How to choose a research area?

Being a scientific researcher gives you the freedom to pursue answers to questions that you, and hopefully many others, find interesting. But with freedom comes the necessity to choose:
with so many topics to pick from, how do you select which research field to devote yourself to? Once this question has been posed, a number of other ones immediately rise to the surface.

  • Do I choose a research direction which is hot right now or one that has been a long-standing unsolved problem?
  • Should I select a topic which is attracting much interest in my own university/country or one where the leading research groups belong to other countries?
  • Is it better to choose a research area that will more easily generate funding from grants or one which I personally find more interesting even if funding will be more difficult?

Not an easy task. I’d say it is quite the balancing act, frankly, because you have at least three aspects to consider.

research-choice-yangFirst of all, you probably want to do research on something that you are personally fascinated by. Otherwise, it will be tough to find the motivation over time. Secondly, personal interest alone is not necessarily the only guideline that should be taken into account – it also seems reasonable to consider topics that will lead to a real and useful advance in knowledge.
For instance, I would argue that it is potentially of higher importance to identify materials that become superconducting at higher temperatures than is possible today than it is to compute an analytical expression for the 10th order correction to the energy eigenvalues of the Schrödinger equation for an anharmonic oscillator, even if you happen to be absolutely fascinated by doing perturbation theory. Thirdly, you have to consider what will be best in order build your scientific career. Some research topics are simply much more strategic than others when it comes to your chances of getting funding and applying for grants. To illustrate this point, think of research problems categorized by their risk and their potential gain. Let me give two examples.

Low risk – low gain

Find an exact solution of the Lagrange equations for a classical particle moving in a potential which has no realization in nature and which does not require any new or interesting mathematical techniques.

High risk – high gain
Develop a model for the normal-state of the high-Tc superconducting cuprates and the underlying microscopic mechanism that generates superconductivity. Many would argue that this
is one of the most important unsolved problems in condensed matter physics. Several brilliant minds have dedicated themselves to this topic over the last 30 years, yet a solution
remains elusive. Certainly a very high risk problem, as a solution is not guaranteed by any means – but the potential gain is equally high, no doubt worthy of a Nobel prize in Physics.

What should you go for then? Well, it seems clear to me that the research field you devote yourself to should have a potentially high gain in order for it to be worthwhile. A high risk
associated with it could make it more suitable for the most prestigious grants such as ERC funding, although it still has to be realistic.

So there you have it – ideally, you should then pick something that you find very interesting, something which will clearly move the research front forward and contribute to an expansion
of useful knowledge compared to what was known previously, and something that will put you in a good position to apply for research funding and grants. If you can find something
matching all these criteria, you have an excellent starting point.

Another aspect that will influence what kind of research direction you choose is which career stage you are in. As a masterstudent, the emphasis is on learning new physics and techniques,
and so a low risk – low gain project is perfectly viable. Proceeding with a Ph.D degree, the risk taking has to be higher since you are now supposed to make a real contribution to the
research community and so it is no longer a good idea to play things completely safe. You get the idea: the importance of moving toward high risk – high gain projects increases as you
continue along your career trajectory.

Some food for thought, hopefully. Stepping outside of the comfort zone and embarking on a research journey which you don’t yet know the outcome of can be scary, but the reward can make it
very worthwhile. And as with many other things in life, the journey itself will be very rewarding in itself.


Winter School with five Nordic universities

Fourteen international students from five Nordic universities are joining their co-students at the NTNU for the ISEE Winter School 27th to 29th January 2015. All of them attend a two-year international Master’s programme in Innovative Sustainable Energy Engineering (hence ISEE). The Faculty of Natural Sciences and Technology has a coordintaing responsibility for the programme.

As the ISEE Coordinator, I am looking forward to getting to know all the students!

The ISEE Master’s programme is a joint programme based on the alliance of the six Nordic technical universities: NTNU, the Aalto University in Finland, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, DTU Technical University of Danmark in Copenhagen, and the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. Each university has a responsibility for one of the programme’s six specializations or study tracks. NTNU has a leading role in the study track Solar Cell Systems and Materials. Moreover, students following the specialization courses in System Integration of Wind Power take their first year at the NTNU. Solar energy and wind energy are thus important topics for the Winter School.

A busy program
The purpose of the ISEE Winter School is to give all the first-year ISEE students the opportunity to meet first of all on an academic basis. We (i.e. me and the Programme Leader Gabriella Tranell) have booked lecturers and lab visits. There are also company presentations, as well as excursions on the agenda for the Winter School. The representatives of five of the ISEE partner institutions are going to hold presentations on topics relevant to the study tracks they are responsible for. Statkraft Varme, SINTEF Energi, Sarepta Energi, and Siemens are all contributing to the event in addition to NTNU’s Strategic Thematic Area Energy, as well as NTNU’s various departments.

Last, but not least, we are meeting in the evenings to explore a social and informal side of the ISEE Winter School, as well as Trondheim.

We wish all the ISEE students welcome to NTNU and the city of Trondheim!!!



It feels great to have access to the lab

On this picture, I am measuring the weight of a substance for my powder synthesis

As promised, here I am writing more about my PhD research and life in Trondheim. Finally, I have access to the lab and I have done some interesting research. I also have a better grip of what Trondheim is like.

My work is focused on designing and processing thermoelectric materials (materials with free electrons or holes which carry both charge and heat). These materials will be used for harvesting waste heat, working towards green technology.

Now, I have been here for four months, and almost three months have passed since my first blog post. My life here is much easier, now that I know almost all the people in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and I am spending a lot of time with my new friends.

Rain and darkness
Everything is going well. I am especially happy with the conditions at work and enviroment. First it was difficult to handle the rain in Trondheim, and now the winter with the darkness. You have sun just a few hours per day, but you can also find some advantages in this. By the way, I expected much colder weather. However, I have realized now that there is not a big difference between the winter in Serbia and here (maybe for now). We will see later on.

Usually, our PhD working day consists of lab work and extracting data from measurements, preparing presentations for the weekly meetings and lecturing with exercises and some projects. So, there is a lot of work and if you want to be successful, it’s really important that you make a good and well planned schedule of your duties.

Here, I am using using rotavapor, used for efficient and gentle removal of solvents from samples by evaporation.
Here I am, using rotavapor (used for efficient and gentle removal of solvents from samples by evaporation)


Great help from colleagues and professors
But it is not only about making a good schedule. Sometimes, stuff can get out of control, for instance in experiments. It happens that after a few lab trials, results are not satisfying, and you don’t have any idea how to solve the problem. This is normal in the science world, and it is very good that PhD students here can present their scientific “problems” in the weekly meetings where other colleagues and professors can assist you. It really helps a lot. For example, during the synthesis, there are many tricks involved in getting the required solution. So in my case, I had some doubts and my colleagues gave my ideas on how to solve the problem, and from that point on, my research went well.

Generally, everything is fine, and the dynamics will probably improve even more after the Christmas holiday. Examination period is over and most of us will turn back to our hometowns. We had two exams to pass and it seems that everything went ok.

My next blog post will be after New Year’s, so best wishes to you in the holidays and if you are trying to find a good University for your PhD, I can recommend NTNU and Trondheim.



We won the gold medal at the iGEM competiton

iGEM teams from above.
iGEM teams from above.

Written by the NTNU iGEM team together with Rahmi Lale.

The Giant Jamboree is over. It feels like a chapter in our lives has ended. The Jamboree was massive, just check out this picture, and there are an overwhelming amount of impressions left…and YES, we achieved our goal and won the gold medal. What is left now is a small void, and we are all yearning to get back into the iGEM competition next year.

The conference was held at Hynes Convention Centre in Boston, MA between 29th of October and 3rd of November. This is the first time the Jamboree has been held outside of MiT, and it was purely because of the sheer volume of people: there were 245 multidisciplinary teams from all over the world with over 2 300 participants. First day was only for registration, which did not entail much excitement. We got a t-shirt each, but since we had organised our own t-shirts with sponsor logos on we did not use the distributed ones. However, they will make good memories in time. That night we dined at the top of the Prudential centre with Rahmi Lale, our sole attending instructor. That was an amazing experience – delicious food, great wine, a fantastic view and of course the best of company. Needless to say the team had a great time. Our iGEM adventure in Boston was off to a good start.

The team giving the oral presentation.
The team giving the oral presentation.


Walking out with our heads held high
Our presentation was scheduled as the second presentation on the first day after registration. At the time we found ourselves unlucky since we would get less time to practice compared to the other teams, but in retrospect it worked out better this way. Once the presentation was over, we could all lower our shoulders and enjoy the other presentations to the fullest. Our oral presentation went quite well. We made no mistakes and got good feedback from the judges and the audience on the idea behind the project and the project itself. There were no questions we could not answer, and we walked out of the auditorium with our heads held high. From this point onward, our time was spent listening to other teams presenting their work, participating in workshops and attending poster sessions. Because of the amount of attending people, there were 10 different presentations happening at the same time and we had to pick a favorite based on written abstracts. We mostly went to presentations together, but sometimes our interests did not coincide and we split up. However, we always met up for lunch and dinner.

The team having lunch together at what came to be our usual spot.
The team having lunch together at what came to be our usual spot.


Great exchange from other presentations
Some of the presentations were impressive. The shear amount of work some teams put down, and the results they had achieved were mind-blowing. One team, that later won the undergraduate first place, had designed a system for making proteins more heat resistant by circularising them using linkers calculated by a system they had designed themselves. In addition, they proved their theory and design by increasing the heat stability of a protein crucial for replicating the methylation patterns of parent DNA strands so that it could be used in PCR. Another team, that later won the postgraduate first place, had designed and built a low cost hand-held device for detecting rancidity in olive oil. Oil rancidity is a problem in commercial olive oil, and their system could correctly identify 8 out of 9 samples for rancidity for under US $100. We won’t go into the details about every team, but the bottom line is that there were great projects and great scientists present at the conference. During poster sessions we got to mingle, explaining interesting parts about our project and listening to other participants enthusiastically talk about their projects. We even got to talk to professors and judges which was rewarding given the knowledge they possess.

The team at the poster session.
The team at the poster session.


The gold medal we wanted
After the award ceremony on Monday, we left the hall feeling absolutely good about ourselves. We had won the gold medal!!! YEAAHHH!!! We could now proudly return to Norway, NTNU and the rest of our sponsors. We made it. Even though we achieved a gold medal, all of our team members still wish we had done more. Our project had such a potential, and even though we gave proof of the concept for our idea, we did not actually get any empirical results concerning increased carbon capture using our proposed genetic circuit. The parts are there, and they are fully functioning, so maybe, just maybe, someone will pick up where we left off, and take our project into the next level. With that I would like to thank all my team mates – I think we have grown close over the past year, and I hope we remain friends. We would also like to thank our instructors (Rahmi Lale, Martin Hohmann-Marriott, and Eivind Almaas from the Department of Biotechnology), and our sponsors (Department of Biotechnology, Programme for Bioinformatics at NTNU, Rectorate at NTNU, Skretting, Sparebank 1 SMN, Enova, GenScript, Geneious and Sat Sapienti).

And last but not least, our readers – Thank you.

The attending team members at the giant Jamboree in Boston, MA.
The attending team members at the giant Jamboree in Boston, MA.


TV stars creating chemical reactions

wp-schrodingers-katt-2Schrödingers katt (that’s Schrödinger’s cat in Norwegian!) is a popular science show that runs every Thursday in prime time (19:45–20:15) on NRK1. It has been running since 1996 and has around half a million viewers every week. This fall season, the two of us got the opportunity to feature in the show, in a series of short segments where we show off flashy-looking chemistry experiments to each other.

Every week, the program features a short segment called “Øyeblikket” (The moment). This usually consists of footage of something that happens quickly, but filmed with a high-speed camera and shown in super slow motion. The idea to do chemical reactions came from Eldrid, one of the show’s presenters, who is herself a graduate of NTNU’s Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology program. She contacted the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, which is responsible for lab courses in general chemistry, and the task finally ended up on our desk due to our experience as teaching assistants. There are certain things in life you just cannot say no to, and we immediately felt that this was such an opportunity!

wp-schrodingers-katt-3Impressing each other in the lab
We planned the experiments over a few telephone conversations, and initially settled on the three first experiments described below: Hot ice, the copper crystal, and golden rain; which are nice-looking reactions sharing the common theme of crystallization. The two of us spent a couple of days preparing and testing the reactions, while the show’s producers came up with a production plan where chemistry would be wrapped in a framework story about a boy and a girl trying to impress each other in the lab.

Extremely time consuming

Filming of the first three experiments was done over the course of three days, and done entirely on location in one of the general chemistry student labs in the Natural Science building. We were extremely impressed with the cameraman’s ability to turn the familiar lab into something which could almost have been a scene from a C.S.I. episode. The price to pay for the nice footage was that everything took extremely long time: Not only did most scenes require a number of takes to get the perfect splash, swirl, smile or wink of the eye; but in addition, many scenes had to be shot from multiple angles, requiring movement of camera equipment and actors between takes. Quality takes time!

episode-4-schrodingers-katt-gerhard-sandraTV stars wanting more
The final three experiments were not filmed at NTNU, but at NRK’s premises at Tyholt. We brought chemicals and equipment with us, and spent another three days shooting video footage for the elephant toothpaste, nitrogen triiodide and mist bubble experiments. At times, the producers were slightly concerned about getting everything done in time, and on the second-to-last day of filming, we worked a total of 12 hours from morning to night. Spirits were high, though, among other things due to the consumption of copious amounts of coffee and cameraman Roger constantly joking in mock-trøndersk (a take on the local dialect). We finally managed to capture all the desired explosions and eruptions on film, and finished just in time on the last day of filming.

For two PhD candidates who take an interest in scientific communication and outreach, it was an incredibly fun experience to see the production side of a popular science show. It definitely gave us a taste for more such activities, but we’ll do our best to find time for doing research, too.


Remember to watch Schrödingers katt! Every Thursday on NRK1 from 19:45 to 20:15.

“Øyeblikk” (moments) aired on Schrödingers katt so far:

Kobberkrystall (25.09.2014)
Gullregn (02.10.2014)
Elefanttannpasta (16.10.2014)
Ustabil forbindelse (23.10.2014)

Sandra Helen “Uma Thurman” Skjærvø
Gerhard Henning “Mr. C.S.I.” Olsen
(Nicknames given by the NRK production team.)


Only two days away from the competition

NTNU_Trondheim iGEM team 2014. From the left: Pål Røynestad, Elias H. Augestad, Eivind B. Drejer, Jacob Lamb, Camilla M. Reehorst, Ronja Hesthammer, Line Aa. Omtvedt.

Written by the NTNU iGEM team together with Rahmi Lale.

The Giant Jamboree competition 2014 is only two days away. Hynes Convention Center in Boston is hosting the event on 30 October – 3 November. Here, 2.500 Synthetic Biology researchers from 245 universities in 32 countries are participating. One of these teams is from NTNU.

An iGEM team from the NT faculty
The 2014 iGEM team from NTNU consists of eight students and three instructors. This year all students are part of the NT faculty, and everyone is either a student of the five-year master or three-year PhD program in biotechnology. Four of us (Camilla M. Reehorst, Line Aa. Omtvedt, HyeWon Lee and Ronja Hesthammer) finished our master program this year, and we have experienced the work with iGEM exciting and educational. Having a master’s degree does not mean you are finished learning, and we think that for most of us the “soup bowl of knowledge” has only just begun to be filled. These four students all undertook the laboratory part of their master’s at the Department of Biotechnology under the biopolymer chemistry branch. Not all of us have attained a job yet, but with the iGEM experience under our wings, the prospects seem a tad brighter. One of us (Eivind B. Drejer) is a fourth year student. He started to swim with the rest of the master student submarines, fully submerged in literature, in August 2014. His master thesis is under the systems biology branch of biotechnology (meaning a lot of computer fiddling), and he has not scheduled laboratory work in his thesis. His iGEM experience is therefore considered to supplement his degree to the point where future employers will tear at each other’s throats for such diverse experience in their workers.

Two of us (Pål Røynestad and Elias H. Augestad) are third year students, and have not yet started work on master’s thesis. Pål is intrigued by the systems biology branch, and will start a computational and modelling-based assignment this autumn. Elias, on the other hand, is interested in molecular biology, and will start a master’s degree at the University of Copenhagen in September 2014. They might be the least experienced (based purely on age and amount of years spent studying biotechnology), but they are very valuable assets to our team. We would be lacking without them. Our last team member (Jacob Lamb) is a PhD student, and out-ranks us all. His field is molecular biology, and he has worked extensively with photosynthetic organisms. Not only does he actually know what he is doing in the lab, he is also a native English speaking type of guy, which means it sounds like he knows what he’s doing (unlike the rest of us that express ourselves with communication stutter steps). We also have three amazing instructors – Eivind Almaas, Rahmi Lale and Martin Hohmann-Mariott. They have participated in this competition before, both as instructors and judges. Their experience and knowledge is sorely appreciated, and to top it off they are very helpful!

Packets containing BioBricks and cool iGEM stickers and pins.
Packets containing BioBricks and cool iGEM stickers and pins.


Creating a puzzle from BioBricks
Every year the iGEM foundation sends each participating team packets brimming with what are known as BioBricks. These are biological parts that teams can use in their respective projects. The BioBricks are DNA sequences with specific functions that can be assembled to form a variety of different constructs. The amount of BioBricks in the iGEM registry usually increases from year to year, since each participating team has the opportunity to send in and register new and exciting parts. The BioBricks arrive in small metallic packages that look unmeritedly plain.

Inside, however, is where the magic lies. As illustrated by Elias, opening and examining the ordinary metal plate contents leaves a person smiling and happy.

Elias handling a BioBrick plate

The DNA sequences in each well are dried before they are shipped, and in order to use them, the DNA must be resuspended in distilled water. Once this is done, the DNA can be transferred into a culture of competent bacteria where the BioBrick parts multiply along with their hosts. Sometimes the BioBricks contain markers, meaning that the transformation success rate can easily be measured. Instead of laborious plating of negative non-transformed bacteria, the researcher can simply look for red cultures (given that the marker was a fluorescent gene that turns the bacteria red) as seen in the picture below.

Successfully transformed E.Coli DH5α indicated by red colour.

In our project, we wish to use some of these BioBricks to create an inducible expression system in Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803. Doing this is like building a puzzle; every piece belongs to a specific location, and if one piece is missing the whole image is obscured. Adding one BioBrick to another is not necessarily a time consuming process, but because the puzzle consists of many pieces we will need to spend some time getting the final construct together. The process involves enzymatic PCR amplification and ligation (Gibson assembly method), with antibiotic-based selection on agar plates. We recently managed to create our desired construct in E. coli DH5α cells.

The visible marker is a red fluorescent protein, and as can be seen in the picture below, the colonies casts a red hue. When the inducible expression system is functional, we wish to use this to up-regulate genes that might cause the bacteria to fixate more carbon, with the overall aim of the project is to decrease carbon dioxide emissions from factory exhaust.

We are planning on up-regulating glucose oxidase in Synechocystis in order to achieve this. Glucose oxidase is an enzyme that exhausts the oxygen level in our bacteria. The idea is that the bacteria will start metabolising more carbon dioxide once the oxygen is depleted; however, the growth rate of the bacteria will most likely suffer with our intervention, and we therefore hope that the carbon dioxide uptake is greater than the loss in growth rate compared to a wild-type Synechocystis culture. We are excited to see how well our construct will develop, and will rejoice the day our instrument is implemented in factory chimneys.

Desired construct in E. coli DH5αcells with red fluorescent protein marker.
Hoping for a gold medal
The realistic hope is that we receive a gold medal at the iGEM world final in Boston, Massachusetts in October-November 2014. Gold medals are given to any team that satisfy a set of criteria and quality standards determined by the iGEM administration. These criteria can be tricky, but we are confident in our abilities to achieve our goals. In addition to bronze, silver and gold medals, teams compete for special awards for a variety of contributions. These awards are only given to one team each year, and are therefore a symbol of greatness. The NTNU_Trondheim iGEM team 2014 has high ambitions and we aspire for greatness, but being humble we do not expect any special prizes. That being said, we would all like to proudly return home with a solid glass trophy in our greedy little hands.


Forsker Grand Prix – Targeting Drugs Through the Post

Nanometer sized particles show remarkable properties

Using the analogy of a postman delivering a letter to the correct address, I tried to explain how modern science and technology can help guide a drug to the diseased site, where it is expected to deliver its desired function.

The idea I had in mind was to use simple words during the presentation to reach out to a larger audience. The reason for this was two-fold: the general language used in the event was Norwegian (including all presentations except two) which meant that the majority audience comprised local people or Norwegians doing research in Science and secondly, English as a foreign language may not be able to stand out when used alongside sarcasm or pun. On the contrary, I stuck to using expressive pictures that would enable the audience to spin a tale in their minds. This technique works when it is important to convey complicated research to a range of people who stem from various backgrounds, not necessarily doing Science. The most important thing that worked for my presentation was the comparison I drew between my nano particles (NPs) that are designed to reach the target site and deliver the drug and a postman delivering a letter to the right address.

The core is made of iron (egg yolk) and the shell is made of gold (egg white)

The egg analogy
The idea of this analogy came up while I was brain storming myself to come up with an easy to understand system that can help others understand how the core-shell Fe@Au NPs comprising an Fe core (egg yolk, rendering magnetic properties) and Au shell (egg white, rendering optical properties) can provide both targeting and tracking capabilities to our NPs, making them smart systems for targeting drugs.

The judges felt that the social implications of this research was easily understandable as one of the major problems of medicines, if taken inappropriately, at wrong times or in combinations that do not go together is that they cause a lot of side effects. As the drug reaches both healthy and unhealthy cells, higher drug dosage is required which further enhances side effects and thus, a vicious cycle. This effect can be minimized by using smart targeting systems that seek for the diseased site and deliver its payload when it reaches the site of action, just like our NPs.

A drug can be squeezed out of the nano particles just like squeezing out water from a sponge

The wet sponge and postman analogies
Further, our NPs also have a stimuli sensitive polymeric layer which can change shape and structure when there is a change in temperature or/and acidity of the medium. This enables squeezing out of the drug similar to squeezing out of water from a water-laden sponge.

The outermost layer of our NPs contains a special molecule (PEG) that hides the NPs from the body’s defense mechanisms allowing them to be in the circulation long enough to reach the target site.

In a similar way that an effective postal system delivers a letter to your friend’s address without allowing others to know what message it contains, our NPs are capable of delivering the cargo to the diseased site without being detected by the body’s immune system.

Gold nano particles of different sizes and shape vary in optical properties

Demanding but enjoyable experience
On the overall, the whole experience to do popular science was an exciting one, more so, because it stood out with its inherent characteristics. A few months of continuous understanding of one’s own research benefits to the society so as to convince the audience was a well-accepted challenge. The bigger challenge was in presenting a really complicated field of targeted drug delivery to common minds, without using too much technical vocabulary, yet making a clear point as to why I am doing this research. One important experiment that I tried in the process was to present before researchers from other fields (my brother, a few close friends), besides sitting down with the other contestants during coaching sessions and otherwise to run through the text and confirm that it should not be difficult to understand the scenarios. My supervisor and the group also helped in giving a patient ear to things that they know way better from experience in the same field. What amazed them was how important it is to tell a story about your research, while simultaneously engaging the audience! Presenting one’s research cannot be that demanding, but presenting it with dramatic content, eager eyes while simultaneously playing to the gallery, was something I enjoyed a lot.

Forsker Grand Prix should be popularized further and if possible, various versions (different language for instance) should be hosted. At the end of the day, it is the good vibe that the whole team and the overall project gave, which will always be remembered, besides the loads of things that I learned from the process of communicating to the general audience, a topic that I have now worked on for more than 7 years!


From shooting stars to weather at the edge of space

rosmarie-de-wit-blog-shooting-starsRosmarie de Wit is doing her PhD in the Atmosphere and Environmental Physics group at NTNU. She collaborates with MORTEN the meteor radar, and together they measure small shooting stars in order to study weather at the edge of space. Rosmarie introduced MORTEN to the world during Forsker Grand Prix 2014. If you missed it but would like to meet him as well: this is your chance.

What would you wish for if you would see 10 000 shooting stars every day? Chocolate cake, new skis or a holiday to Hawaii? Well, after living in Trondheim for 3 years, I would definitely wish for improved weather forecasts. And guess what? Shooting stars can help us with that!

The weather at the edge of space
Meteorologists need very precise models to know what the weather will do next. It turns out it gets a lot easier to make a good forecast if all the air, from the surface and all the way up to 100 km (which I’ll call the edge of space, since it is so far away), is included in the weather models. But before these high air layers can be included in the models, we need to know what is going on up there. In other words: we need to measure weather at the edge of space.

Rosmarie de Wit during her presentation at “Forsker Grand Prix”

And this is where shooting stars come in. Every day, 50 000 kg of space dust comes towards the Earth. That is a lot of dust, but luckily the atmosphere protects us and most of the dust burns up before it reaches the ground. The largest of these burning dust specs we can see: these are shooting stars. But there are many more much smaller dust specs burning up. These small shooting stars are called meteors. We cannot see them with the naked eye, but we can measure them.

A meteor trail reveals the weather
When a meteor enter the atmosphere, all the air molecules start to bump into it. The meteor gets very hot, and at about 100 km it burns up. When this happens, the meteor leaves a trail of charged particles behind. And it is this meteor trail that can tell us a lot about the weather at the edge of space.

MORTEN, the meteor radar
Luckily, we can measure this trail with an instrument called a ‘meteor radar’. NTNU has such a meteor radar, and his name is MORTEN. MORTEN can measure these small shooting stars by sending out a radio wave, or ‘pings’. These ‘pings’ travel all the way through the air until they reach the meteor trail. When they reach the trail of charged particles, they are reflected and bounce back to Earth. Now MORTEN listens, and when he hears the ‘pings’ again he knows he has detected a meteor.

MORTEN sees about 10 000 mini-shooting stars every day. But how can we use those to measure weather at the edge of space? Well, did you ever realize how the trail of clouds left behind by an airplane moves in the air? The trail moves because it is blown with the wind. The same happens to those meteor trails 10 times higher up in the sky. So by checking how fast a meteor trail moves MORTEN the meteor radar can measure the winds 100 km above the ground.

But that is not all. If you have ever seen a shooting star, you know they disappear very fast. A meteor trail only lasts for about 2 seconds, but it depends on the temperature how long it lasts exactly. The warmer it is, the faster the trail disappears. By timing how long it takes before the trail has disappeared, MORTEN the meteor radar can therefore also tell us the temperatures at the edge of space.

MORTEN can make my wish come true
So by measuring small shooting stars, we can study weather at the edge of space. And by studying weather at the edge of space, we can help improve those weather forecasts, and make my wish come true!

Atmospheric physicists say hello to MORTEN


Impressive lineup of world class scientists

Brenda Milner, Neuroscience prize winner. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

Last week, NTNU hosted the Kavli Prize Laureate in The Natural Science Building (Realfagbygget) and there were some very succesful scientists and prize winners present. The prestigious Kavli Prize was established in 2005 by The Kavli Foundation in cooperation with The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The prize is named after Fred Kavli a successful business leader, inventor, and philanthropist from Norway. Kavli (1927-2013) received his engineering degree from NTH in 1955 and moved to the USA shortly after.

Kavli Prize Winners in Nanoscience and Neuroscience: Thomas W. Ebbesen, Stefan W. Hell and Sir John Pendry (the 3 nanoscience prize winners), Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe and Marcus E. Raichle (the 3 neuroscience prize winners). Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

The prize recognizes scientists with outstanding research results in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience and award three prize winners from each field every second year. The Natural Science Building was the host for the Laureate for nanoscience and neuroscience. The prize winners receive a check for one million US dollars for each research field, a gold medal and a diploma. The prize has wide international recognition and the American president traditionally welcomes the American recipients to the White House.

A sparkling 96-year-old scientist
Brenda Milner, a 96-year-old professor at McGill University in Canada, stole the show this day. This charming and lively lady received the Neuroscience prize. Her lecture “Memory, looking back and looking forward” was very popular and everyone was impressed by her chipper demeanor. Milner is considered a pioneer in neuropsychology and memory research. She is most famous for her studies on the patient Henry Molaison known as H.M. He had undergone a bilateral temporal lobectomy (brain surgery) that included removal of major portions of the hippocampus. H.M. was not able to remember new events after the operation, but he was able to learn new motor skills. Milner’s research led to theories that can explain the link between brain function and memory, and contributed to the development of cognitive neuropsychology.

Two other prominent researchers received the Neuroscience prize: John O’Keefe, a neuroscientist and a professor at the University College London. He is famous for his discovery of place cells, a type of neuron active in the hippocampus part of the brain. Place cells become active when an animal enters a particular place in an environment. The third prize winner in neuroscience was Marcus E. Raichle, an American neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, Missouri. His research involves the nature of functional brain imaging

Sir John Pendry and his lecture “The science of invisibility”. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

First Norwegian Kavli Prize Winner
Norwegian scientist, Thomas Ebbesen now residing in France at the University of Strasbourg was the first Norwegian Kavli Prize winner. He received the Kavli Prize in nanoscience. His biggest contribution to science is in optical transmission. Another nanoscience winner was physicist Stefan W. Hell from Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. Hell is a big contributor to microscopy technology. Sir John Pendry, theoretical physicist from the Imperial College of London was also a nanoscience Prize recipient. He had an interesting lecture on invisibility. Pendry became famous for creating a container that can reflect light in a fashion where objects can become invisible, a so called invisibility cloak. Invisibility cloaks are very popular in science fiction and appear in the books of Harry Potter.


The 2010 Noble Prize Winner in Physics, Sir Andre Geim. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU
The 2010 Noble Prize Winner in Physics, Sir Andre Geim. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU
Unique opportunities at NTNU
The Natural Science Building also hosted the Kavli Prize Symposium in Nanoscience in the afternoon. Among the speakers was Sir Andre Geim from The University of Manchester. Geim is part of the duo that received the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for the method of isolating graphene. Graphene is a one-atom thin layer of carbon, 100 times stronger than steel and with great conductivity properties. Other speakers at the symposium included Bo Brummerstedt from Aarhus University, Molly Stevens from Imperial College of London and Ke Lu from The Chinese Academy of Science in Shenyang.

This day was one of many interesting opportunities that students have to see absolute world class scientists at NTNU. This opportunity is unique and students should definitely take the chance to attend events like this.



Adventures of a starting PhD student

Hi everyone!
I am Nathalie from Belgium, the land of chocolate, waffles and beer. A few weeks ago I started my PhD here at NTNU. I am a member of the bird ecotoxicology group and will investigate the exposure and effects of emerging contaminants on White-tailed Eagle and Northern Goshawk.

Take a chance
Over one year ago, I graduated with a Master of Science. Since then I have been looking for a job as a researcher, preferably abroad. It was not as easy as I first thought. But here I am, living my dream in a foreign country. I must say, it wasn’t easy to leave my family, friends and especially my boyfriend behind. But PhD opportunities don’t grow on trees, and I believe that chances like these don’t come often. I would have regretted to miss a chance like this. The support of my beloved ones was crucial and made the decision a lot easier. And I feel welcomed to NTNU by my very nice colleagues.

To teach or not to teach
Today, I feel privileged to fill my days with something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time. However, during these first three weeks of my PhD I’ve been mainly occupied by filling out forms and running around from one office to another. As a PhD student, I have – in addition to my research – 1680 hours of teaching to do during these four years. Although I get paid an extra year during my PhD because I take on these teaching duties, 1680 hours… That’s a lot! But luckily these are not all teaching hours. Also preparation time is taken into account, but still it was a shock to hear that I have to do all of this in combination with my research. This brings us to the endless discussion about the teaching duties of PhD students. I personally think it is a good practice in a way. It’s a necessary evil that provides us with a useful competence when working in an academic environment. But it should not stand in the way of our research of course.

One thing I’ve learned in these first three weeks is that organization is very important. That will be the key to complete these four years of research successfully, I think. For the moment I still find it really difficult to keep myself focused on one task, because there are so many things that need to be done and this is only the beginning! I’m really looking forward to what these four years will have in store for me. And soon I will have my first close encounter with a bird of prey, wish me luck!