09 May 2014

Diverse interest in the active body

research profile

Professor Bente Stallknecht has always had a strong interest in the body and the potential for development through physical activity. Her curiosity has led to ground-breaking research into prevention and treatment of diseases through physical exercise.

Bente Stallknecht’s childhood dream was to be a circus princess, but instead she chose to pursue a career in research.

Bente Stallknecht's childhood dream was to be a circus princess, but instead she chose to pursue a career in research. Photos: Mikal Schlosser.

First she was into orienteering, skiing, badminton, hiking and mountaineering. Later she widened her interests to include spinning, fitness, mountain biking and partner dancing. There is no doubt that the 49-year-old professor is and always has been extremely enthusiastic about physical activity and the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and today she is able to combine her interests with her daily work.

Bente Stallknecht conducts research into physical activity and obesity, and her projects are currently centring on endurance training, appetite regulation, energy balance and insulin sensitivity in overweight people. In addition to that, she is also head of studies for the “Mechanical Engineering: Medicine and Technology” programme and a talented communicator and therefore a frequent guest in both Danish and international media.

Why did you choose to become a researcher?

I have always been interested in physical activity, and I decided to study medicine to learn more about what happens in the body during exercise. This is what drives my curiosity and my work. Back then, I also thought about studying physiotherapy or sports science, but I felt that a medical degree would open more doors.

As a young medical student, I was already fascinated by the fact that physical activity can be used in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and I also soon got the opportunity to do research. I contacted a professor of physiology and was allowed to write a paper. It was about training rats and I had to divide them into two groups. Half of them would swim around in a bathtub, while the other group was kept inactive in their cages. Later, I was, e.g., allowed to study how the exercise had changed their fat tissue, and that was when I really found my professional field: the effect of physical exercise on fat tissue metabolism.

I fell madly in love with research during that process, because it was so exciting. Today, I can see that the scientific articles that were written about the topic back then are being cited again, so the topic hasn’t lost its relevance. It is quite funny to think that, as a medical student, I helped lay the foundation for our knowledge of ‘fat can be fit’ – that fat tissue can be trained.

From the very beginning, I was very grateful for having the opportunity to conduct research. It was an exciting and whole new world to me. And it actually still is. It is fascinating to be able to widen one’s horizon and constantly cover new ground, that I can ask the questions that I find most interesting and then gain new knowledge by finding the answers through research.

What are the highlights of your career?

It meant a lot to me when I got a permanent position as an associate professor in 2001. For the first many years, my career didn’t exactly follow a straight path, as I also had to fit in clinical work and had three children. Some senior colleagues have said that you cannot have a successful research career and leave work at 4 pm, but I decided to prove them wrong. I picked up my children at 4 and then worked in the evenings, because I didn’t want my children to see their mother spending all her time in front of the computer.

Being appointed associate professor also meant that I started teaching permanently, and that’s really important to me. I’m head of studies, I’ve been a member of the study board for the Public Health Science programme and I’m also the course manager for a big course which is part of three programmes, so I spend a lot of time and energy on teaching. It means a lot to me to see the students grow and develop their skills all the time, and it is part of what motivates me to go to work every day. In terms of research, my doctoral dissertation was an important milestone, as was my professorship. But the key driving force in my everyday work is having a research team around me. I’m not motivated by fancy job titles.

As we all know, the research community is very hierarchical, but my outlook is more holistic. In my opinion, we need all hands, regardless of job category, for a research project or study programme to succeed. My grandmother instilled these values in me. She looked after me when I was a child and taught me that leaving muddy footprints on her clean floors was as bad as her doing doodles in my exercise book.

In addition to teaching and research, I also focus extensively on the communication aspect. It wasn’t a key focus area for me earlier, but lately I’ve made a bit more of an effort by making media appearances, involving myself in science theatre events and giving popular science lectures. It’s important for me to climb down from the ivory tower and communicate my research to the general public as a way of getting some immediate feedback.

I don’t make a clear distinction between work and leisure, because research is also a huge personal passion for me, says Bente Stallknecht.

I don’t make a clear distinction between work and leisure, because research is also a huge personal passion for me, says Bente Stallknecht.

What are your most important research results?

There are several things that I’m proud of, for example my doctoral dissertation, in which I demonstrate that you can train fat tissue, and the Training Per Se project, where we studied the effect of training per se on fat tissue when you’re not losing weight at the same time. It’s important for people to know that even though physical exercise does not necessarily make them lose weight, it has a lot of health benefits; and we can also see a redistribution of fat and muscles, so that you get a healthier body weight. I’m also proud of having initiated the interdisciplinary FINE project, in which we, for example, discovered that 30 minutes of daily exercise is just as effective as 60 for weight and fat loss.

What do you do when you are not working?

I don’t make a clear distinction between work and leisure, because research is also a huge personal passion for me, but I do many different types of exercise, and my family and friends also mean a lot to me. It’s important to be in touch with the outside world. I remember that after my inaugural lecture as a professor, people said that it was nice to see that you don’t not necessarily have to be totally nerdish, driven and introverted to become a professor, but that you can also have another, more holistic and comprehensive profile.