Published 1 August 2019 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research at #LINO19: Birgitte Madsen from Denmark

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

#LINO19 Alumna Birgitte Madsen from Denmark is a PhD student at the Technical University of Denmark in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark. She studies the confinement of so-called fast-ions in fusion reactors. The fast-ions are generated in the fusion processes themselves and by auxiliary heating. If they are not properly confined, the heating efficiency will decrease and the reactor might suffer damage. Enjoy the interview with Birgitte and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

During my last year of high school, I visited the fusion reactor Joint European Tokamak (JET) near Oxford, UK, together with a group of talented high school students from around Denmark. At that point, I was undecided on whether to pursue a career in engineering or physics. As we were looking at the reactor, we were told that everything outside the vessel was engineering, whereas everything inside was physics. I found the fusion plasma so fascinating that from then on, I had made up my mind.

Who are your role models?

I have especially deep respect for all my current and previous supervisors. They have been down-to-earth, approachable, enthusiastic about their field of research, and have never intentionally overworked me.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

During the very first years of my scientific career, I started travelling for scientific purposes; I took my Bachelor’s degree at Aalborg University, Denmark, and my Master’s studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, during which I participated in courses and meetings around Europe. Therefore, when I was offered a PhD position at the Technical University of Denmark, including a longer external research stay in Hefei, China, I happily accepted.
It is interesting, though, that when I started my Master’s studies in Norway I was determined to not do a PhD. However, the experience of being part of an international research group with collaborators from around the world and being at the forefront of science changed my mind, and here I am, doing the PhD I swore, I would never do.


Photo: Birgitte Madsen

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

As much as I enjoy my current project, my coolest project was at the University Center in Svalbard, Norway, far north of the polar circle. I participated in a course, where we studied the aurora up close during the dark season. We combined our own radar measurements on the aurora with various measurements from all over the northern hemisphere to create a full picture of the aurora event. Not only did our fieldwork cover observing sensational aurora in snow-covered mountains with no nearby light pollution, but it also included bringing a rifle in case of a polar bear attack.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

Defending my Master’s thesis was one of my greatest research related experiences. After working intensely for one year on my project that taught me so much and grew with me, it was an amazing feeling to present and defend the final product in front of friends, family, colleagues and opponents. I hope for a similar experience when defending my PhD thesis in slightly more than a year from now.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I am focused on having a job that allows a good work-life balance, makes me excited to go to work most mornings, and has a direct impact on the field I am working in. That is more important to me than specific career-wise accomplishments.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Typically, I spend most of my free time with my boyfriend, friends and family. I enjoy going to cafés, dining out, playing the guitar, watching TV series, hiking and biking for my commute to work.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

Go for it! As long as you love what you do and do a good job, men and women are equally valuable for a research group (and some even say that diverse groups perform better). Be careful, though, not to focus too much on the fact that you are a woman, but focus instead on the fact that you are a scientist.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?

I would like to say nuclear fusion for energy production. The world is in desperate need for additional sustainable energy sources, and nuclear fusion is truly an amazing candidate. However, much more research and funding are needed for achieving nuclear fusion power plants. Hence, nuclear fusion for energy production might not be the next great breakthrough, but hopefully it will be the next next one. And for sure: it will be great.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

I believe that the first step is to introduce science in a fun and intriguing way as a possible carrier path for girls while they are still in primary and secondary school. Next step is to open the possibility for fewer and shorter external research stays, less travelling and years without first-author publications without losing scientific credibility in order to make room for pregnancy and the start of a new family life.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.