Aarhus University Seal

”A 15-ton scientific problem!”

Peter Teglberg Madsen is professor with special responsibilities (MSO) at Aarhus University and one of Denmark’s leading experts on whales. He considers it crucial for students to have close contact with the latest research and to try their hand at doing research themselves during their studies at Aarhus University. So when he examined two beached sperm whales at Henne Beach on the west coast of Jutland last spring, he invited his students along as a matter of course.

“Peter Teglberg probably knows more about sperm whales than anyone else in Denmark, so of course having the chance to explore the whale’s insides with him was a truly educational and inspiring experience. The theory just falls into place when you’re suddenly standing there holding it in your hands. It’s just something totally different than studying a diagram and reading about it,” explains PhD student Michael Ladegaard.
“We examined the head in particular to expose the organs that are involved in echolocation and sound production. When you’ve been sitting and ploughing through article after article the way I have, it’s just fantastic to get a chance to see it all in reality and quite literally hold it in your hands,” says Emil Munck Schrøder, who is writing his Master’s thesis on echolocation in toothed whales.
PhD student Michael Ladegaard with a few of the many octopus beaks found in the sperm whale’s stomach.

Peter Teglberg Madsen:
“Good university teaching sparks students’ curiosity and their desire to explore. Our job is to develop independent students who dare to think for themselves. That’s why it’s so important that our degree programmes to have a close connection to research. And that we draw on contemporary research and show the students how dynamic research is and draw their attention to the many exciting aspects that we don’t fully understand yet. For example, how exactly a sperm whale uses its enormous nose to produce the clicking sounds that it uses when echolocating.”

“One of the biggest hurdles we have when new biology students start on the biology course is that they believe that we already know everything, and that they have no chance of discovering something new themselves. They’re used to truth as something that’s in a book and that couldn’t be otherwise. So it’s just incredible to be able to take the students to Henne Beach and show them a gigantic beached sperm whale and point to it’s huge head and say: ‘Here’s a 15-ton scientific problem! Because we actually have no idea how this works.”

“Of course, the students could also just read an article about it. But it’s just not the same. It always adds something to get your hands on things – and in the case of a dead sperm whale, to get the thing up your nose and on your clothes. To see research in action and get to try your hand at it. This applies both when we do experiments in the lab, and when we dissect a 15-ton sperm whale nose.”

"It was science happening right now. It was incredibly inspiring to be a part of it. A reminder of what it’s all about, and why research is so fascinating."
Emil Munck Schrøder