'Life opened its doors to me’

As a teenager, Lone Frank was a lone wolf – but at Aarhus University, she felt like she belonged. Today one of Denmark’s leading science communicators, she started out on a research career path before switching to journalism.

Lone Frank

  • Born 1966
  • MSc in biology from Aarhus University in 1992
  • PhD in neurobiology in 1996
  • Has been a science journalist for Weekendavisen since 1998
  • Has published six books, worked as a radio and TV host, made documentaries and is a popular public speaker
  • Has received a variety of awards, including Den Store Publicistpris, Dansk Forfatterforenings Faglitterære Pris, Blixen Prisen for Faglitteratur and European Science Writer’s Award

It’s the middle of the night,outside a cabin in a forest somewhere in Jutland. It’s the orientation week camping trip, and a group of new biology students new students is hanging out together, drinking beer under the stars.  Lone Frank was one of them. At some point, one of her fellow students looked over at her and uttered a sentence that’s still etched in her brain so many years later: “I really like you. I think you should transfer to our our class.”

“When this happened, I experienced an acceptance and a feeling of being included that I had never really felt before. I was an introverted lone wolf as a teenager, and then when I started the biology programme at Aarhus University I met some people I felt I was compatible with. Who had the same sense of humor and need for freedom. For me, my student days were an experience of life opening it doors and letting me in,” said science journalist and author Lone Frank.

No more homework
Lone Frank described her high school days at Amtsgymnasiet in Odder as a dull continuation of primary school. So the transition to the more independent academic culture of the university felt like a liberation.

“The academic environment was nothing like ‘going to school’. You weren’t assigned homework. There were lectures, exercises and a syllabus, but you decided when to read it. You could also decide not to – or you could read more. Finally, I had self-determination. I could make my own rules, and that was a revelation,” Lone Frank said.

While she took her studies seriously, the social aspect played a major role. The study group that was also a party group. The Friday bar. The many hours in Matematisk Kantine with the legendarily enormous servings of dirt-cheap meatballs with red cabbage. Lone Frank still remembers which fantastic nerdy scientist types hung out in the different corners of the canteen. And how she started seriously considering becoming one of them.

“What attracted me was the prospect of being able to stay at the university for ever, as well as my love of exploring fundamental questions in biology,” she said.

From plant roots to a PhD
Lone Frank got a student job at the Department of Biology, stripping little nodules off plant roots in a lab together with another student. Their hands flew as they stripped the tiny nodules off the plants and dumped them into vats of liquid nitrogen. After the nodules had soaked in the nitrogen for awhile, scientists could study the nitrogen-fixing bacteria they contained. This student job was Lone Frank’s introduction to the world of research. She went on to develop a particular interest in neurobiology, and so she decided to do her MSc thesis at the Department of Neuropathology at the University of Copenhagen.

“That’s where I discovered how fantastic Aarhus University is. There wasn’t really a close-knit academic environment at the University of Copenhagen; people worked at a bunch of different places, and I missed the sense of belong I had in Aarhus. I realized how important that had actually been, and I’m very grateful that the main balance of my university career took place at AU,” she said.

Research is the common thread
Lone Frank received a PhD from Odense University (now the University of Southern Denmark) in 1996. Back then, a PhD in neurobiology didn’t open a lot of doors, and after a brief and not particularly memorable stint at a patent office, she began working at the national newspaper Weekendavisen as a freelance journalist before going on to become a full-time staff writer.

“During my doctoral studies in the States, I started writing short articles for Danish newspapers, and I realized that I enjoyed the writing a lot more than the lab work,” she said.

Since then, Lone Frank has written several books, TV programs and podcasts about science. Research is the common thread linking the stages of her career, although she chose not to pursue a research career herself.

“I’m interested in the big picture questions about research – how research develops the way we perceive ourselves and the world. My fundamental interest is in understanding humankind and the world – and telling other people about that. That’s what I’ll be working with for the rest of my life,” she said.

Lone Frank often draws on her own life in her work. For example, in her podcast series ‘No one loves Lone Frank’, she uses examples from her own life to explore the nature of love. Or as in the award-winning book ‘My beautiful genome’, which documents her quest to learn as much as possible about her own genetic heritage.

“People often tell me that they understand research better when I include examples from my own life. So they can see themselves in that and allow themselves to get drawn in. But I don’t include sensational private details for their own sake; it has to be relevant to the larger story. It has to be there for a reason,” she said.

Just a journalist?
Lone Frank draws heavily on her scientific training in her work as a journalist.

“When you interview researchers, it’s invaluable to have an insider’s understanding of their world. I’m constantly drawing on knowledge from my degree in biology, which has given me deep insight into everything that has to do with life. So when people say to me: ‘Imagine doing an entire PhD just to become a journalist’, I tell them that I don’t regret it for a single second. It’s been completely worth it.