03 March 2015

Research is a team effort


Curiosity has always been a driving force for Niels Mailand who received The Elite Research Prize, and he still gets a kick out of making new discoveries – especially in collaboration with other researchers.

Professor Niels MailandAs a child, Niels Mailand would often spend time in the kitchen mixing stuff. Primarily just to find out what would happen. And it is the same curiosity that still drives the 41-year-old Professor of molecular cell biology and newly awarded Elite Researcher, although these days the ingredients are proteins, molecules and DNA.

‘I was very curious – just like most other researchers I would imagine. I still have that curiosity. I wanted and still want to find out how things are connected. I want to look for and find something new. I quickly took a shine to natural sciences, so it was more a less a given that I’d walk along that path.

Though chemistry and physics were perhaps a little too hard-core for me. There wasn’t quite enough life for me, so to speak. And medicine was perhaps too much life and not enough science in my book. So I ended up studying biochemistry – as it had the exact balance between natural science and life that I liked. I didn’t really plan it – I simply ended up on the right shelf. And quickly discovered that research was very much my thing.’

Why is your research important to society?

‘I believe that in a health perspective, it is important. My area of expertise is studying the mechanisms that protect and repair a cell’s DNA. The DNA in our cells determines what the cells can and should do. If there are changes or mutations in the DNA, it can result in the cell acquiring new, and often unwanted, qualities, which may in fact turn out to be the first stages of cancer. Which is why it is important to understand how the cells take care of themselves and their DNA.

Our cells have a so-called “DNA-damage-response” which involves lots of proteins. In my research, I try to understand which of the cells’ proteins are involved and what their precise function is as well as where they fit into the general fight against DNA-damage. Many types of chemo and radiation therapy are guided by the principle of damaging the cells’ DNA in an attempt to benefit from the fact that the capacity to repair damaged DNA is reduced in cancer cells, which ensures that the cancer cells rather than the healthy cells die.

The problem with current treatments is that they fail to differentiate between healthy and sick cells to a sufficient degree, which is why these treatments have significant side effects. I hope that my research will help develop gentler treatments to fight, for example, cancer.’

Tell us about a career high for you

‘In 2000, just after finishing my Master’s thesis, I co-authored an article, which we then sent to the journal, Science. My project was the main subject of the article, and I remember being very exited about whether or not they’d accept it. We submitted it and waited.

It was back in the days before we could check emails everywhere on any device, but then one day, when I entered my office, there was a note on the computer from my supervisor. It simply read “Bravo!” It was of great significance to my career. Partly because my work today in many ways can be seen as a continuation along the same lines, but also because it gave me that yes-feeling’, Niels Mailand explains as he clenches his fist:

‘I felt that I could do something that was worth recognizing at an international level. That I could do something with my research. It gave me self-confidence’.

How do you spend your leisure time?

‘I work a lot, so I try to spend as much time as I can with my family when I’m not working. My family is both a lovely and important contrast to me. I’m married with two sons, aged 6 and 9, and spending time with all three of them is a really good way of getting my mind off research work. It’s a way of maintaining my creative ore’, Niels Mailand states.

He has decided to spend a sizeable portion of the personal prize money on an extended holiday with his family.

‘I go all over the place with my work, but I would like to be able to take my family places as well, and places that cost a little more than your average holiday budget allows for. We have a whiteboard at home, on which we have written the names of different countries. Among them are the US, Japan, South East Asia and lots more. So now it’s time to talk, cross out and decide. It may result in a classic round-trip of the US’.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

‘Can I name several things? Well, partly there’s the fact that I get to indulge my curiosity. The more layers you peel away, they more things you discover underneath. This holds great fascination, which makes going to work both exciting and challenging. To me, it’s almost like a combination of my work and my hobby. There’s also that special feeling inherent in exploring something in collaboration with others and then coming up with the answers.

Research is a team effort, and I would never have been awarded The Elite Research Prize without the aid of my highly capable colleagues. And of course there are the moments when you discover something new or something clicks into place. “Ah, so that’s how it is”. Those are the moments I live for, and they give me a great kick. By far, most research is just really hard work, and there’s no guarantee of success. But it keeps your spirit up, knowing that such moments do occur. And that’s still a huge driver.’