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Back to basics for top professor in brain energy conversion

The brain accounts for around 20 per cent of the body's total energy consumption. Five questions to the professor who has helped map out how it works, and who is now going back into research

It is a resource-demanding organ that accounts for around 20 per cent of the body’s total energy consumption. Professor Helle Waagepetersen conducts basic research into its energy conversion to learn more about this – our most complex organ – the brain.

Her own energy levels are boosted by collaboration and student contact, but after six years of ‘burning the candle at both ends’, she is now taming her own flaming enthusiasm. Helle Waagepetersen, 42, holds a PhD and is professor at the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology. After graduating as a pharmacist, she was soon attracted by research and immersion. Since completing her thesis, she has mapped the complex and energy-demanding signalling systems in the brain – from winding paths to heavily trafficked highways.

For six intensive and inspiring years, she was head of studies for the international Master’s programme in pharmaceutical science. Helle Waagepetersen’s commitment to this project and the long hours were not without personal costs, and Helle is now back as a full-time member of the research team, allowing her to dedicate more time to the brain’s energy conversion. And also giving her time to focus on the main driver in her working life: the dynamics in the research team, the collaboration with colleagues and the supervision of PhD students. In other words, the human relations that uphold good research.

Power plants, signals and communication

Why is your research important to society?
“The brain is extremely complex, and we still lack basic knowledge about the healthy brain. In my research team, one of our key focus areas is the brain’s energy conversion, which is essential for the brain’s function, but also the cause of many neurogenerative brain diseases.”

“The brain consumes large amounts of energy to maintain the signalling processes in the central nervous system. Glucose is by far the most important energy substrate for the brain, but glutamate also plays an important role. Glutamate is converted into biological fuel – called ATP – in the brain cells’ power plants. The conversion is catalysed by the glutamate dehydrogenase enzyme, which is predominantly present in the astrocytes – the brain’s star-shaped helper cells, which researchers assign an increasingly bigger role. They are much more than just helpers for the neurones.”

“Without astrocytes, the vital communication between the neurons would stop, because the astrocytes help the neurons to produce and convert the signalling substances that drive the communication in the brain. In our team, we have for a long time been pursuing a paradigm shift that recognises that the astrocytes have played a more important role in history.”

I needed to slow down

What was a high point in your career?
“It was a groundbreaking discovery when we about 10 years ago were able to show that the brain’s sugar store – glycogen – plays an important role for the internal energy balance. It may sound fairly simple, but the brain is a complex research area, and there are many controversies and conflicting theories on, e.g., energy conversion and metabolism. It therefore feels great when you as a researcher can draw a line in the sand and turn accepted rules upside down.”

“In 2008, I became head of studies for the Master’s programme in pharmaceutical science. It was great fun and gave me a lot of energy in the first years. It was exciting to get a new curriculum in place – and a cool experience to be the university’s pioneer within internationalisation. I got a kick out of the close contact with the students and the open dialogue with employers.”

“But, in retrospect, I have probably burned the candle at both ends. I am quite young and was early given a huge responsibility as both head of research and head of studies. It was a very busy job and I was highly committed – but in 2014 I needed to slow down (and quite acutely so), and I therefore left the position as head of studies. This means that today I have more time for research and immersion.”

Why and when did you choose to become a researcher?
“As a young girl, I wanted to be a school teacher – I happily taught the other kids in the street a wide range of topics. My childish ambition was not completely off target – I put a lot of effort into coaching my PhD students, and I really love to teach. ”

“I have always been interested in the body, chemistry and biology – which is why I decided to study pharmacy. I extended my thesis period to dig deeper into the substance of the matter. In this way, I got a taste for research. Random doors opened up along the way, and suddenly a research career emerged.”

Elite badminton to daughter’s football

What is the best thing about being a researcher?
“The freedom that comes with being a researcher is a gift. As head of research, you both function as creative initiator, managing director, HR manager and fundraiser. You are – to a certain extent – free to shape the activities, while at the time receiving administrative support from the university. I love the synergies involved with being head of research. It gives me an energy boost to match the right people and let the results grow. I see myself as a coach – both in my role as manager and supervisor. It is first and foremost the fact that I am part of a team that drives me in my everyday working life. It means a lot to have people around me. I cannot live without the dynamics and the creative aspects.”

What do you do when you are not working?
“I have a husband and two children, aged 12 and 13, and they fortunately take up a lot of my time when I get home from work. We live in the country in Veksø north of Copenhagen, with plenty of elbow room and wide open spaces. My husband works as a nurse at Rigshospitalet, and we complement each other really well. I am ambitious and competitive, while my husband with his calmer nature lets me compete. We have a sailboat and the four of us spend virtually all our summer holidays at sea.”

“When I was younger, I was an elite-level badminton player. Nowadays I go for the occasional run, but also spend quite a lot of time on my children’s sports activities. I am very enthusiastic about my daughter’s football.”

This research profile was originally posted to the Faculty of Health and Medical Science . Read the original interview .

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