Aarhus University Seal

Meet Jens Preben Morth: graduate of the EMBL PhD programme.

Meet Jens Preben Morth: graduate of the EMBL PhD programme.

Meet Jens Preben Morth: graduate of the EMBL PhD programme.

Professor in Structural enzymology at the Technical University of Denmark in the Department of Biotechnology and Biomedicine.

With a background in chemistry and molecular biology, Preben has always applied interdisciplinary approaches. They are necessary for pursuing the complex and wide-ranging research topics that he is interested in. Preben is currently working on somatic catalysis within plastic degrading enzymes and research within magnesium transportation across the membrane.  Key along his academic journey was participating in EMBL’s International PhD programme in Hamburg. In this article, DANEMO sits down with Preben to find out more about his own experiences at EMBL and his own fantastic research career.


Why did you decide to do a PhD at EMBL instead of here in Denmark?

I actually tried to get a PhD here in Denmark and I went in for an interview in Copenhagen but didn’t get it. From my year at Aarhus University, I think there were only three that got a PhD at Aarhus University, so we were a lot that went either to Copenhagen or abroad for our PhD.

But while I was a master student in Aarhus, I signed up for one of the courses EMBL offers at EMBL Hamburg. While I was attending the course, I saw that they were searching for PhD-students and decided to apply.

Now, I don’t understand why people don’t do it. If you look at the PhD programme offered in Denmark, compared to the PhD programme offered at EMBL, there’s no comparison. I must admit, I don’t get why people don’t just apply and take this opportunity. The minute you’re there, the next step of your career is much more open, than it would be here in Denmark.


How was it working at EMBL as a PhD student?

It was intense in many ways. The programme is very good at selecting students, so everyone was really motivated. They are very aware of the student-supervisor relationship, so when you are first elected you pick a project, and it’s very important that the supervisor picks you for that project as well. That means that you both go into the project fully aware of what you’re doing. That ensures that you’re fully engaged in that project. When I chose my project, I already knew that it included six months in Los Angeles learning how to clone and express proteins from tuberculosis. I actually didn’t really see my supervisor for the first seven months of my PhD, as I went straight to the US, and then to EMBL’s PhD-student course in Heidelberg.

As a PhD student you need 30 ETCS-points to complete your studies, and when you do your PhD at EMBL you get the points during a 2-month intensive course at EMBL Heidelberg. That also allowed us to get acquainted with the other PhD students from other EMBL sites. We didn’t have a lot of collaboration with the other students otherwise, but once a year we all went to “lab days” at EMBL Heidelberg, where we would have scientific exchanges. When you come as a foreign student to Germany, you don’t have a network in the same way you had at your home-university, which means you get a tighter relationship with your colleagues. That’s still reflected today, I have contact with a lot of people I studied with and many of them are scattered all over the world.


What are the best things about doing you PhD at EMBL?

There were many good things! For one you were exposed to a lot of research, you could really see what people were capable of doing, as you were able to see their research right in front of you. You also felt like you were a part of it, as you were a part of the EMBL-family. I think the acceptance rate is around 3%, but once you’ve gotten in there is a lot of support from your supervisors and staff scientists.

You have long workdays, but somehow a 10-hour workday doesn’t feel that long. A lot of time we we’re working until 10 o’clock at night, not at full speed, but because we all became friends and might go directly to a movie afterwards, and then you get to meet in at work and see your friends again the next day. I know that there are other people that might have a different view on this, but I was lucky that I got to know a lot of people whom I’m still friends with today. I have a lot of good memories from my time in Germany, I met my wife while doing my PhD in Hamburg, she was an intern there. There was also a lot of weddings, a lot of my colleagues were getting married, so it was just a time with many joyful events.


What were the challenges of doing your PhD at EMBL?

There were many challenges. Firstly, there was a learning curve. How do you approach a project, how do you define it? I was lucky I had a panelboard, where I could get a lot of guidance. After 9 and 18 months you had to give a report on your project, and there I was told that I had to be able to explain my project in three sentences, to be clear in what I was doing. That was really good advice. I had a really good relationship with my supervisor and have also visited him many times now that he’s retired. He had a relaxed supervision style, so the students were able to make their own decisions. We got to choose how we wanted to be supervised, for example if we wanted a meeting every Monday morning, we could do that, or if we wanted to just stop by when his door was open, we could also do that. He had his projects as well, so it was all about doing things thoroughly, helping each other and being supportive, that’s at least how it felt. I think that EMBL selects people with a certain mindset about success, but also collaboration and how you work together.


The EIPP states that it wants to: “The EIPP provides comprehensive interdisciplinary training, maintaining a careful balance between theory and practice, close mentoring and creative freedom, collaborative teamwork and independence”, do you think that the EIPP lives up to that?

In my case it lived up to it. My first paper from my time at EMBL included both Xray colporrhaphy and small angle scattering, the cloning was done in the US in another laboratory, while my second paper was made up of material I had gathered in Hamburg, while working in Heidelberg and using their facilities. During the two-month intensive course, I had one-week courses in each of the major sections within EMBL. So, I had courses in developmental biology, bioinformatics and structural biology, imaging and so on. You really get to experience all the topics hands on and see how the different topics perceive the world, with their different techniques. Since we were very structural in Hamburg, we weren’t as interdisciplinary as you may see at other EMBL sections. I do think that the whole interdisciplinary mindset is integrated into the way that EMBL has done their PhD programme. A difference between the EMBL PhD programme and a university programme, is that you don’t have to do a teaching period at EMBL, like you have to in many other programmes here in Denmark. We still teach master students, interns and such, but we don’t have a teaching obligation.


How can you see that doing the International PhD has helped further your career?

I was advised not to go back to Denmark, as I was already living abroad. I did apply for a few positions abroad, but then I got a grant at Dansøng that offered a two-year postdoc at Poul Nissen’s lab. We were two candidates in the final round of applications, were we had to defend a project, and by some struck of luck, the other candidate withdrew, so I got the postdoc. So, I came back to Denmark with my own money from the grant, with a good education and reputation from EMBL. If you look at people from my year at EMBL’s PhD Programme, they all sit in very good academic positions around the world.