial and political framework." 

He points out that it is not something that will ruin the national economy, and he also wants to bring political pressure to tell the politicians that it is a good investment for society.

"But there are also other ways to safeguard it. I can imagine a situation where students were affiliated with a research environment already during the first part of their Master’s, and where they became an integral part of a group, so that while they were students they already combined their student life with being rooted in a research environment. It’s a good way to learn, and there are also very few positions where you spend one hundred per cent of your time on your own research."

People appreciate an answer 

As dean at Health, Nielsen will be head of approximately 1,500 employees, 650 PhD students and 4,500 students. He will also become a member of the senior management team and can look forward to sharing responsibility for, and influencing, the university's development as a whole.

When asked to describe his management style, he replies:

"I see myself as a positive person and I’m loyal towards the people I work with and my university. I also find myself stimulated by progress. I think it’s fun to push processes forward."

It is also very important for him to reply to all the all requests he gets.

"It may well be that you can’t do what you’re asked to, but you can at least provide a reply. I can see that people appreciate that."

While he spends time answering emails and phone calls, his social media presence is so-so. But he does have both a Twitter account and a profile on Facebook.

"I'm on Twitter, but I only follow my son's basketball team and then Yale, Harvard and AU. I only use Facebook privately. But I can see that it will be a fantastic way of communicating with the students. There’s nothing to discuss really, we have to be on social media, because that’s where the students are."

We're doing it together

Nielsen finds a photo on his phone. It shows a slightly hazy morning view of Furesø lake. Having to say goodbye to the view is difficult, but the house is for sale. Lars Bo Nielsen's wife is a neurologist and has got a job at Aarhus University Hospital. So now they are both moving to Aarhus, while their sons aged 20 and 24 remain in Copenhagen, where one is already studying to become a doctor, with the other about to begin studying in Copenhagen after a stay at a college in the USA.

"It’s an adventure really. We’re really looking forward to it. There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have done it if my wife wasn’t willing to move as well. We’re doing it together.

They will also have a good view from the apartment they have rented at the harbour.

"We haven’t lived in an apartment since we were students. So now we’ll just have to see how it goes. We want to get to know the city. I really think Aarhus is a lovely city and I have the impression that Aarhus University is a really good university."

Translated by Peter Lambourne