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Zachary Gerhart-Hines had just started his research career in the US when he fell in love with a Danish woman. Today, he does research on diabetes and obesity at the University of Copenhagen and is enthusiastic about how innovative Denmark is.
From Zachary Gerhart-Hines’ office on the sixth floor of Maersk Tower, he can see most of Copenhagen. It is a view and a luxury that the US associate professor appreciates every day. A few years ago, his knowledge of Denmark was limited to LEGO bricks, Novo Nordisk and Niels Bohr. Now, he is a part of the innovative elite in Denmark, and is in the process of examining whether obesity and diabetes can be cured by modifying the metabolism of fat tissue.
After five years in Denmark, Danish working culture has become a natural part of his life. But he remembers how surprised he was about how different things were in the beginning.
My first reaction was astonishment. I was surprised that the Danish researchers don’t work late evenings and on weekends. At the elite universities in the US, research takes up everything. You will be working for many hours, all days of the week. This is necessary if you have any hopes of a career. It is expected of you. But it is also about the work becoming your whole identity.
/ 37 years of age
/ Living in Valby with his Danish wife and their five year old son
/ Born, and grew up, in the US
/ PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from the John Hopkins School of Medicine, USA
/ Associate professor at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, University of Copenhagen
Today, I have a more positive view of the Danish working mentality. It may well be that Danish researchers work less than my colleagues in the US. But they are effective. And this not only goes for Danes. But also for foreigners who work here. Even though you as an international researcher are accustomed to another working culture, you quickly become a part of Danish working culture. Nobody expects you to be in the laboratory from early morning until late evening. On the other hand, you work in a concentrated and efficient manner in the hours when you are there.
My view is that family and leisure time mean just as much for Danes’ identities as the their work. Most Danish researchers therefore prioritise differently than in the US, where work is the first priority. What is interesting is that Danish research is still very competitive, at the same time as Danish researchers seem far less stressed.
At the elite universities in the US, you work so hard that there is a large risk of burnout. When the work means everything for your identity, you put enormous pressure on yourself. This is not always healthy in the long term. Now that I have some distance to it, I have realised how important it is to take a long vacation from time to time.
I met my Danish wife when I was halfway through my postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania. Before that, I had never thought of leaving the US for a career in another country. The idea just did not crop up. Now after being at CBMR (Centre for Basic Metabolic Research, ed.) at the University of Copenhagen for five years, I am really grateful that I am where I am today. It has given me research opportunities, earlier on in my career, which would not have been possible in the US.
Denmark is an innovative country. If you have good ideas as a researcher, there is lots of funding available that you can apply for, so you can develop and foster your idea. There may well be a total increase in the amount of money available for innovation in the US. But relative to its size, Denmark is high on the world rankings when it comes to innovation.
Many of my US friends and colleagues are impressed by how good the opportunities are for elite research in Denmark. I feel incredibly privileged. If I had previously known about the opportunities for doing world class research in Denmark, I might have come here, even if I didn’t have a Danish wife.
At the University of Copenhagen, more than one third of all researchers and teaching staff come from abroad. In this series, you can meet some of them and read about what they think of working at the University of Copenhagen. What is the working culture like relative to their home countries? What has surprised them the most? And how do they describe their Danish colleagues?
I see Denmark as a very hospitable country, but it takes a bit of time to get to know the Danes. In the US, you can sit on a bench or go to a bar and talk to a stranger, and the Saturday following you are playing soccer with them. It’s not like that here. But friendships are deeper here. Even though I have more friends in the US, I like to think that I have as many close friends here, as I have in the US.
The biggest challenge is the language. If a foreigner wants to integrate in Denmark, the language is important. That is why I would also like to be more fluent in speaking Danish. Here at the university, this is not a major problem. But it bothers me that everyone is forced to talk to English if I am at a meeting and I am the only foreigner.
This is a translation of the Danish article here.