20 April 2015

Originally, I wanted to be a PE teacher


Juleen Zierath was the first in her family to go to college. She became a professor of integrative physiology and chairperson of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. But in fact, she did not plan to become a scientist

One of the first memories American born Juleen Zierath has, is from a birthday when she turned four or five:

“My father took me to the bank, and my present consisted of opening an account so I could save up for my college education later in life. While other children were saving up for bikes, I was saving up for school”, Juleen Zierath recounts.

Now, she is a 53-year-old Professor of Integrative Physiology at both Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centre for Basic Metabolic Research at University of Copenhagen.

Juleen Zierath’s father came from a poor background; he did not have a university education and he held down two jobs in order to support his children so they would get the education he himself was never able to afford.

“It was very important for him to give us opportunities. So there was a kind of pressure - we had to do focus on education and couldn't just fool around. I never took anything for granted”.

Juleen Zierath did indeed make it to university, and then to graduate school. And she ended up a professor and chairperson of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. However, in fact, she went down a completely different path from the one she initially believed she would follow.

“To begin with, I didn’t really like natural sciences at all. I liked communication, literature, but most of all, I was into sports. I was on the school’s field hockey, athletics and swimming team, and I wanted to be a teacher. I thought about studying physical education, but I wasn’t actually sure about what I really wanted to do.

I liked teaching, but I wanted to do something more than just teach children how to bounce a basketball. And then it was as if kinesiology, biomechanics, and human physiology became increasingly interesting. The science behind movement. And this left me in a bit of a dilemma, but in the end I knew that research was for me.”

How did you end up in Scandinavia?

“Firstly, I went to Ball State University in Muncie Indiana, where the Swedish Professor Bengt Saltin and David Costill collaborated. It was a fascinating place – the two of them were practically creating the entire area. I found studying human physiology incredibly exciting and while there, I became really interested in diabetes. I wanted to understand the disease, and basically, I spent three years in a laboratory at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to learn more.

However, by then I also knew that my career would be in research and so I needed to do a PhD. And for that I went to Stockholm, Sweden. My point of departure for the PhD was to understand how physical activity can improve health. And I’m very fond of Scandinavia – both Swedes and Danes are happy and open people, and I have settled in really well and I have now gained Swedish citizenship.”

Why is your research important to society?

Diabetes is an illness that takes a lot of focus in the patient’s life. I hope our work will help lessen peoples’ suffering. Through our work, we’ll hopefully gain knowledge that’ll help citizens in the long term, either in the shape of technical aides or knowledge about how physical activity can help lessen suffering.

Talk about a career highlight

“Ha ha, I certainly hope I haven’t passed them all. But getting the ERC research grant for EUR 2.5 million in 2008 was amazing. Less than 10 per cent of all applicants are successful, and it was such a great and lovely surprise. I was afraid of what the email might say, but when it turned out to be a yes, it was just ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe it’”.

And the fact that Ulla Wewer invited me to Copenhagen to start something new, and being able to influence this new centre it right from the start has also been fantastic.

Juleen Zierath is chairperson of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, and even though she is happy and proud of her position, she does not view it as a career highlight.

“Well, it’s a distinction, not an accomplishment. But naturally, it’s a great honour to be chosen, and I was probably a little … well, frightened might not be the right word, but I was definitely very respectful of taking on such a task. Just being a member is huge, and I’m the first woman to chair any Nobel Committee. This, of course, is an expression of my colleagues’ recognition and trust in me and naturally that matters immensely to me.”

What is the best thing about your job?

“All the good people I get to meet and work with. My colleagues. I meet so many different people, of all ages and with different backgrounds. It’s exciting to be working with so many different people.”

What do you do, when you are not working?

“I try to exercise as much as possible. I’m still a member of an elite swimming team and I try to get to the gym five times a week. I have some arthritis in one knee, but I try to continue running. And I like skiing – I just completed the TjejVasaloppet, which is 30 km cross-country skiing for women.

I like to travel and I like to sit in my wood-fired sauna at my summerhouse, which is in the Swedish archipelagos, not far from Stockholm.”