The winners of the 2021 Aarhus University Research Foundation PhD Award

Honour Bestowed on a Handful of New Researchers

The Aarhus University Research Foundation presents PhD Awards to young researchers with an extraordinary talent. This year, the awards will be presented for the 19th time. 

By Filip Graugaard Esmarch

Five talented researchers set to receive Aarhus University Research Foundation’s PhD Award for their PhD projects from 2020. They have all attracted particular attention, both with their results and the way in which they have communicated their findings. The five researchers each receive DKK 50,000 in recognition of their research.

Each of Aarhus University’s five faculties have nominated a number of their new research talents for the award, and then Aarhus University PhD programme management (ed.) has prioritised the nominations to make sure that all faculties are represented. The assessment criteria have been the excellent quality of the actual thesis and the general efforts of the candidates during the PhD programme. 

This year the following academic proficiencies have received the award: a Biologist, an Assyriologist, a Doctor, an Economist and a Geologist. They have contributed fascinating knowledge about the reduction of nutrients from agriculture, stories about authors in Babylonian antiquity, treatment of patients with cardiac arrest, risky health behaviours among teenage girls and methods for carbon dating without macrofossils. All five award recipients continue their research, four of them as postdocs or assistant professors.

Facts about the PhD Award

  • Aarhus University Research Foundation established its annual PhD Award in connection with the university’s 75th anniversary in 2003.
  • Based on recommendations from the faculties, Aarhus University’s Talent Committee nominates a number of candidates after which the University Management and Research Foundation make the final nomination.
  • All recipients have completed their PhD the previous year, in this case in 2020.


Sophus Helle


Sophus Helle has found new ways to study the history of the concept of authorship. In ancient Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, the concept of a personified author arose.

The world’s first known author was the Sumerian princess Enheduana. She lived around 2300 BC in ancient Iraq. However, the oldest preserved clay tablets with Enheduana’s dramatic hymns to the capricious goddess Inana are from 4-500 years after the author’s death.

Philologist have therefore been wanting to find out whether the texts are actually Enheduana’s own or whether they have just been ascribed to her. Because unlike characters such as Homer from ancient Greek literature, Enheduana is without a doubt a historical person. Those are the words of Sophus Helle, who provides an alternative approach in his thesis.

“I have reconsidered the very way of studying the history of the concept of authorship. When studying pre-modern cultures, you often come across methodological problems if you become too focused on the real human being behind the literary works. Ancient literature was created in a more collaborative and gradual manner,” says Sophus Helle.

A new explanatory framework
Using his own methodology, he focuses on the stories or myths told about an author in Babylonian and Assyrian cultures. So far, research has tended to disregard such stories about authors as historically unreliable.

“Instead, I look at them and see what they tell about people’s way of viewing literature. I am not the first to introduce such a methodological approach, but I refine some of the methods which can then be applied for research,” Sophus Helle adds.

In his subsequent historical studies of the stories about the authors, he shows how these are often related to a reinterpretation of older and unfamiliar texts.

“For example, the original culture or context, in which the work was written, may have been lost. In that case, the stories can be used to explain where the work comes from and how it can make sense.”

Building bridges between disciplines
With his degree in Assyriology from University of Copenhagen, Sophus Helle was a stranger when he became a PhD student at comparative literary studies in Aarhus. In his studies, he has used his interdisciplinary position to build bridges. A comprehensive list of publications testify that he is well on his way towards his goal of establishing conversation between comparative literature and Assyriology.

“As a subject, Assyriology has been rather unapproachable. So, much of what I do is about providing interesting information about Assyriology, both to an academic and a wider audience,” Sophus Helle explains.

Most recently, he has also translated Enheduana’s main work Queen of all powers from cuneiform into both Danish and English, and along with his PhD studies he published, in collaboration with his father, the poet Morten Søndergaard, a critically acclaimed Danish translation of the best known epic from the Babylonian world, Gilgamesh.

Sophus Helle now continues his studies in an international postdoc project where he will be investigating interdisciplinary connections between philology, comparative literature and translation theory. 

See video with Sophus (in Danish)

Eva Rye Johansen


Can data from national health registers be used to identify inadequately discussed causes and consequences of teenagers’ risky health behaviours? Yes, if, as Economist Eva Rye Johansen, you specialise in applied microeconometrics, that is, finding statistical methods for processing data about the behaviour of individuals.

“I have used statistics of Danish women born between November 1981 and February 1992. In addition to information about school start, I have looked at data for alcohol poisonings, abortions, births and treatment for chlamydia. The data show that the age of the girls when they start school has an influence on their risky health behaviour when they reach their teens,” Eva Rye Johansen summarises.

In her PhD project, she has compared large groups of girls of nearly the same age, who were born shortly before and shortly after the turn of a year, and who have therefore started at different grades. Her studies show that girls who start school early, also start drinking and having sex at a relatively younger age. However, Eva Rye Johansen’s analyses also reveal that the group of girls starting school early have a slightly higher risk of having an induced abortion when they are 15-20 years old, in fact 36% higher than the average. And they also have an increased risk of getting alcohol poisoning, which happens 58% more frequently than the average.

Research and politics
This is not the time or place to describe immediate results and methodical design. However, Eva Rye Johansen’s results are a good example of how the rather unique Danish register data can be used in a way that resonates with the research community – her sole authored article has been published in the leading international Journal of Health Economics.

At the same time, her findings show how microeconometrics can contribute valuable knowledge in the preparation of efforts or policies in relation to social issues.

“For example, you may have a political objective that 15-year-olds should drink less or that fewer 18-year-olds should become pregnant. However, perhaps focus should instead be on the grade they are in,” Eva Rye Johansen suggests.

Focus on family economy
The two other chapters in her PhD thesis have been co-authored with two other researchers, and they look into the consequences of teenage pregnancies.

“First we show that becoming a teen parent has negative consequences for both the mother and the father. It may also be useful if a policy in the area would not only support the young mothers but also the fathers.

The last chapter focuses on the consequences for the children. It seems that the young age of the parents is not the only reason why the children do not do well but that a number of other factors are also involved,” says Eva Rye Johansen.

She now continues her research as an assistant professor at Aarhus University where she uses microeconometrics to study causes of social inequality.   

See video with Eva (in Danish)

Mathias Johan Holmberg


With his PhD project, Mathias Johan Holmberg has contributed with new insight into the prevalence and treatment of cardiac arrest.

Mathias Holmberg became interested in cardiac arrest in hospitalised patients when, as a medical student, he spent his research year at a hospital linked to Harvard Medical School in Boston. During his research year, he realised that very little knowledge existed about the acute and unexpected condition cardiac arrest, which is a difficult research area due to the high mortality rate.

“No strong evidence exists for many of the treatments we offer at hospitals. However, after graduating as doctor I returned to the hospital in Boston to take a PhD as part of a Danish-American collaboration,” explains Mathias Holmberg.

He started by studying the prevalence of cardiac arrest in hospitals. In the USA, such data are not available in national registers. However, by using sophisticated statical methods, he successfully estimated the number of patients suffering cardiac arrest in American hospitals to be just less than 300,000 patients per year. This number is significantly higher than previously assumed, and his findings are therefore frequently quoted by others.

Means for resuscitation
Mathias Holmberg then went on to study some of the drugs used for resuscitation attempts. 2010 saw atropine removed from the international guidelines for treatment of cardiac arrest. However, no thorough studies have been conducted as to whether its exclusion was warranted.

“We applied some statistical methods that were much more complex than those that had previously been applied. Our study shows that the use of atropine is not linked to higher survival rates, which supports the current recommendations. In the third study, we collected a vast amount of knowledge about the well-known use of adrenaline. The use of adrenaline has been surrounded by some controversy because it was believed that, although it might be efficient for resuscitation, it also seemed to lead to higher rates of brain damage,” explains Mathias Holmberg.

However, based on his meta-analysis, he is convinced that he can eliminate this concern. The study was commissioned by the international organisation that makes the guidelines in the area. And Mathias Holmberg co-authored the guidelines for both 2019 and 2020.

Prevention and reduction
In his thesis, Mathias Holmberg also presents a study where 48 patients suffering from cardiac arrest were given ubiquinol, which in a previous scientific study had been shown to improve survival rates and reduce the brain damage caused during cardiac arrest.

“The drug can only be administered orally in the form of a liquid. However, in our initial study, it did not seem to be absorbed by the body via that route. The primary purpose of the study was therefore to study it further, and we succeeded in showing that ubiquinol actually can be absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract,” says Mathias Holmberg.

Unfortunately, it did not appear to have the same positive effect as described in the old study.

After completing his PhD, Mathias Holmberg has divided his work between clinical work and research, and he is planning to keep it that way.  

See video with Mathias (in Danish)

Astrid Strunk


Astrid Strunk has reconstructed how the Ice Sheet in Northern Greenland reacts to climate change. She has also improved some of the methods for carbon dating.

When geologist Astrid Strunk started on her PhD project, her main objective was to reconstruct the movements of the Greenland Ice Sheet in parts of Northern Greenland. There were still some blank spots on the geological world map. And being a practical-oriented explorer, she went on polar expeditions, collected bedrock and lake bed samples only to stumble upon a problem.

“When you estimate the age of sediments on a lake bed, you normally date them using macrofossils, particularly plant residue visible to the naked eye. Only, there are no plants in Northern Greenland, making it harder to date sediments. So, I started looking for microfossils, plant residue the size of sand grains or smaller,” explains Astrid Strunk.

In that way, her project evolved into also dealing with method improvement. By including knowledge from other fields, she discovered that she was actually able to refine the methods quite substantially when it came to carbon dating the so-called bulk samples, or to put it in layman terms: a spoonful of mud from the lake bed.

Eliminating the sources of error
“When you lack macrofossils to date, you will typically date the content of the entire bulk sample. However, this produces a very inaccurate result since the carbon dating represented by the sample is a mix of all its particles,” explains Astrid Strunk, and continues:

“So, I started looking at where the carbon in my samples came from. Did it come from 10,000 year-old plants which were the desired goal of my dating efforts? Or was it 100,000 year-old humus that would make my sample seem older than when the sediment was actually deposited?”

In her thesis, she presents a set of methods that to a large extent makes it possible to eliminate the sources of error. To reach that far, she had to apply geophysics, biology and computer modelling. In future, new methods may become widely used.

“The issue of having no ideal fossils to date, i.e. macrofossils, is not just something you encounter when you research the North Greenland Ice Cap. You might as well encounter it as a biologist in Venezuela or as an archaeologist in Africa. They will also be able to use these methods”, says Astrid Strunk.

The ice is melting rapidly
By applying these and other methods, she successfully mapped past ice movements in a part of Northern Greenland. By looking at how much and how fast the ice melted after the last Ice Age, you can estimate how the ice will melt during the current global warming. And regrettably Astrid Strunk has some bad news for those hoping for a modest rise in sea levels.

“The computer models that have previously been used for Northern Greenland turned out to underestimate the melting. I found that the ice was actually larger than previously assumed and had melted much faster than anticipated,” she explains.

Astrid Strunk currently works in a postdoc position at the Danish National Museum, where she reconstructs the Southern Greenland climate during the Viking Age.  

See video with Astrid (in Danish)

Mette Vodder Carstensen


Mette Vodder Carstensen researched how to use drainage systems as a buffer between fields and streams to avoid nutrients from the fields ending up in nature. 

Danish agriculture is undergoing a transition to ensure less leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous from fields into streams. However, it can be difficult to find suitable solutions among the means currently available. In her PhD project, biologist Mette Vodder Christensen has studied how to expand the range of drainage systems and increase their multifunctionality.

“Many of Denmark’s natural wetlands that serve as the kidneys of the landscape have been eliminated. They have a natural ability to remove nutrients. At the same time, around half of Danish agricultural land has subsurface drainage pipes that serve as a motorway for the nutrients into the streams. However, using drainage systems as ponds, you can replicate the filter function of natural wetlands,” explains Mette Vodder Carstensen.

So far, Denmark has only approved two types of drainage systems, however, new systems are being tested to give the farmers better opportunities to select solutions that match the specific landscape. This is where Mette Vodder Carstensen has contributed with research studies of a new type of system called intelligent buffer zones.

Versatile methods
Part of the secret behind the drainage systems is the natural presence of denitrifying bacteria that convert nitric nitrogen in the water into nitrogen gas. However, the drainage systems also pose some challenges:

“Under deoxidised conditions, the denitrifying bacteria in the drainage systems are able to breathe using nitrogen, which is thus removed from the water. However, when the nitrogen is gone, the bacteria start using other substances to breathe, which will ultimately lead to the formation of methane. In addition, inadequate denitrification can lead to the production of nitrous oxide,” explains Mette Vodder Carstensen.

A large part of her project involved describing these challenges through work that covered comprehensive literature studies of new statistical methods and more detailed measurements of greenhouse-gas emissions in the field and programming in front of the screen.

Negative side effects
A key objective is naturally to design the drainage systems to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases as much as possible, while achieving satisfactory nitrogen removal at the same time.

“This can for instance be done by avoiding too long retention times during summer so as to avoid creating conditions in which methane-forming bacteria thrive,” says Mette Vodder Carstensen.

When selecting and designing drainage systems in the future, you will need to consider a multitude of aspects, and this is where Mette Vodder Carstensen’s results can be used. And that is also why she has focused on phosphorous, biomass and biodiversity. She did her PhD as part of the Nordic Center of Excellence Biowater financed by Nordforsk, where she is still doing research as a postdoc with focus on the green transition to bioeconomy in the Nordic region.   

See video with Mette (in Danish)