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Meet research talent and cancer researcher Nicolai Juul Birkbak

Associate Professor, PhD and molecular biologist Nicolai Juul Birkbak from the Department of Clinical Medicine almost grew up in a laboratory, and he never doubted that he would pursue a career in research. Now, he receives the faculty's most prestigious award, the Jens Christian Skou Award 2020.

When Nicolai Birkbak describes how he ended up doing research, it almost sounds as if he already had a career plan laid out even as a young biology student. But in reality, a hodgepodge of events, a readiness to travel abroad and three senior researchers had a decisive influence on the newly appointed Skou award winner Nicolai Juul Birkbak's career and success.

Father was one of three key sources of inspiration

"Having a father who is also a researcher means it’s not a complete coincidence that I’ve ended up where I am. He has always spoken passionately about his work and been fascinated by solving mysteries via research, and that’s rubbed off on me. As far back as I can remember, he let me join him in the laboratory and look over his shoulder while he studied cells under the microscope," says Nicolai Juul Birkbak of his father Henrik Leffers, who has now retired from his research work at Rigshospitalet.

The other two sources of inspiration are Nicolai Juul Birkbak’s PhD supervisor at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby, Zoltan Szallasi, and his former research director at University College London, Charles Swanton.

"Zoltan Szallasi opened his network to me, and that’s been crucial for my career. It was through him that I made contact with Charles Swanton, who is now one of the world's leading researchers within our common research area and a good friend and collaborator. Both Zoltan and Charlie have always had great confidence in my abilities – at times more than I’ve had. They are visionary, skilled at making things happen, and they have let me explore and take on challenges. I'll always be grateful for that," says Nicolai Juul Birkbak.

Will revolutionise cancer treatment

Nicolai Juul Birkbak is fascinated by evolution in general, and the focal point of his research is cancer evolution.

"How does a cell turn into this malignant creature that kills you? That’s a question I really want to be able to answer. It's incredibly complex, but it's no coincidence that it happens. There's a system in it which is what fascinates me," he says about the research that at times almost engulfs him.

The goal is to understand how cancer develops, so that treatment is directed at what the tumour becomes rather than at the snapshot we see right now, e.g. via a needle biopsy of the growing tumour.

"The cancer changes all the time and therefore often develops resistance to our medicine. So roughly speaking, what we need to do is treat what’s going to happen instead of what is already in the past. We’re continually attempting to transfer as much as possible from the research to the treatment of patients, and right now our focus is on supplementing needle biopsies with blood samples, so we get a better picture of the entire tumour’s biology and not just a picture of what it looks like where we stick the needle in,” Nicolai Juul Birkbak explains.
"Ideally, these blood samples will one day replace the tissue samples completely, but incorporating all the details is still complicated, because blood samples only contain small amounts of cancer DNA. But with improved analytical methods and sequencing methods, we’re continually pushing the limits of how much information we can extract from the blood samples, so I’m certain that what we’re doing now will end up revolutionising the treatment of cancer as we know it today.”

From Lyngby to Boston to London and home again

Nicolai Juul Birkbak has been on several research stays abroad, firstly in Boston and later in London. When asked what he would recommend other aspiring early career researchers to do, he does not hesitate.

"Go abroad! That’s my best advice and the best thing I did personally. It's also the most important thing I've done. I've worked with some of the most talented researchers in the world, and I've had fun and worked hard. I’ve gained an invaluable international network and brought a lot of real-life experience home with me," says Nicolai Juul Birkbak, who has taken his family – wife Susanne and their three children – along on his research stays abroad.

Unique talent and a generous role model

Nicolai Juul Birkbak has a reputation for generously sharing his knowledge and his network with early career researchers and other research directors.

"Nicolai has a positive influence on our research environment. He’s a natural role model for the junior researchers and helps to advance the level of expertise in the department he is affiliated with. On top of that, Nicolai's network is so large and has so many branches that several of his colleagues have already benefited from it with successful funding applications and promising new research collaborations," says Vice-dean for Research Hans Erik Bøtker.

Thought the recommendation was a waste of time

Nicolai Juul Birkbak was sceptical when Department Head Jørgen Frøkiær from the Department of Clinical Medicine asked him for an updated CV so he could recommend him for the Skou award.

"I thought, okay, why not? But also that it was a waste of time, because that's an award I'll never be considered for. The previous award winners are people with impressive merits. These are big shoes to fill," says a proud award winner.

"Academically, it's a big pat on the back. I don't really feel worthy and I think it’ll first really hit me that I’ve received the Skou award when I’m standing in the lecture theatre ready to hold my celebration address. This is a big deal for me.”


Associate Professor & PhD Nicolai Juul Birkbak
Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicine and
Aarhus University Hospital, Department of Molecular Medicine
Mobile: (+45) 25 39 47 79
Email: nbirkbak@clin.au.dk

Vice-dean for Research Hans Erik Bøtker
Aarhus University, Health
Mobile: (+45) 40 29 33 89
Email: boetker@au.dk