Photo: Mikal Schlosser

“I just like having things under control”

Friday 18 May 18
With her top marks, awards, accolades, positions of trust, and long list of remarkable research results, her CV looks and reads like a who’s who of the scientific world. But Anja Boisen is not an over-achiever—she is just an extremely structured person with a slightly competitive streak.

When asked Anja Boisen categorically denies being an overachiever.

“For me, that’s sometimes someone who panics about not having everything done to perfection, whereas I’ve always been fairly relaxed. I just like having things under control and I’m happy about the international competition that exists in the research world.”

She certainly has things well under control—all the way down to the atomic level, for Anja Boisen works with the smallest building blocks imaginable—e.g. medication containers the size of a sugar grain that send medicine into the body through the digestive system, thus dispensing with the need for injections. She has also developed inexpensive and groundbreaking diagnostic tools that offer hope of eradicating nasty infectious diseases.

In the past few years, an impressive number of large grants have come Anja’s way—an ERC Advanced Grant, a Villum Kann Rasmussen Center of Excellence Award, and a Basic Research Centre Grant for her visionary ideas. That said, her success is also a testimony to her ability to convey her ideas in such a way that everyone can understand them.

“I’ve always enjoyed writing and have read many applications myself, so I know the importance of being able to quickly grasp what is being said. You both have to describe your research and demonstrate that you can do something that has never been done before. It’s a delicate balance,” she explains.

DTU not her first choice

Anja returned home following a year’s stay in the USA and wanted to do the entrance exam for the Danish School of Media and Journalism. And had she not had to wait for the exam, she may well have become a journalist. To pass the waiting time, she decided to attend an Open house event at DTU.

"It’s important that everyone—from guest students to professors—knows how they fit into the big picture. Are you laying a single brick—or are you building a cathedral?"
Anja Boisen

“But it was a terrible event. Two male students stood at the bottom of a giant auditorium and explained how difficult it was to do linear algebra. So I thought to myself—this definitely isn’t for me. The atmosphere didn’t appeal to me at all. It was too irrelevant and altogether boyish.”

Instead, she chose the basic natural science education at Roskilde University, where students complete a couple of years of basic study before deciding on an area of academic specialization. Her female mentor was key in her decision to choose physics as her graduate subject, and indeed physics proved so exciting that she forgot all about journalism.

After graduating, Anja applied to do a PhD at the University of Copenhagen—but for once was turned down. Instead, she became a high school teacher, and although she found the job quite rewarding, she realized that she risk burning out as a teacher. She saw a posting for an industrial PhD at DTU and Danish Micro Engineering—a small frontrunner company working with nanotechnology. And that is how she accidentally ended up at DTU—in the Microelectronics Centre—which at that time was a highly autonomous unit with a true pioneering spirit.

“Everything was new and it was relatively easy to establish yourself and your own field—the competition wasn’t as fierce as it is now. I like finding areas that aren’t already ‘over-populated’ It doesn’t always give you the most citations, but it’s more exciting. You don’t have to worry about stepping on other people’s toes or keeping up with the competition—and it’s fun trying something that no one else or very few have tried before,” she says.

After her PhD, she secured a postdoc position and was given free rein to establish herself in a field of research. Her manager urged her to apply for the Freja Programme—a special research pool which had just been created to promote the role of women in research.

Anja received her funding and from then she has gone on to secure one big grant after another. She is currently responsible for two major centres with 50 employees engaged in pioneering medical research: new ways of getting drugs into the body and new ways of using nanosensors to characterize the medicine and show what happens to it on its way down to the gut.

Photo: Mikal Schlosser

Overview promotes innovation

In point of fact, there are two centres—IDUN Drug and IDUN Sensor—with separate sources of funding, but in Anja’s world the two are closely related:

“Connecting the sensors with the medical area produces a myriad of applications. For example, very little is known about how the thin polymer layers that encapsulate the medicine behave and how quickly they break down in the body. This is where our sensors come into play—just as they can be used in diagnosis,” she says.

The link is not just an intellectual exercise for the professor—she also employs some very specific visual tools. In the hallway outside her office, hang two large whiteboards covered in Post-its and detailed descriptions. Anja and her staff meet regularly to discuss what they are working on.

“It’s important that everyone—from guest students to professors—knows how they fit into the big picture. Are you laying a single brick—or are you building a cathedral?” she says.

Anja has strong opinions on forms of meeting in general.

“There must be a clear structure and purpose for the meetings—and everyone must have the opportunity to make their voice heard. If it’s simply one-way communication, you might as well do it in writing. I hate those kind of meetings. I can hardly sit still—all I want to do is run.”

Woman in a man’s world

With several large programmes and a considerable number of board positions to fill, it is imperative for Anja not to waste time.

“She always asks herself: is there a smarter way of doing things? This applies equally to her research, meeting form, and management methods. She always sees opportunities to combine things differently,” says Anja’s personal assistant—Scientific Coordinator Julie Rasmussen—who is just as fond of structure as her boss and thinks it is really exciting to be part of the dynamic working environment in Anja’s programme.

“But even though she’s very busy, she always takes the time to support and keep an eye on all her staff—even the students who are only here for a short time. They need to know that their contribution is important to the big picture,” she adds.

Despite her workload, Anja says yes if other women want her as a mentor or when—for example—the L’Oreal For Women in Science programme asks if she will judge a competition.

“If you feel like a minority, you need a little more encouragement. You have to see that someone has travelled down the same path. When I chose to study physics, it was also because my female mentor had studied physics before me—and because there was a female lecturer on the programme. As a student, it wasn’t always fun to be one of the only women, but since then I haven’t given it much thought. It may even be an advantage at a conference because others remember you more easily.”

Anja has only felt discriminated against on a handful of occasions. The worst time was when she was in Switzerland some years ago to review a department.

“At dinner, one of the professors—quite seriously—suggested that women couldn’t think logically. He provided several good examples: they couldn’t play chess, were poor at directions etc. I tried reasoning with him, but quickly gave up. The day after, the head of department—an American—apologized, but I told him it was no skin off my nose. It’s more unfortunate if he expresses those sentiments to his students.”

Reading for pleasure—and puzzles

In order to stretch time and avoid stress, Anja has limited her teaching responsibilities:

“it’s a bit like the way some people feel about shoes—when you take on a new task, you have to let go of another,” she says.

On the other hand, she spends quite a bit of time and energy sharing her own research and all the exciting things happening in the nano field. Whether it is a conference appearance or a popular lecture, you can be sure everything has been carefully planned and thought through down to the last slide. She knows from personal experience that it is important to plan the format in order to hold the audience—otherwise they quickly turn to their mobile phones.

So how does a woman like Anja relax after a busy day at work?

Where others might sit down with a book or watch Netflix, she enjoys reading documents from one of the many boards on which she serves. Other than that, she cites fitness and family. And for longer vacations at the secluded farm in Sweden, she might try her hand at a piece of needlework—or the perfect structural task—solving a giant jigsaw puzzle with her son.


Photo: Mikal SchlosserAnja Boisen is 51. She lives in Birkerød, Denmark, with her husband and two children aged 14 and 16. 

2017 - : Faculty member of the Danish branch of Singularity University
2017: Awarded the Alexander Foss Gold Medal from DTU
2015: Became head of the IDUN Research Centre
2014: Became a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters
2013: Awarded ERC Advanced Grant
2012: Awarded a Sapere Aude grant by the Danish Council for Independent Research
2012: Awarded the EliteForsk Prize Award by the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science
2009: Became head of the Villum Kann Rasmussen Centre of Excellence NAMEC
2008: Received the Villum Kann Rasmussen Annual Award—Denmark’s largest research award of DKK 2.5 million
2007: Received The Director Ib Henriksen Foundation’s Researcher Award for ground-breaking sensor technology research
2007- : Member of the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences and their think tank
2005: Professor at DTU Nanotech
2003: Associate professor at the Microelectronics Centre, DTU
2000: Received the AEG Elektron Award
1994-97: Industrial PhD from Danish Micro Engineering and MIC, DTU
1993-94: High school teacher at Vestre Borgerdyd and Sankt Annæ
1993: MSc in physics from Roskilde University

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