The winners of the 2018 Aarhus University Research Foundation PhD Award

Five Research Talents Receive PhD Prize

Here you can read about a series of sensational research results produced by this year’s winners of the Aarhus University Research Foundation PhD Prize.

By Filip Graugaard Esmarch

This year is the 16th time the research foundation presents a group of prize winners, who in their unique ways have conducted research of an extremely high quality. The five PhDs each receive DKK 50,000 in recognition of their research and communication hereof.

Together the university and research foundation have selected the best suited candidates. And not just their theses are considered remarkable; on a general level, the committee has also taken into consideration the way the prize winners have completed their research training.

This year the group includes a psychologist, a physisist, a biomedical researcher, a doctor and a software artist. They have contributed with new knowledge on digital distraction in the classroom, one-dimensional quantum mechanical systems, musculoskeletal disorders, the prevalence of the disease shingles and liveness within computer culture.

Facts About the PhD Prize

  • The Aarhus University Research Foundation instituted its annual PhD Prize in connection with the university’s 75th anniversary in 2003.
  • Based on recommendations from the main academic areas the Aarhus University graduate schools recommends a number of candidates for the prize, before the senior management team and the research foundation make the final recommendation.
  • All recipients have completed their PhD project in the previous year, in this case in 2017.

Winnie Soon


With her thesis ‘Executing Liveness – An examination of the live dimension of code interactions in software (art) practice’ Winnie Soon has introduced valuable methods for studying the meeting between art practice and technology.

As a PhD student Winnie Soon contributed to the development of a new conceptual framework within the relatively new humanities disciplines digital aesthetics and software studies – in the cross field between art and technology.

‘I have developed a framework for analysing the concept liveness within computer culture, that is, what it means that something is live and how it is perceived. The analytical framework consists of three dimensions: unpredictability, micro-temporality and automation’.

Unique to Winnie Soon’s PhD project is the fact that she has asserted herself not just as a researcher, but also as a software artist – with close ties between the two worlds, though.

‘In this way my contribution is also methodological. It is a form of practice-based research that incorporates both artistic practice and programming in a new way of understanding techno-cultural systems’, says Winnie Soon.

Winnie Soon is from Hong Kong, but she continues to live in Aarhus, now as an assistant professor affiliated to the university’s research unit for Digital Aesthetics and Culture at the Department of Digital Design and Information Studies.

Toke Jost Isaksen


Using mice tests Toke Isaksen has localised a defect in the sodium-potassium pump found in brain cells. The discovery may affect future treatment of neurological disorders.

During his PhD studies Biomedical Researcher Toke Isaksen helped take an important step with regard to using mice as test animals in research into neurological disorders.

‘I visited a laboratory at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, which was in the process of developing a new electrophysiological measuring technique. It enabled me to measure neurons in the mice’s cerebellum, while the animal showed certain symptoms in a waking state’, Toke Isaksen explains.

A significant contribution on his part was the development and validation of the genetically manipulated mice that had arrived from Aarhus. Tove Isaksen and his research group at the AU Department of Biomedicine were aware of a connection between serious musculoskeletal diseases and a genetic mutation that appeared to be able to ruin the function of the sodium-potassium pump in the neurons in the brain. And to do detailed studies of this connection, mice tests were necessary.

Toke Isaksen learned that in mice with a defect sodium-potassium pump the pattern of the electrical discharging in the cerebellum’s so-called Purkinje cells was markedly different from the pattern found in healthy mice. There is no available treatment for patients with sodium-potassium pump mutations, but Toke Isaksen’s fundamental research may bring us one step closer to developing such treatment.

Sigrún Alba Jóhannesdóttir Schmidt


Sigrún Schmidt has developed a new method for studying the slightly mysterious and very uncomfortable disease shingles. The theory that it may be caused by stressed must be abandoned provisionally.

So far the prevalence of the skin disease shingles in Denmark has been unknown, as general practitioners are not obligated to report cases of the disease, and therefore only the worst cases, the ones that result in hospitalisation, are recorded directly, Doctor Sigrún Schmidt explains.

As part of her PhD project she did extensive register-based studies, and she learned that by studying prescription databases it is in fact possible with great accuracy to outline the prevalence of the disease in the population.

Among other things, her results showed that around 190,000 Danes suffered from shingles in the period 1997-2013. A weakening of the immune system can increase the risk of shingles, but the disease is also found among healthy individuals. Sigrún Schmidt would therefore like to know more about what triggers the disease.

‘Mental stress is said to increase the risk, but it is something we knew very little about. Therefore, it was interesting to examine whether the disease was more pronounced among people who has lost a spouse – which of course is one of the most stressful experience you can have’, says Sigrún Schmidt.

To her surprise, her studies showed no connection, even though they involved more than 150,000 Danish shingles patients and a similar number of British.

Amin Salami Dehkharghani


Amin Dehkharghani has helped lay the groundwork for understanding one-dimensional quantum systems. It may greatly affect future technology.

During his PhD studies the Dane Amin Dehkharghani immersed himself in a particular corner of quantum mechanics: particle behaviour in a one-dimensional system.

‘Normally gas particles are able to move in three dimensions, and here they can easily slip past each other and are difficult to hold on to. But when they are caught in one dimension, they are forced to pass through each other and remain side by side’, Amin Dehkharghani explains.

Using a new theoretical model, he has made a significant contribution to our understanding of particle interaction and how they can be manipulated in one dimension.

‘Around 10 years ago researchers managed to create a one-dimensional condensate by “freezing” two of the dimensions, making the particles move in one direction only’, Amin Dehkharghani says.

Here theoretical physicists fell short. There were no formulas for describing the particles’ interaction and behaviour in one dimension. But Amin Dehkharghani managed to find an analytical solution to the so-called Schrödinger equation to this type of system. It provides theoretical understanding, which may prove priceless to future quantum technologists seeking to manipulate the building blocks of nature and produce new types of materials.

Jesper Aagaard


Jesper Aagaard has used a post-phenomenological conceptual framework as a basis for studies into digital educational aids and young people’s technology habits.

When Psychologist Jesper Aagaard worked as a student instructor while completing his Master’s degree programme, he sometimes had to compete with Facebook for the attention of the otherwise very disciplined students of psychology. Now his PhD project has contributed to a more detailed understanding of the dynamics at play in such situations.

‘When educational psychology researchers have addressed technology in the classroom critically, focus has so far been on multitasking. It is a concept that I have taken a rather critical approach to. I prefer talking about distraction’, he says.

So far focus on this distinction has been limited. Therefore, Jesper Aagaard has developed a conceptual framework for digital distraction. In that context he draws not least on the philosophical thinking of post-phenomenology.

On this basis Jesper Aagaard conducted three empirical studies in the form of participant observation and qualitative interviews, respectively, among students in an upper secondary school class. The studies reveal quite a lot about the alluring power social media in particular can have, and why technology habits can affect the quality of both learning and social interaction.