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Stress researcher wins prestigious award: »Now I can try out some fun stuff«

AWARD WINNER — Two University of Copenhagen scientists are among the winners of this year's Danish elite researcher prize. One of them is Professor Naja Hulvej Rod. She heads a large research project on two million Danish children that has proven that the risk of premature death is 4.5 times higher for people who have experienced severe stress as children.

Who is she?

Naja Hulvej Rod is professor and does research on stress epidemiology at the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). She does this quite well actually.

So well that has she received one of this year’s Danish Elite Researcher awards and the DKK 1.2 million prize that goes with it. Stress interests her because it affects so many of us.

»Stress is something that affects a lot of people. It is not completely clear what stress means for our mental and physical health, and I have thrown myself into this field for the last 20 years,« she says.

Most people know the feeling of stress. But Naja Hulvej Rod is mostly interested in stress in its most extreme form.

»When you, I, and almost everyone else say that we are stressed, then what we are really talking about is the fact that we are a little too busy. I’m not that interested in this. This is important, but this is not where my research focus is. What I find more interesting is when stress takes over and approaches being a medical condition. I would like to specifically understand who this happens to, and what it means for their health.«

Why am I reading about her now?

Because she is one of five researchers that the Ministry of Higher Education and Science has chosen to honour with an Elite Researcher prize. The awards were presented on 24 February.

There is one other UCPH researcher among the winners, namely Sune Lehmann, who does research on what our mobile phone data can say about us, and what this can be used for. He is a professor at both the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and UCPH.

The DKK 1.2 million that each of the researchers get is divided into a DKK 1 million subsidy to their research, and a personal prize of DKK 200,000.

»The award is a huge acknowledgement of my work, and I’m very pleased. In research contexts, one million kroner is not, of course, a lot of money. But the cool thing is that they are not earmarked to a specific project. But I can try out some fun things that we can’t normally find funding for. I have already decided that I need to have some animation videos done.«

Naja Hulvej Rod wants to use the DKK 200,000 for a trip to India with her family.

Where have I heard about this person before?

Naja Hulvej Rod is perhaps best known for a large-scale research project that she leads. Danes born after 1980 may not be aware of it, but they are likely part of the project.

It is called DANLIFE and follows the lives of two million Danes since their birth year, from 1980 onwards, in different registers.

»We have a hypothesis that stress at an early stage of life will have consequences later in life also. This can have an impact on how we perceive social inequality and stress reactions in people who have experienced severe stress as children,« she says.

This could, for example, be a life in poverty, the loss of a parent, or a bad home environment.

The gigantic study has shown, among other things, that Danes who have have gone through repeated stresses as children, have 4.5 times the risk of dying before they reach the age of 35.

What should I do?

If you are curious about Naja Hulvej Rod’s work, you can read about the projects she is currently working on in her research group here.

You can also read a research article about the DANLIFE study in the scientific journal Lancet here.