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Another path — Mikkel Skovrind's discovery of a new hybrid whale, the narluga, went global. Now he recounts his path to the DNA lab via his hip-hop career.
Five young men with caps, baggy trousers, and hoodies are lounging, laid back, at a nightclub. In front of them is a naked blonde woman with sushi all over her.
»Take it off,« one of them says.
»Is it Gucci or is it Louis Vuitton? Take it off, take it off until it goes out of shape. Take it off, let me slip a little booze into your juice. And move you to a bit of hip hop with blues.«
Postdoc at the Globe Institute.
Researcher studying the relationship between environmental changes and evolution in whales and fish.
Used to be a rapper going under the name of Mikkel Mund or ‘Mikkel Mouth’.
Was a part of the rap group Rent Mel, which released two albums and toured the nation’s festivals.
Has composed music with artists like Sivas and Jooks.
Mikkel Skovrind has come a long way since his music video with the rap group Ren Mel to his present workspace: Here, in a former chapel at the old Copenhagen municipal hospital, he is doing research on the relationship between environmental changes and the evolution of whales and fish at the clinically clean labs of Globe Institute.
»We have a green, a yellow, and a red lab, where there are different hygiene requirements,« Mikkel Skovrind says.
He is wearing a white lab coat and blue latex gloves to avoid polluting the many samples being examined in the green laboratory.
Here there are three white Gram freezers filled with DNA samples. They are just normal freezers, apart from the alarm they have installed to go off if they shut down. In the university’s laboratories, samples of everything from whale skulls to bacteria are stored, and they have helped position the University of Copenhagen as a leading institution in DNA research.
Mikkel Skovrind has, as a postdoc at Globe, helped conduct sensational research into Arctic whales. But back in the mid-1990s Mikkel Skovrind was declared unfit for upper secondary school, and said that he would rather be a good rapper. It did not look likely that he would end up in a laboratory among the world’s leading researchers.
It is the story of a teenager who was tired of school, who ended up training to be a gardener, had a successful rap career and even performed at the Roskilde Festival before he decided to change his life completely as a 27-year-old.
This career trajectory has given him a different perspective on research. Despite the current focus on diversity at universities, Mikkel Skovrind is concerned that the streamlining of study programmes will lead to researchers becoming more and more homogenous. And this would be a huge loss for research, where a multitude of different approaches is a strength.
»It has a kind of ‘unbelievable but actually completely true’ feel to it,« says Mikkel Skovrind after we have found a quiet corner in the laboratory.
He is not talking about his own life story. He is talking about the scientific article from 2019, which by way of modern DNA analyses proved the existence of the so-called narluga – a hybrid between the narwhal and the whale known as the beluga. He is the main author of the article, which has been downloaded more than 23,000 times from the journal’s website, and Mikkel Skovrind and his colleagues were kept busy giving interviews to major media like CNN and the New York Times.
»The discovery of a new whale hybrid is fundamentally fascinating for many people. But it was also something other researchers noticed because it was a really good example of how, by means of the latest DNA technologies, it was suddenly possible to solve some of the classic puzzles of biology,« he says.
And according to Mikkel Skovrind, results like these will become more difficult to come by if you don’t have researchers from many different backgrounds working together.
On the way out of the laboratory, he takes off his lab coat and latex gloves and reveals a pair of low-hanging jeans and an oversized green T-shirt. And before long, his head is clad with a brown cap.
Growing up with a single mother and two siblings in Roskilde, it quickly became clear to him that school was no place for Mikkel Skovrind. He did not have the motivation, nor the maturity, he now reckons.
»I would prefer to go skateboarding, make music and do pranks with friends,« he says.
Skovrind was declared unfit for upper secondary school and applied to a programme to become a gardener instead, all while he in his spare time focussed on his true passion: hiphop.
I had a kind of gung-ho attitude that I could use to find my own path.
At the age of 13, in the beginning of the 90s, he began to transcribe the tracks from his ghettoblaster, so he could crack the code, and learn how how to replicate their rhymes and beats.
»Finding out how things work has always fascinated me,« he concludes.
»I found out that I could use rap to experience some success. And this made me want to become even better and practice even more. All the hard work and nerdiness that was not applied in a school context was put into the rap.«
A few years later he, with a couple of other guys from the town of Roskilde, founded the rap group Rent Mel. In the beginning, they mostly played at youth clubs, but then they moved into larger venues such as Loppen and Rust in Copenhagen, and did large concerts at Skanderborg Festival and on the P3 Guld radio programme until it all culminated at the Roskilde Festival in 2004.
»To have grown up in Roskilde with an impression that things didn’t quite go as they were supposed to at school: This turned it into a real, ‘I made it’ moment.«
At the age of 27, Mikkel Skovrind started to feel something new. His rap career had peaked, and things didn’t work out exactly how he wanted it to in the gardening job that he upheld in parallel with his hip-hop.
The boss had resigned, and while the company was looking for a new manager, his colleague — a gardener-trained deputy — took over. He was qualified on all fronts, Skovrind reckoned. But management decided to find a new manager from the outside anyway who had an academic background.
»I realised that no matter how good you are at something, it is difficult to get far in life without a degree programme. I was supposed to just take care of my gardening work and not suggest anything new. The creativity and self-determination that I had found in music had no place in that job.«
Mikkel Skovrind ended up starting in upper secondary school at the age of 27, and this time he decided to make an effort. Suddenly, he had 30 lessons a week on top of all his homework because he wanted to complete all the right courses in two years.
»It was really hard to get back to the school bench that I had never really been good at,« he says today.
But the intervening years and experience had led to a new maturity and self-discipline:
»In the music years, the focus was on partying the most, and doing as little as possible. But now I told the lads that this was really serious. And it was. It turned out to give me a huge boost however, as it showed that I belong at ‘school’ if I only worked hard enough.«
Two years later, he could finally apply for the degree programme he had decided upon. He had chosen biology. He believes that it came from a trip with his family to Greenland as an eight-year-old.
»It was a hike in the back-country with only a tent, a rifle, and fishing equipment. We lived like that and caught fish, slept in tents and saw seals and reindeer, and a whale that had been shot that was lying on the beach and which we ate something from. This planted the seeds of a deep fascination with nature in me.«
On the biology programme, 29-year-old Mikkel Skovrind soon felt that he, like so many others, was pushed hard.
»It was clear that others were better than me, and I also felt quite unfamiliar with the world of universities. But I kept my head over the water. «
He did not find many of the subjects interesting, and at one point he failed an exam in molecular biology – the same subject he is currently researching.
»I had simply not done enough hard work. And I also found it difficult to decode what I actually had to do for an exam like that. But when you sit a four-hour written exam, it suddenly becomes quite clear to you.«
Despite the challenges, the fundamental interest in the subject of biology was intact. So one day when he was sitting on the back row at another lecture that he did not find too interesting, he decided to use his time differently.
I could use the methods they used to study human evolutionary history to answer my many questions about fish and whales.
He began to research scientific articles in the areas of biology that he found the most fascinating.
One day he stumbled upon a study where researchers had set up radio transmitters in the ovaries of fish. In this way, you could find the spawning grounds, because the transmitter left the fish with the eggs.
»I really found this ingenious, and it really set me off,« he says.
Mikkel Skovrind decided to repeat the experiment with other types of fish, and found a supervisor and a fellow student who also wanted to do the project. It was complicated by the fact that they had to find new types of measuring equipment for seawater.
»But we succeeded in the end, and I then found out that I did not only have to use my grades as a measure of who I am. I had a kind of gung-ho attitude that I could use to find my own path.
His bachelor’s and master’s programme were done at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. It was here that he combined his interest in fish with DNA analyses. The museum had just been merged with other departments, and he was suddenly at meetings with the world’s leading DNA researchers.
»I started approaching them and asking them about their research. And then I found out that I could use the methods they used to study human evolutionary history to answer my many questions about fish and whales,« he says.
He points out that many of the methods he currently uses to map the evolution of whales and fish were originally developed to investigate the relationship between modern humans and neanderthals.
»It’s all about being inspired by other fields, because then you can quickly move your own research field. But of course, this means that you need to be able to think a little differently – and then we’re back at how creativity is so crucial in science.«
This is Mikkel Skovrind’s leitmotif, and he comes back to it again and again. The world of music and the world of research do actually have similarities. And without his rapper background, he reckons that he would not be the same researcher today.
»For a rapper, it’s all about thinking creatively about how you can string some music together, and it usually starts with inspiration either from another piece of music, a book, or just a sentence you overhear in the bus. It is all about identifying opportunities. It’s the same with research.«
He believes his work with the narluga is an example of this.
In the 90s, a Greenlandic hunter shot a whale with a slightly strange colour and shape. The skull of the whale was placed on the roof of his shed for passers-by to admire, and it wasn’t long before a couple of researchers from Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources found out about the skull and set out to investigate it with the techniques that were available at the time.
They measured the skull and found that it was probably a hybrid between a beluga and a narwhal.
I think it is a disaster that young people are being pushed through a more streamlined education system today.
But the final piece of evidence only came about when Mikkel Skovrind and his colleagues investigated the skull with new DNA technologies more than two decades later. The process was not as seamless as it might sound. There is no template for identifying a new whale hybrid, and there are constant challenges.
»Creativity is there all the time, because a lot of what we do is about finding out how we do something, before we do it. If it has been done before, it is typically not a very exciting experiment.«
In the case of the narluga, the DNA had suffered damage from the many years on the hunter’s shed roof, and it was therefore only possible to get data from one twentieth of the genome’s 2.4 billion base pairs.
»Getting meaningful results, and telling a catchy story based on this type of data, this needs creativity. But with a combination of classical evolutionary theory and state-of-the-art analyses, we succeeded in showing that the hybrid was a male, and that it was a first-generation hybrid with a narwhale mother and a beluga whale father.«
Back at the clinical laboratory, Mikkel Skovrind takes status of the new generation. The students he deals with himself, are diligent and knowledgeable. But he is still concerned.
»I find it to be a disaster that young people are being pushed through a more streamlined education system today. Because this means that we are missing out on a number of different perspectives on things that are important.«
He believes that diversity is crucial for universities.
»Hardly anyone disagrees with the fact that it’s an advantage to have researchers from different nationalities and genders etc. But it’s also important that there is a more general diversity, especially if our research is to mean something among the general public.«
Skovrind stops and takes off his glasses before he serves a final kicker:
»I’m not dreaming of everybody being like me. That would be just as terrible. We need space for the 18-year-olds who have sat on the front row during the teaching as well as the little scoundrels who just needed other life experiences before they were ready for the university.«