Aarhus University Seal

Distinguished Alumni

Since 1928, Aarhus University has celebrated its anniversary with the annual celebration in September. On the occasion of its 80th anniversary in 2008, the university established a distinguished alumnus award, which honours a graduate of Aarhus University.

Facts about the Distinguished Alumni

  • A distinguished alumnus has made an extraordinary contribution to the national or international community and who has drawn positive attention to his or her field and the university.

2023: Lone Frank

Journalist with the heart of a researcher

Science journalist and author Lone Frank, has an obvious advantage when writing about research, because she knows research in and out: she has a PhD in neurobiology. In fact the driving force for the 2023 distinguished alumna is the same as for a researcher; namely to explain how the world works.

By Henriette Stevnhøj

Before our interview, Lone Frank had already been on the morning radio news programme P1 Morgen to talk about how young people sometimes struggle with life and about the concerns of experts regarding over-diagnosis. The radio feature was based on Lone Frank's article published on the same morning in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen on psychiatry and 'runaway diagnoses'. But wait a minute, why use Lone Frank, a journalist, as an expert? She’s a communicator: not a psychiatrist.

A few hours later, in the editorial office in Pilestræde in central Copenhagen, she chuckles at my question. 

"One of the joys of my job, and indeed my ambition, is to open the door to a closed world and explain things so that others can understand what they’re all about. Other journalists seem to recognise this when they call and ask me to explain something," says Lone Frank about the morning's health and psychiatry feature. These are two topics she often returns to in her work as a journalist at Weekendavisen, as a podcast host and in her writing.

Lone Frank has a reputation in the media sector for being able to use her research background to make knowledge understandable and useful without falling into the trap of arrogance, as many experts do.

When I ask about this, she replies that her university background is her greatest advantage when she has to communicate complex knowledge.

"I've been asked if I wasn't completely out of my mind when I decided to take a PhD degree and then become a journalist. But to me it’s very straightforward. My researcher training is amazingly useful when I not only have to describe an issue, but also analyse what’s going on in the research world. It's like asking whether you need to know something about economics when you write a financial article. Of course you do. It’s always good to know something about the substance of what you’re reporting. In fact, I think we should have more professional communicators with a research background," says Lone Frank.

From research to journalism

Lone Frank studied biology at Aarhus University in the early 1990s, and she was fascinated by the brain and behavioural biology. She also chose these as her thesis topic – and wrote it at the Department of Neuropathology at the University of Copenhagen. But she missed Aarhus University terribly.

"Far from Aarhus, I discovered that Aarhus University campus, student life and the teaching staff had been very good for me. I simply felt more at home at AU, even though I had to go to UCPH to get the specific scientific training I needed," says Lone Frank, who went on to take a PhD at the University of Southern Denmark after completing her Master's.

But Lone Frank did not feel at home in the research world. At least not as a practising researcher. Instead, as a newly qualified PhD, she took a job at a patent agency, and as a sideline she wrote research news articles, which she got published in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, among other places.

"At that time, research communication was not that big in Danish journalism, as it was in the US. So my freelance career was rather modest at first," says Lone Frank.

Anchored in the personal

However, as time passed, public interest in science journalism became stronger, and the media devoted increasing space to articles about new research findings, scientific debate or academic controversies. Weekendavisen was no exception, and Lone was offered a temporary job to cover for a journalist on maternity leave. This led to yet another temporary position. By the end of the second period, Lone had firmly established herself as a science journalist.

She is now in her 25th year at Weekendavisen, where she writes week after week about health, medicine, technology and ethics. Including psychiatry.

"Mental illness and the human brain have always interested me. I’m fascinated by how we are shaped," she says. Lone Frank has experienced mental illness at close hand in her family, and she herself has suffered from depression.

She brings this experience into her journalism. For example, in her podcast series Lone Frank and the ten thousand souls, about the world's largest collection of human brains, which until just a few years ago was stored in the basement of the psychiatric hospital (now closed) in the Risskov suburb of Aarhus. Lone was struck by depression just before she was due to start recording the podcast. Instead of abandoning the project, she decided to use the series to explore whether she could learn more about her own condition from the collection of brains.

When I ask Lone whether you can share too much of yourself in such a podcast, she replies:

"I often use myself and my own story in my journalism and writing. It comes very naturally to me." She laughs, adding:   

"One of my great strengths is that I know what I'm writing about when I write about things like psychiatry or love. Then I put it into perspective, and I find relevant researchers to help with answers and to unfold the story. In this way, my approach to my work is similar to a researcher's. I develop a thesis and then get it confirmed or disproved. But it's not about anything private. If that were so, I could go to a glossy magazine. It's first and foremost about an issue I want to explore, and so I can use myself as a case. An anchor in the personal is always good."

Knowledge doesn’t always trump opinion

In 2000, Lone Frank wrote about a lack of dialogue between science and the rest of the world. Since then, she has seen a quantum leap in communication:

"For the current generation of researchers, coming forward and communicating their work is simply a matter of course. And they really want to do so. Knowledge is gushing out of the research world. We’ve never had so many channels for communication, and the media has become much better at science journalism," says Lone, before asking rhetorically:

"So why on earth is the debate still marked by so much ignorance? How can so many be against vaccines; why do so many doubt climate change or have so many opinions about how to combat climate change? The reason is that it's not just about knowledge. You can pump out as much knowledge as you like, but that won’t always change people's opinions."

Lone Frank’s approach to science journalism is first to look at things objectively and then analyse her way to where the evidence is pointing.

"If there’s a debate, I’m not just going give equal space to both sides of the argument if one side is clearly on the right track. My role is rather to uncover what is the most truthful."

Lone believes that universities have a definite interest in contributing facts to public debate:

"Universities, and what they can do for society, become very visible when researchers are in the media. Not just when they communicate their discoveries, but also when they’re asked to comment on current events," says Lone Frank, who also urges researchers to take matters in their own hands and not just wait until they receive a call from journalists.

"If there are researchers out there scratching their heads in dismay because they hear or see something they think is clearly nonsense, they should get involved with their knowledge. Or else the train will leave without them. They must be bold and interfere. But always with an understanding of why some readers may resist the facts. It's a lot to do with emotions."

Not looking for praise

Lone Frank is driven by same force shared by journalists and researchers: How does the world work?

"The only difference is in our approach to the issues we deal with. My research dealt specifically with rat brains. Now, as a journalist, my work is about looking into how research influences the way we see things. Take mental illness, for example. It’s interesting to look behind the numbers. When do we ourselves think that we are sick or healthy? There's always something to wonder about."

Does Lone Frank ever regret leaving academia? After all the she could have found the answers herself?

"NO! I talk to researchers all the time, and that confirms I made the right decision. I’d have torn my hair out a long time ago with the daily frustrations of having to apply for funding, administer projects and struggle to publish. Now I choose big or small issues myself for my articles, books, or podcasts. That suits me infinitely better."

Lone Frank is also convinced that her decision to pursue a career in journalism isn’t a great loss for academia:

"I'm happy to leave it to others to make discoveries and produce results. As long as I’m allowed to analyse the significance of the results for the world around us."

2022: Vibeke Brix Christensen

Pediatrician with passion and heart

She has provided care in the field in the midst of the world’s most horrific catastrophes. As a doctor and scientist, she has worked on the front lines of civil wars, natural disasters and epidemics and has witnessed enormous human suffering. Pediatrician Vibeke Brix Christensen is this year’s distinguished Aarhus University alum.

Under the brutal, dry heat of a merciless sun, the queue of sick, starving people in front of her continues to grow. Desperation hangs heavy in the air. A lot is at stake in this queue: it’s a matter of life and death. The woman facing the queue in a refugee camp in Darfur is Vibeke Brix Christensen. She’s far from the prosperity and order of Denmark, her home country. But she doesn’t care, because she isn’t here for her own sake. She’s here because she can’t stay away.

She recognises a mother in the queue who she’s already encountered several times. This time as before, she’s brought her little son with her. He’s very thin and weak: nothing but skin and bones. In fact, he’s even thinner than last time. And it’s his mother’s doing: she has been starving him deliberately. That’s because only the most acutely malnourished refugees can get aid. Vibeke Brix Christensen measures the circumference of the little boy’s upper arm. Under 11.5 cm. He’s in the danger zone. And that means he’s eligible for aid – along with the rest of his family. And he survives.

In all of the places Vibeke Brix Christiansen has been stationed, she has seen with her own eyes how much damage malnutrition does to children. And no treatment was available for children who were ‘only’ moderately malnourished. They suffered and got sick, and there was nowhere they could turn for help. So Christensen decided to do something about it. She contacted internationally recognised experts in nutrition in Denmark and abroad, and together they created the Treatfood project. She and a large team of researchers developed a recipe for a simple, cheap food supplement for the millions of children in the world who suffer from moderate acute malnutrition (MAL).

“Sometimes I’ve encountered the attitude that I ought to choose between academic work and humanitarian work. But I have chosen, and I’ve chosen both,” Christensen said.

Piglets help children with heart disease

AU’s 2022 distinguished alum grew up in Varde, a small town in western Jutland, with her two brothers. Her father is a veterinarian, and her mother is an occupational therapist. After finishing her medical training at the University of Southern Denmark, she moved to Aarhus for her doctoral studies. She spent a lot of her time at AU in the basement under Skejby Hospital, where she and her 17-member team learned worked to improve pediatric cardiac surgery techniques by operating on piglets.

"At Aarhus University, I encountered a high degree of professionalism and decency in the approach to our work – both in relation to people and animals. The research I did back then formed an important foundation and is still with me today. My PhD programme also taught me the value of respectful teamwork and interdisciplinarity, and I’ve relied on these values a lot in my career,” she said.

Christensen highlighted her supervisor at AU, Professor Else Tønnesen, as an important mentor and collaborator. Tønnesen supported Christensen when she – the first doctor in Denmark to do so – got a clause included in her employment contract that allowed her to take leaves of absence to do humanitarian work in the field.

“It was unique that I was given that opportunity in Aarhus, and I’m very grateful for that,” she said.

All children are equally valuable

Christensen has worked in the field as part of the Doctors Without Borders team several times in Sierra Leone, Darfur and Afghanistan. She has always worked in teams along with other international volunteers, in close collaboration with the local population; interdisciplinarity and respectful collaboration are core values. The Treatfood project was carried out in Burkina Faso. It involved 1,609 children, and was motivated by a desire to change the international guidelines regarding treatment of children with moderate acute nutrition to allow those children’s needs to be met.

“For me, the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t stop at the Danish border. All children are equally valuable, and I’ve always had a drive to do something. I’m fortunate that life has dealt me some cards that I can use to help others. This is how I can make a difference for people in need,” she said.

In 2002, the Danish TV show ‘The examination table’ (Lægens bord) visited Christensen in Sierra Leone. In one scene, she has to get up in the middle of the night because a heavily pregnant 13-year-old girl with preeclampsia has arrived at the clinic with cramps. Dressed in a white t-shirt with the MSF logo and scrubs, she preps for surgery in the primitive, dimly lit operating theatre where there’s a huge moth fluttering around. The pregnant girl is in great pain when she’s brought into the theatre. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Everything will be fine,” Christensen says soothingly as she fills a syringe and administers anesthesia. The girl survives the birth, and delivers two girls by C-section - both of whom also survive. The wails of newborn babies fill the room.

“That is just the best sound right now,” Christensen says to the camera, her voice full of relief.

This story ended well. But there are many others that don’t.

The clock is ticking, the heart is beating

Christensen has seen a lot of women die in childbirth. She has seen children die of malnutrition, and she has seen children die of diseases that shouldn’t be life-threatening. And she’s seen people who’ve had arms, legs and genitals chopped off in the bloody civil war.

Although the organisation is called ‘Doctors Without Borders’, there are limits. For Christensen as well.

“You can’t help everyone. You have to be happy about the people you helped, and then hope that the people you didn’t help will still be there tomorrow. If you focus on everyone you couldn’t get to, you’ll burn out.”

“The most important thing is to not to become indifferent and forget the causes that are closest to your heart. And you also have to remember your duty to bear witness and speak out when you encounter injustice and inhumanity,” she said.

There’s a song by the local rock musician Steffen Brandt that’s helped her get through some of her darkest hours:

The clock is ticking

Your heart is beating

The whole world out of its mind

So do something

Run for your life

So make the most of your time

Love each other

Christensen actually looked Steffen Brandt up once to thank him for the lyrics that have meant so much to her. He was touched, and asked if there was anything he could do.

“That led to us doing a small, intimate concert at Klejtrup Musikefterskole, and I spoke about my work with Doctors Without Borders. It was a fantastic experience,” Christensen remembered.

The Executioner in Susanne Bier’s film The Revenge

One of the most powerful experiences Christensen told me about was the story of ‘the executioner’. In Sierra Leone, dying pregnant women were sometimes brought to Christensen’s clinic: their stomachs had been cut open by soldiers in the civil war, so they could guess the sex of the fetuses ‘for fun’. One man in particular was notorious for these mutilations: The Executioner.

One day, he came to the hospital himself, on death’s door because of a mutilated leg. The hospital’s local personnel just stood there. And confused thoughts flew through Christensen’s head: Would I be a kind of accomplice in the next murder if I save the Executioner now? Do I even want to help him?

“So then I said that we should get started. I had to hold on to the fact that I had sworn an oath to help anyone who needs care,” she said. It was this experience that provided the inspiration for a scene in Susanne Bier’s 2010 film The Revenge. In the film, however, the doctor, whose name is Anton (played by Mikael Persbrandt), decides not to treat the Executioner and turns him over to the local population.

So make the most of your time

Christensen has seen things on the front lines of the world’s conflict zones that no one should have to witness. She is particularly angered and saddened when seriously ill children don’t get the help they need. Perhaps because she works so closely with the sickest children – and their parents – in her ‘day job’ as a pediatrician at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen.

“Fortunately, we have a high standard of treatment in Denmark, and I draw on our collaboration across specialities, across departments and across the country in my clinical practice and in my research, both for children with liver conditions and in my work for Doctors Without Borders,” she stressed.

She hopes that her appointment as distinguished alum will send a message to AU’s current students: to stay true to the causes that are close to their hearts and use their skills where they make the greatest difference. The world needs engagement and passionate commitment:

“The Sustainable Development Goals set a clear course. But we have to act if we’re going to get there. So: Reach out. And do it with all your heart. Work together on the complex problems. So make the most of your time. So do something.”

2021: Bent Hansen

You have to dare to think big

He describes himself as a rather atypical student. But Aarhus University changed his life. Meet Bent Hansen, Aarhus University’s 2021 distinguished alumnus: a graduate who has played a decisive role in the Danish healthcare system and has fostered close collaboration between AU and Aarhus University Hospital.

It’s 1970. History student Bent Hansen is on his way to class when he sees a flock of students demonstrating in front of Stakladen. He notices that several of them have long hair and were wearing blue coveralls. The same kind of coveralls Bent’s father wears to work on the railway in his home town, Them.

“I thought: What are they up to? They should be concentrating on their studies instead. I wasn’t at all political in my student days. That didn’t come until later,” remembered Bent Hansen, former chair of the Central Denmark Region council and this year’s Distinguished Aarhus University Alumnus.

We met the 72-year-old Bent Hansen in a classic Aarhus University yellow-brick building at the intersection of Nørrebrogade and Ringgaden – where he appeared completely at home. Not only did he study here; he’s been here many times since he graduated with a Master’s degree in history and social science in 1976. For a boy from a working class family in provincial Them, attending university wasn’t exactly in the cards. His mother, Nicoline Hansen, who managed the train station, had encouraged him to attend upper secondary school, and after he graduated, she wanted him to get an apprenticeship at the post office.

“But I’d gotten a taste of something else. I wanted to continue. And my time at Aarhus University was fantastic. My life gained a new dimension; the world opened up,” Hansen said, smiling broadly.

A life without blue coveralls
Hansen’s decision to read history at AU was motivated by a genuine interest in the subject and an inspiring history teacher. But it wasn’t until he he took a supplementary subject in social science that he found his true passion.

“The history programme was a bit laissez faire. Then I came over to social science, where we were immediately assigned to groups and given a programme. Just! like! that!” Bent Hansen punctuated his words by rapping the table so hard the coffee cups rattled.

“I liked that. I suppose I was a rather atypical student who didn’t participate so much in the parties and social life. My focus was on academics, and my goal in my studies was to move away from my father’s blue coveralls. I wanted to prove to myself and to my parents that I could do this,” Hansen explained. After graduation, he worked for a time as a teaching assistant in modern Danish history at the Department of Political Science before becoming an upper secondary teacher at Viborg Katedralskole.

Quality is more important than bricks and mortar
Hansen’s political career began in the early ‘80s. One day, there was a knock on the door of his home Kjellerup. It was Ernst, the local metalworker. He wanted to encourage the history teacher to stand for election to the county council for the Social Democrats, who needed a candidate. 33-year-old Hansen, who was chair of the local badminton club and a member of the boards of his children’s daycare institutions, took up the challenge – and was elected.

“My platform was saving the local hospital in Kjellerup. But I quickly realised that this was a short-sighted agenda. To achieve high-quality care, it was necessary to clean up,” he said. He went on to close a number of small hospitals across the region and centralise the medical specialisations at the remaining hospitals – for which he was strongly criticised.

“I believe that in the healthcare system, we have to focus on the quality of care rather than bricks and mortar. That saves lives. You have to dare to think big,” he explained.

Streamlining public health care
Thinking big has certainly paid off for Hansen, who can now look back on an illustrious political career: he served as chair of the Viborg County Council, chair of Central Denmark Region and chair of Danish Regions. He spearheaded processes aimed at streamlining public health care delivery and left his mark on modern Danish public health policy. Hansen is perhaps best known for a number of large hospital construction projects, including Aarhus University Hospital, which has been named the best university hospital in Denmark for the thirteenth time. Hansen also played an important role in bringing the first Danish centre for particle radiotherapy, an advanced form of radiation therapy for cancer, to Aarhus in 2012. Today, the National Centre for Particle Radiotherapy at Aarhus University excels in integrating research into clinical practice, in close collaboration with Aarhus University.

“The collaboration between the university and the region is unique. Aarhus University and the university hospital are closely linked, and they strengthen one another,” Hansen said.

You have to draw a line in the sand
Hansen stepped down as chair of the regional council in 2018. In addition to spending time with his large family and playing badminton at Højbjerg Badmintonklub, he is still working full-time in his capacity as member of numerous boards. He is chair of the board of the Port of Grenaa and the government’s ‘ghetto representative’ for Central Denmark Region and North Denmark Region. The former top politician is still committed to public service.

“Fundamentally, I suppose it’s about making a difference and meaning something to someone. I’ve always enjoyed leading the way. Discussing things back and forth is fine, but at some point you have to draw a line in the sand. Otherwise we’ll never get anywhere.”

All three of Bent Hansen’s children are graduates of Aarhus University. And this year, his grandchild is following in their – and his – footsteps in the yellow-brick buildings. This year’s distinguished alum is happy about that:

“Aarhus University expands your horizon and makes you a whole person.”

Distinguished Alumni 2008-2020

2020: Due to Covid-19 a distinguished alumnus was not found in 2020

2019: Marianne Dahl

2018: Ulrik Federspiel

2017: Niels Due Jensen

2016: Anne Thomassen

2015: Sten Scheibye

2014: Jørgen Vig Knudstorp

2013: Jens Erik Sørensen

2012: Birgit Storgaard Madsen

2011: Lene Hau

2010: Nils Smedegaard Andersen

2009: Anders Fogh Rasmussen

2008: His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik