Photo: Jeppe Mølgaard

Happiness means everything to me

Friday 05 Jan 18
Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg from DTU Nanotech is one of the few people who has been accepted at Harvard University in Boston to carry out his PhD research. But what is it that makes Nikolaj a suitable candidate for studying at the USA’s leading elite university?

Sitting 10,000 metres above the Atlantic, I find myself wondering what it takes to be allowed to study at an elite US university while completing a PhD programme. Hopefully, I will soon have the answer, as the plane is approaching Boston, where I am to meet Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg—PhD student at DTU Nanotech who is currently a member of a Harvard professor’s research group.

Shortly after landing at 2.24 a.m., I receive an email from Nikolaj:

"Sorry if I’m a bit tired at our meeting—some experiments were suddenly given top priority.”

Nevertheless, he seems completely refreshed the next morning when he politely refuses my offer of a good, strong cup of ‘wake-up’ coffee. In fact, Nikolaj does not drink coffee. Surprised, I ask how he can work till three in the morning at one of the world’s most demanding universities without the help of caffeine.

“I’ve read a lot about caffeine and discovered that it’s not performance-enhancing in the long term, as you build up a tolerance. My brain works better with tea,” he says.

It is hardly caffeine abstinence during his studies that has made Nikolaj a Harvard candidate—but if your brain really does perform better in the long term without coffee, then maybe a small part of the explanation lies here after all.

Photo: Jeppe Mølgaard

 

A good match

Nikolaj began his PhD studies at DTU Nanotech in October, but felt he needed to return to the USA, where he was previously an exchange student. That was on the West Coast, and ever since he has dreamed about experiencing the East Coast. For a long time he has had his eye on a specific research group at Harvard, which he found really delivered some impressive results:

“Every time I had an idea and thought that it was the best I’d ever had, I discovered it had already been tested—and each time by Joanna Aizenberg’s group at Harvard. So it was clear that our thoughts were in sync,” Nikolaj explains.

He therefore wrote an unsolicited application to Joanna, asking whether he could spend a year studying with her group—and with the help of good references from his previous stay in the US, his dream became a reality. This means that Nikolaj will have the opportunity to formulate his own project—something which is high on his list of priorities.

“I don’t work optimally if I’m just given assignments to do. On the bachelor's programme, we were told exactly what to read and what tasks to solve—and I found it incredibly hard getting started. I’d much rather do something that no one’s told me to do, but which I find relevant. That’s just the way I am,” he says.

During the MSc Eng programme, Nikolaj entered the honours programme at DTU. Here, he had the chance to create a more independent study plan with a personal supervisor. The honours programme developed him enormously—both personally and professionally. He learned to think outside the box and—not least—to carry out a research project. This rubbed off on Nikolaj’s master’s thesis, the findings of which earned the unusual distinction of being published in no fewer than three different scientific journals.

"I’d much rather do something that no one’s told me to do, but which I find relevant. That’s just the way I am."
Nikolaj Kofoed Mandsberg

Photo: Jeppe Mølgaard

I ask Nikolaj whether it had been his plan all along to have his thesis results published so he would be eligible for a place at Harvard:

“I think you misunderstand. I never work with anything because of where the results might take me—the most important thing for me is to be present and happy in my work because I genuinely want to be there. If you only think about where some research takes you, you risk being bitterly disappointed—and long-term plans can quickly change. Visions are good—but they’re not worth much in themselves.” 

Conversation develops you

As the interview progresses, I discover that Nikolaj is just as happy asking me questions as he is answering mine.

“When I learn something about you, I also learn more about myself,” he says. “My favourite pastime is learning—also about subjects that have nothing to do with my own research. For example, it wasn’t my own project I was working on till three a.m. The person I was helping wasn’t even there.”

Surprised, I ask him why in the world he wants to work on other students’ projects till the wee hours of the morning.

“Because it’s so exciting! The project concerns a new material which—among other things—can improve photovoltaic cells’ energy intake, which is important for all of us.”

Nikolaj’s own field of study is manipulating fluids on surfaces—among other things—in microfluid systems also known as ‘lab-on-a-chip’. During his stay at Harvard, he will attempt to develop a technology that can be overcome the limitations of the current lab-on-a-chip systems.

I ask him whether he is making headway.

“It often requires numerous experiments before you have shown that your ideas work in practice. For each good day, you have 30 days where things don’t turn out the way you hope,” says Nikolaj. 

However, he is not discouraged—and is happy helping others. This is the spirit within the group—you work together and bounce off each the whole time.

For Nikolaj, using his ability to generate ideas and solve problems in other contexts is familiar territory. A few years ago, he participated in the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Crack the Case Competition’ to design a new strategy for Save the Children’s collections. He was the one who came up with the idea that resulted in his team winning the competition.

“I’m experienced in working with models and figures so it’s relatively easy swapping physical models with financial ones,” says Nikolaj.

Photo: Jeppe Mølgaard

What it takes 

We end our meeting with a guided tour among Harvard’s distinctive red brick buildings. As we walk, Nikolaj mentions how much he is looking forward to returning to the laboratory to analyse the data which kept him up till three in the morning—and which do not constitute part of his own project.

I gingerly ask whether he is being ironic, but he assures me he is not. And that is when the penny drops: For people like me, Harvard is a symbol of academic prowess and status—a place that can open doors to any job.

For Nikolaj, however, it is more a question of the professional challenges Harvard has to offer than the University’s prestigious reputation. It was the Aizenberg group’s research that drew Nikolaj to Harvard—not the University’s top ranking.

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