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Q&A: Physicist Lene Oddershede on leaving academia for philanthropy leadership

Q&A: Physicist Lene Oddershede on leaving academia for philanthropy leadership

25 April 2024

She uses her physics expertise to guide a foundation’s research investments.

Five years ago Danish physicist Lene Oddershede left a job she loved. The Novo Nordisk Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropies, lured her from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, where she had spent 20 years and was a tenured, full professor. She’s now a senior vice president who evaluates funding proposals and helps develop research initiatives in the natural and technical sciences.

“I did not leave academia because I was dissatisfied,” says Oddershede. But after six months of discussions with the foundation, she was intrigued by both the influence she could have on research to benefit society and the prospect of expanding her intellectual playground. (The Novo Nordisk Foundation owns the eponymous pharmaceutical company. In the 1920s it gave the company the rights to produce insulin on the condition that profits be used for scientific and humanitarian purposes.)

Lene Oddershede
Lene Oddershede

To succeed as a researcher, Oddershede says, “you need to be among the best in the world in a really narrow area.” In philanthropy, by contrast, she has a broad scientific focus and tries to stay a few steps ahead of current research. “Basically, I pave the road so researchers can rush in and do their job. It’s exciting to be involved in shaping the path for research and applications.”

PT: Describe your path in physics.

ODDERSHEDE: Back in the 1990s, complex systems was really big, and the University of Chicago was the place to be. I had a stipend that let me be totally free in choosing location and topic. I was investigating how fluids behave in electromagnetic fields and how solids behave under stress and how they develop critical phenomena. I divided my time between Chicago and Denmark. My PhD was from the University of Southern Denmark in 1998.

One day at the University of Chicago, toward the end of my PhD work, I heard a presentation about optical tweezers, a brand-new technology. I was deeply inspired. Based on that talk, I decided to go back to Denmark and build optical tweezers.

PT: Why did you choose to pursue your career in Denmark?

ODDERSHEDE: During my last year of the PhD, I was pregnant with my first child. I saw other women at the University of Chicago who had children, and I saw that life was difficult for them. I could not see having a child and a scientific career in the US. This was 26 years ago. I hope things have improved in the US, but at that point, it was significantly better in Denmark. That’s why I moved back.

PT: How did you make that career switch?

ODDERSHEDE: After my PhD I got a grant, together with a theoretical physicist, from the Danish Research Council. The grant was on the order of $1 million. In 1998 that was enough to start a research group. The grant financed my salary, and the Niels Bohr Institute hosted me. If I had been aware of how big a job it is to build an experimental lab from scratch, I am not sure I would have started.

It took two years to build the lab. I had students and postdocs. We got the tweezers running—the first optical tweezers in Scandinavia. We got additional grants. I studied physical properties of single molecules, and how proteins move inside living cells. Publications started to come out after two or three years.

Later I expanded to investigate how metal nanoparticles interact with electromagnetic fields, how they absorb radiation, and how those behaviors depend on the nanoparticles’ composition, shape, and position in the field. We also looked at how the heat that nanoparticles release can be used to manipulate biological specimens. Other researchers expanded on that core work and developed a plasmonic-based cancer therapy.

PT: What compelled you to move to the Novo Nordisk Foundation after two decades in academia?

ODDERSHEDE: A recruiter contacted me when I was at a conference in Japan. The foundation has traditionally been focused on diabetes-related research, but the bylaws also allow for supporting other scientific areas. The foundation wanted to expand the “other.” It was looking for a physicist, preferably from Denmark, who had experience collaborating in the life sciences. There are not that many of us. So I think they had set their eyes on me. I was quite reluctant.

For the first couple of years, I had the option of going back. Otherwise, I would have never dared to make this jump.

PT: What projects are you involved with?

ODDERSHEDE: We have two main ways to fund research. One is through open competition where we define calls that researchers can apply for. The other is through strategic initiatives. With those, we codevelop the projects. Quantum sensing is an example. [See Physics Today, May 2024, page 24.] Others include a $220 million grant to develop a fault-tolerant quantum computer and a collaboration with Nvidia to buy, use, and develop technology on a supercomputer in Denmark dedicated to artificial intelligence.

PT: Does the Novo Nordisk Foundation fund research only in Denmark?

ODDERSHEDE: At the moment, about 85% of funding goes to research in Denmark. But the balance is shifting. The foundation is growing, and the growth will be outside of Danish borders. We recently opened an office in Nairobi, Kenya. We have an office in New Delhi, India.

PT: How do you use your physics background in this job?

ODDERSHEDE: I use my physics all the time. I use it to judge pitches and research ideas and to see where research is going and what technologies have transformative potential. I have close collaborations with our investment branch, Novo Holdings, and I use my scientific expertise in judging investment ideas. I use my scientific writing skills.

We have journal clubs. We have the same kinds of discussions as in the hallways at a university. I really like that—I could not have stayed here for five years if that was not the case.

PT: What have been the challenges?

ODDERSHEDE: Being a leader in a foundation is quite different than being the leader of a research group, where you are pretty much your own boss. Here we have a CEO, a chairman of the board, and a more hierarchical structure than at a university.

Another challenge is that I miss being closer to research. I miss being in the lab. I miss looking at data, and being the first—or second, if a student did the work—to see data, and I miss really digging down into data. I miss the students. And I miss teaching.

PT: Have there been any surprises?

ODDERSHEDE: At the foundation, I work closely with people in other scientific areas, with communications, with the administration, and with the legal department. I learned that they all—not just the scientists—are bright, excellent people who come with different perspectives. They are innovative. That’s been an eye-opener for me, and I enjoy it.

When you are in a wonderful department, as the Niels Bohr Institute is, you feel you are among the brightest people in the world, and that it couldn’t be better anywhere else. It can be difficult to see the benefits of working outside of academia.

PT: Can you elaborate on those benefits?

ODDERSHEDE: The working conditions are significantly better if you go outside of academia. A young person who just got their PhD struggles their way through one- and two-year appointments. Sometimes they are close to 40 years old before they can have any hope of tenure.

At a private company, they will likely be employed immediately in a permanent position, and their career track is better. It’s easier, and the salary is better. This may be particularly true for women.

PT: Do you feel that you have had setbacks because of being a woman?

ODDERSHEDE: Mostly in connection with maternity leave. When you take off for a while, you get detached. And when the kids are sick, you need to prioritize your children. Still, I made it. I got three children along the way. I got tenure at the age of 33. Everything is good, but it wasn’t easy.

Of course, I made it to the top of the academic ladder. And sometimes I use my position to push an agenda. For example, I was invited to serve on a panel. At a premeeting, one of the men was mansplaining and was being totally rude. I told the moderator that if they didn’t stop him, I would not go on stage. They had a serious talk with the man.

PT: Wouldn’t one face the same difficulties in the private sector?

ODDERSHEDE: Yes. But one difference that makes academia more stressful at the early-career stage are the short-term appointments. If you have a child during those years, it can be a serious setback. Also, if you are invited to give a talk and your child gets sick, you have to decline. This harms your career, as you likely will not be invited again. You miss out on the chance to communicate your research and promote yourself.

PT: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

ODDERSHEDE: It recently came to my attention that women who reach full professor level have a higher tendency of quitting, by their own will, than do their male counterparts. This is based on recent surveys in Denmark, and the difference is statistically significant.

That’s what I did. I came to the top of the academic ladder. I got all the grants I asked for. So why did I quit? I think everyone is interested in diversity—universities, companies—so I think what happens is that the few women who make it to the top get competitive offers. It’s a risk for diversity in universities and for having role models to inspire the next generation of experts if women—the underrepresented gender in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields—choose to leave academia.

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