30 November 2015

For me, life is an adventure


Nina Rønsted of the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen discusses her work as a professor and deputy head of department, why she brings her children along on fieldwork to far shores and what’s needed to get more women to choose research careers.

Interview with Nina Rønsted, by Katherina Killander, SCIENCE Communication

Nina Rønsted, in the field

Nina Rønsted, in the field

I wear many hats. I am a professor, curator and head of research. As a professor in medicinal plants and the evolutionary development of plants, I work with pharmaceutical companies like LEO Pharma and others to find plant species that can provide us with new drugs.

One half of today’s medicinal products can be traced back to nature. However, many diseases remain and there are a staggering number of plant species. So where does one begin?

My job is to use relationships between plants, with the help of DNA analyses, as treasure maps to help point the way towards plants worth closer investigation – ones that have the potential to provide us with the next drug. This is one of the short cuts to working among 500 million plant species. At the same time, I hope that my work is able to get people to treasure biodiversity and nature’s wealth.

I also work as a curator for one of our plant collections here at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. As Denmark’s national museum, we are obliged to tend to our inheritance, as well as the museum’s 14 million objects.

Since June, I have served as the museum’s head of research, so I now work in a managerial role as well. Together with the research committee, I plot the department’s strategic course and work to shape the best possible conditions for our researchers. Many of them are under pressure, but the proper frameworks and an appreciative management can contribute significantly to making things work out on a day-to-day basis.

I also work to link our research and teaching, as well as the museum’s other tasks related to collections and dissemination activities. For example, our most recent and cutting edge research might be integrated into educational activities for the benefit of our students. I also strive to create an environment in which it is easy for researchers to access one another’s expertise in interdisciplinary networks.

More diversity and gender balance

Nina Rønsted on fieldwork with her son

Nina Rønsted on fieldwork with her son

With regards to internationalisation, I think that UCPH is lagging considerably. It’s a paradox. On one hand, we want to be internationally competitive, up there with the global elite, hiring international researchers. But on the other, we are not yet geared for conducting EVERYTHING in English. Oftentimes, we fail to ensure that our job advertisements attract international attention. Perhaps it is because an opening is only advertised locally that relatively few candidates see it. So one ends up hiring a researcher that they already had in mind.

At the Danish Museum of Natural History, we have developed our own action plan for gender equity. In accordance with that, I am working to increase diversity by increasing the proportion of women researchers, among other things.

A concrete plan needs to be developed for how to achieve this – and for who has the responsibility of following up on the task. At the same time, naturally, quality must remain paramount. We already have a great number of incredibly talented women at the Danish Museum of Natural History, but we ought to have more. First and foremost, we want the best researchers, and it’s perfectly fine if they come from abroad.

Many women give up careers early on

The Danish Museum of Natural History specifically aims towards having women account for 30% of its full-time associate professor and professor staff by 2020, an increase from the mere 14% in 2014. To achieve this, we are working to ensure that 50% of new hires are women. We can achieve this goal, in part, by publicizing job advertisements far and wide, nationally and internationally – for at least a month – to attract applicants. Using the UCPH website is simply not enough.

Our studies show that many women give up on research careers because they are uncertain about what is involved and if they can manage them while finding balance in life and room for family. Therefore, we are working to clarify what a research career entails.

Among other things, we produce overviews of the opportunities, requirements and expectations of working within the museum’s elite research environment. In the future, we will work more and more to provide guidance – such as in the form of mentoring schemes and long-term career planning for our researchers.

If we are to attract more women, we will also need to open our eyes to potential as opposed to being overly biased towards merit. Men are often quicker to attain merit because they do not have long periods of parental leave, etc. But we must also look at potential. When desiring to hire the best qualified, numerous parameters can be considered – not just the number of articles that a person has successfully published. We should remember that research is only one aspect of employment. We also need to look at teaching, the collections, dissemination, engagement and the whole, when defining who the best researcher is.

At the same time, I do not want to be involved in the coddling and favouring of women, simply because they are women. The terms need to be the same for men and women. An elite research environment at one of the world’s best universities is not an incubator. It requires drive and robustness if one is to succeed – regardless of gender. That women are competition shy is a fable. Just look at the world of sports.

Everyday life

Nina Rønsted conducting fieldwork with her son at the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Nina Rønsted conducting fieldwork with her son at the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

It’s no secret that it is hard work to be the parent of two children as I am, have a research career and be involved in management on the side. I typically work 50 hours a week and 10 during the weekend. We have found some simple solutions to make it all work out, and it only takes me 10 minutes to get to work.

I don’t watch too much TV or read women’s magazines, but I do spend a couple of hours a week keeping in shape. I have a few good friends, and they are busy as well, so we don’t get to see each other that often. The truth is, is that my colleagues are friends as well, and my students and postdocs are always welcome to come over for parties at my place.

My husband is my best friend and advisor. Because we both have careers, we try to plan and be flexible so that there is time for family. But our children are seldom picked up from school before 16.00, and if they have friends over, I can always sit down and cozy up to my computer while they play.

Every summer, my husband and I take a three-week vacation with the children. Last year, we travelled to Vietnam. We would like to adventure far away and share experiences together. I dream of taking a sabbatical – one year where I could take the entire family and work in another research group, somewhere else in the world, and gain new inspiration.

I’ve done it before – having lived in both England and the US. When unexpectedly pregnant with my first child, I received a Marie Curie Fellowship for the University of Minnesota. At the time, I lived in London and the father in London. We opted for adventure, got married, delayed the trip for 6 months and then spent 16 months in Minnesota. My very own plastic American Christmas tree with 400 coloured lights will be in my office yet again this year. I really love Christmas and there’s still a bit of childishness in me – thankfully.

As a plant researcher, I also spend a few weeks a year away conducting fieldwork. And sometimes, the children come along. My 10-year-old came to Bolivia with me and it was fantastic. I think that one has to see life as an adventure. Every now and then, I have to live with a guilty conscience, but I’m having a good time. And hopefully, my children will also be inspired to follow their dreams one day.


Caption: Nina Rønsted conducting fieldwork with her son at the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia