Foto Anna-Lena Lundqvist

“We can only survive if we see the world as a whole”

Thursday 10 Jun 21

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Tobias Eskildsen
Senior Executive Policy Officer
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Portrait DTU’s new Chairman of the Board of Governors is a woman with a clear vision for the University’s unique role in society. The University can unite the global with the local, think proactively, and solve problems that public and private institutions cannot address on their own.

There’s not much time for new projects in Karin Markides’ life. Since she was appointed president of the American University of Armenia in 2019, she has travelled between Armenia and California, along with visits to her native Sweden, where she still plays an active role in the development of universities and businesses.

So she couldn’t quite see how she could fit in an extra job as Chairman of DTU’s Board of Governors. But on reflection, she realized that it was actually a task she had been preparing for throughout her long career. The chairmanship aligned so well with everything she’d done so far that it was impossible to say no.

“Denmark and Armenia have different challenges, but they are also similar in many ways. Both are small countries, and their strength is brainpower and innovative ideas that they have to export to survive. At the moment it’s a trend around the world to think more locally than globally. But I think that’s only one step in the right direction. If we don’t learn to look at the world as a whole, we simply won’t survive. And to find solutions to the many problems, we will need strong, internationally oriented technological universities. They need to take the lead and invite others to help develop new ideas,” says Karin Markides.

Chemist with a vision for society

"To find solutions to the many problems, we will need strong, internationally oriented technological universities. They need to take the lead and invite others to help develop new ideas."
Karin Markides

When Karin Markides received her PhD in analytical chemistry in 1984, the path ahead of her was a normal research career. However, from the very beginning, her academic interests were bound up with social and environmental concerns. At that time, she says, the field of chemistry was mainly linked to economics, and she felt that there was a lack of a connection to nature and the opportunities that technology provided to solve some of the world’s major problems.

In the course of her work in the US and at Uppsala University, she became aware of how universities can interact with their surrounding communities, both locally and globally. In fact, they can achieve something that neither private companies nor the public sector can do on their own. And it was these kinds of thoughts that ultimately caused Karin Markides to leave her research career.

After a few years as deputy director of the Swedish innovation fund Vinnova, she was offered to become president of Chalmers, the technical college in Gothenburg.

“They didn’t know it when they hired me, but I saw it as the perfect place to conduct an experiment,” she says with a smile.

“There I was able to test my ideas about greater interaction between the university and public and private companies, in an attempt to prepare us for the future I saw coming, with complex issues like sustainability on the agenda.”

From trams to electric buses

Karin Markides stayed at Chalmers for 11 years and the experiment succeeded. During her time as president, many successful collaborative projects were established that have made a difference in society. One of them was to change the public transport system in Gothenburg.

“The tram was almost sacred in that city. But we took the initiative to link our research up with various private and public actors and in this way solved the problem. We set up a route for electric buses between our two campuses, linked it up with two research projects, and were able to show how well the silent and sustainable buses worked. And now the city is changing all the buses to the type of electric vehicles that we introduced in this collaboration,” says Karin Markides enthusiastically.

After her tenure at Chalmers, she worked for the government for a few years with the aim of promoting cooperation between different authorities. Then she was offered the job of president of the American University of Armenia.

“They have set themselves the huge task of changing an entire country, getting away from the time of Soviet rule, which was largely characterized by silo thinking, corruption, and many other problems. And I’m glad I got the opportunity to be part of that exciting process,” she says.

Technology for people

Now she has accepted the job as Chairman of DTU’s Board of Governors. The fact that she’s turning 70 this year doesn’t matter – as she says, it’s just a number.

“I have absolutely no plans to retire anytime soon, because I still believe I can contribute with my experience, knowledge, and active global network. It would almost be negligent not to do that!”

In many ways, DTU stands for things that are close to the new Chairman’s heart. For example, she’s very excited about the headline of the new strategy: Technology for people.

“Especially if you add science into the mix. DTU has both the right background and the right vision for the future, although of course there are also many challenges,” she says.

A pressing challenge is the political focus on international students claiming state grants in Denmark. But as Karin Markides sees it, it’s not unequivocally bad that people from other countries come her to get an education.

”Perhaps, on the contrary, it’s good that we spread the Danish way of thinking to other parts of the world,” she says.

There is also a political desire that it should be possible to take a higher education elsewhere than in the big cities. But here, too, Karin Markides tends to see the problem from a different angle:

”Universities should rather help to strengthen the development of the special conditions that apply in different parts of the country, thus creating local jobs. Then young people will come back and contribute to prosperity and vibrant communities, when they have been out to educate themselves in the big city or maybe abroad.”

Women in research

Chairman or chairwoman? That question has not even occurred to Karin Markides. She has been the first woman almost everywhere she has been in the research world, and does not give it any thought.

But, of course, she has given a great deal of thought to how to break the bad tendency for women to drop out on the way to the top positions, not least in the field of technology.

“At Chalmers, we decided to do the opposite of what you would immediately do,” she says.

“We didn't want to give special benefits to women or force a change. We were more proactive and made sure to look for and recruit talented women. We also made the programmes broader and changed many names. For example, we changed the name of the subject Architecture to Community Building. And it worked. It seems that women are attracted to the complex and want to work with a greater societal perspective.”

This clearly also applies to the Chairman herself. She is looking forward to helping implement DTU’s ambitious strategy with an emphasis on developing value-adding technology in close interaction with the outside world. She believes that scientific advice will play a major role, because it shows that research can be used to benefit society.

But first, she is looking forward to getting around the University’s many locations in Denmark.

“It’s an added benefit that I can get to know Denmark better through DTU,” she smiles.

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