27 October 2016

'In Many Ways, Basic Research Is Very Similar to Chess'

Simon Bekker-Jensen grew up in a family with seven children, and his father therefore needed some help:

‘He needed a pastime activity for us children that was both inexpensive and quiet. So we began to play chess’, Simon Bekker-Jensen recalls with a smile. Now, at the age of 36, he has just been appointed professor at the Center for Healthy Aging (CESA), formerly Simon was with the Niels Mailand group at Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research.

A clever move by Simon’s father – because the now award-winning researcher had an eye for moving the pieces around the chequered board. He has won the Danish championship for teams several times – and remains one of the ten best Danish players.

In fact, young Simon never imagined that he would become a researcher.

Why did you become a researcher?

‘Well, it was a bit of a coincidence really. In fact, I wanted to become a professional chess player, and during the first year of upper secondary school that was my goal. I simply had to admit that I was not good enough to make a living out of it.

I therefore felt that I should get an education, and my choice of education was based on what I was good at in upper secondary school – chemistry. So I began studying chemical and biotechnological engineering at the Technical University of Denmark.

When I had just completed the diploma programme after three and a half years, I was about to start looking for a job, but then I thought that I might as well continue for another one and a half years to become a Master of Science in Engineering. And after that I once again felt that I had to get a job, but again I was tempted by the PhD programme. I had pictured myself working in a refinery or something like Novozymes, but gradually I turned towards research.

The more time I spent in the academic environment, the more exiting it became. And it was crucial that I started working with human cells; I had not done that before I began work on my PhD. I remember looking into a microscope and seeing human cells for the first time. I thought, “Why, this is what it is all about. Now it makes sense”. I almost got a kick out of it – it was an eye opener’.

What are you working on?

‘So far I have done a lot of research into DNA damage response – that is, how the cells respond and react to DNA damage. At CESA I need to extend it to all types of cell stress, and what the cells do to fight it. A lot of things attack and irritate the cells. Chemical substances from the body as well as from our surroundings, high body temperatures – the cells are constantly exposed to something. I would like to contribute to mapping the cells’ defence mechanisms.

My favourite topic at the moment is the protein P38. It is one of the main factors in the cells’ defence against stress, but we still do not know exactly what triggers it. I think we will be able to map it within a few years’.

Why is your research important to society?

‘In order to understand diseases, we need to understand the healthy body. The aim of all my research is to fight disease. The cells have to fight attacks on a daily basis, both from disease and aging. It is about discovering ways in which the cells can remain viable and healthy.

I am very enthusiastic about basic research and creating new knowledge. Of course, I also enjoy doing something that earns me a living and benefits patients. But to me, it is fundamental to learn how things are connected at cell level. Even though we already know a lot, there are still new layers for us to delve into.

And all of it is highly relevant in relation to disease and patients. Understanding stress in cells is central to understanding how we can fight cancer, inflammation and aging, so the knowledge we create can be used actively to deal with age-related disease. It is not a question of living as long as possible, but of living as healthy and good lives as possible, even at a great age. That is why it is called the Center for Healthy Aging and not the Center for Great Aging’, Simon Bekker-Jensen says with a smile.

Tell us about a highlight in your career.

’That has been in connection with publications of the discoveries I have helped make. My and my former team leader here at SUND, Niels Mailand, whom I also worked with at the Danish Cancer Society, had several successful experiences.

We discovered some important aspects of how cells detect damages and launch the process of self-repair. We subsequently attended conferences where half or more of the presentations concerned or were based on our research.

A lot of researchers tend to work in their own little bobble, and only few pay attention to it. Suddenly I had contributed to something that was of great importance to others. It was overwhelming’.

What is the best thing about your job?

‘I was just about to say the freedom and the flexibility, but that is only the second best thing. The best thing is working with something that truly interests me. That fundamental interest – that going to work is exciting. When all comes to all, that is probably what kept me from taking a job in the industry. I could probably have got a well-paid job, but I am not sure I could have kept up the spirit.

That is another good thing about working with research. Researchers are very enthusiastic and have a lot of drive. I do not need to motivate my employees; they arrive for work happy and full of energy. I very much enjoy working with those kinds of people’.

And fortunately for Simon Bekker-Jensen, he thinks basic research is very similar to and just as exciting as chess.

‘Both chess and research are built on existing knowledge. Just as the current world champion in chess, Magnus Carlsen, is far ahead of past champions, a researcher who retired 50 years ago would be shocked to see how far we have got today. Magnus Carlsen has reached his high level by standing on the shoulders of others.

In many ways, basic research is similar to chess. You look for information; you try to learn from others; you carefully examine the results of others. The way researchers extract knowledge and work to gain an overview of what to use and what to do is to a large extent the same as in chess.

When I want to learn how to use a particular chess opening or to defend myself against it, I also immerse myself in literature to find the right tools’.

What do you do in your spare time?

’I am still very devoted to and still play a lot of chess. I spent a part of my summer holiday at tournaments in Andorra and Corsica. Last week I attended a tournament in Croatia, and I did really well. I beat three of the 100 best players in the world, so that was great. One day I hope to become a grandmaster, even though it is difficult to combine with work.

But I am also married now, and we are having our first baby, so I may have to put chess on hold for now’.

Professor Simon Bekker-Jensen and PhD Student Anna Constance Vind in the laboratory.