Aarhus University Research Foundation's PhD Awards

Honour Bestowed on a Handful of New Researchers

PhD prizes conferred for the 20th time

By Filip Graugaard Esmarch

AUFF’s talent prizes recognise newly minted PhD graduates whose work in their fields and their presentation of it has received extraordinary recognition. Each prize-winner receives a cash award of 50,000 kroner in recognition of their achievements.

Candidates for the award are nominated by the faculties from among their new PhD graduates. A selection committee with representatives from Aarhus University and AUFF select the prize-winners from among the nominated candidates. In this connection, the committee considers the candidates’ performance over the course of their PhD studies, and not the dissertation alone.

This year, the awards will go to an anthropologist, a medical doctor, a psychologist, a theoretical chemist and a software engineer. Their work offers society valuable new knowledge on the value of reading groups for young people with mental health challenges:  the treatment of cardiac arrest at hospitals; emotional development in adults; the development of quantum chemistry methods; and efficient IoT data transfer. All five prize-winners are still involved in research: three in academic positions and two in research-based companies.

Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen


In Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen’s work, she uses the concept of ‘the poetic self’ to explore the sense of freedom and solace  reading fiction in groups gives young people with mental health challenges.

Using art to heal is an international trend that’s on the rise. In Denmark, the national reading association has an empowerment programme that offers young people with mental health issues a chance to participate in guided reading groups. Anthropologist Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen’s PhD project was based on fieldwork in this setting.

“Traditionally, archaeologists have often used literary stylistic devices in their descriptions. Despite this, there’s a lack of anthropological studies of how people actually use literature. So that was something I thought it might be exciting to explore empirically,” she said.

The guided reading group concept was developed by the Danish reading association’s English sister organisation, The Reader. Participants meet in groups of about eight with a guide and read texts out loud, first prose and then a poem. The group takes breaks to discuss the texts during the session. For 19 months, Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen studied reading groups as a participant-observer, as well as conducting interviews.

Untraditional methods

“Research-wise, it was a brilliant way of getting detailed insight into what goes on in people’s heads when they read a text. And because my angle on this is anthropological, I wanted to situate the reading experience and the meaning of these reading groups in the larger context of the participants’ lives, so we also went to cafés and other places together outside the reading group,” she explained.

Her fieldwork also led her to explore the category of ‘psychological vulnerability’ itself, for example how young people experience being labelled as ‘psychologically vulnerable’.  To do so, Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen drew on more experimental methods: “We did workshops where I worked with creative writing with some of these young people. Compared with a traditional interview, this was a more open way of exploring the questions: what can literature do, and how do young Danes experience psychological vulnerability.”

The poetic self

To understanding the dynamics of the reading groups, Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen developed the concept of ‘the poetic self’ , which can be understood as a counterweight to the classical anthropological concept of the ‘the narrative self’. A human life can be conceptualised in terms of a  literary narrative, a sequence of events linked by cause and effect; but it can also be understood as a series of self-contained moments, like poetry.

“The idea behind ‘literature by prescription’ will often be that after reading literature, you can reshuffle the elements of your own narrative about yourself, seen in a new light. What I’m pointing out is that something else can also happen. What the participants in the reading groups emphasised more was that they could find release from their usual narratives about themselves when they met and read together. They could just be in this rather ritualised reading event, surrender to the experience of the text without having to deal with themselves as much. In that sense, it became an escape for them,” she said.

Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen is currently conducting anthropological research at the Silkeborg Regional Hospital, and in 2023, she’ll start on a postdoctoral project aimed at developing a new theoretical framework for describing the creative processes of literary authors.

Charlotte Ettrup Christiansen

Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen


In her PhD project, Mia Bjørnskov Mikkelsen draws on recent theories of emotion and experiments with test subjects to advance our understanding of how our emotional lives develop and change as we age.

The older we become, the happier we are. In a nutshell, this is the fascinating phenomenon that psychologist Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen explored in her PhD project.

“Previous research has shown that the ratio of positive to negative feelings typically shifts in a positive direction as people age. At the same time, it’s also a fact that our bodies age and become less reactive, both physiologically and hormonally. So I wanted to investigate the extent to which and how physiological changes correlate with changes in our emotional lives,” she explained.

Contemporary research on emotion often focuses on the physiological as precursors to physiological experience; formerly, physiological responses were understood exclusively as responses to feelings. However, this new approach to the physiology of emotion had not yet been applied to research into emotional aging. Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen’s work brings these advances into the field with a theoretical study, a meta-analysis and an experiment.

New theoretical framework

“My theoretical analysis is about how modern theories of emotion can be used to frame emotional aging in a way that opens up the possibility of studying the body as a potential source of changes in our emotional lives in adulthood. This paves the way for new research questions that can potentially contribute to a better understanding of the role of the body in emotional aging,” Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen said.

To uncover age-related differences in physiological and self-reported emotional responses, she performed a meta-analysis of 74 experimental studies that explored how test subjects in different age groups react to emotional stimuli. Her meta-analysis of these studies showed that younger subjects exhibited stronger physiological reactions – for example heart rate and sweat rate responses. But when asked about their feelings, older subjects actually reported stronger feelings than younger subjects.

“In our own experimental study, we measured the response of younger and older test subject to images that provoked feelings of disgust and sadness, while we also studied their interoceptive sensitivity, or their ability to register signals from their own bodies. And what we found was that there was a correlation between interoceptive sensitivity and the strength of their emotional response to the images among younger subjects, while this correlation was not evident among older subjects,” Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen explained.

Clinical implications

“Maybe we form our emotional experiences on the background of different information than physical responses as we get older. This may mean that if I’m a psychologist who’s going to talk about feelings with a younger client, it’s an advantage to ask about what physical responses she feels, but with an older client, I may need to find a different way to access their emotional experience,” Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen said.

She stressed that such conclusions were speculative, as this research area is still in its infancy. This is one reason she’s interested in continuing her work in this field. In her current postdoc project at AU, she is primarily focussing on the effects of body position on emotional experience.

Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen

Kasper Glerup Lauridsen


Medical doctor Kasper Glerup Lauridsen’s work has shown how minimising interruptions during CPR can significantly improve the treatment of cardiac arrest in hospital patients.

The team leaders’ countdown is calm and steady, despite the acute situation: a young patient is receiving CPR:

“Rhythm check in fifteen seconds. We also need to check the pulse. All clear! Five-four-three-two-one. Stop heart massage.”

Each member of the CPR team knows their individual - and important - function, and they know the cues: “No pulse,” the nurse says a few seconds later, while the doctor checks the monitor to confirm the absence of a shockable rhythm, so it’s too early to start using the defibrillator. So the next command is “start CPR”.

According, to Kasper Glerup Lauridsen, who just finished his PhD in medicine, this scene represents a best-case scenario. But in his dissertation, he show how different reality can play in in a hospital setting. In practice, the absence of effective routines and a shared language often leads to an unnecessarily long interruption in CPR, which reduces patients’ chances of survival.

A gap in the research

Early in his medical training, Kasper Glerup Lauridsen noticed that while treatment of cardiac arrest outside the hospital general follows optimised standards,the response to in-hospital cardiac arrest is much less organised. This imbalance is reflected in a lack of focus on in-hospital cardiac arrest in the research literature. So Kasper decided to make a contribution to addressing this in his BSc project. “We saw huge differences in how the hospitals’ cardiac arrest teams were organised. In some places three people were called in, in others ten. And often it’s some of the most junior doctors who are involved. This is in contrast to the highly standardised approach to cardiac arrest outside the hospitals. So this is what I ended up working on in my PhD project, and it’s actually included in my dissertation,” he explained.

In his PhD project, Kasper Glerup Lauridsen investigated how in-hospital cardiac arrest teams might work together more effectively, for example by introducing standardised communication, as in the example above. His research is based on 3,700 survey responses from cardiac arrest team members, which made it possible to analyse the factors that contribute to successful cardiac arrest treatment, for example in relation to teamwork, communication and leadership.

International consensus

“With input from the aviation industry, NASA and elite sport, supplemented by some qualitative analyses, we’ve attempted to come up with the optimal model for standardised communication, in order to minimise interruptions when CPR is administered. It was designed as an international consensus study, and it’s already had some influence on the European guidelines in this area,” Kasper Glerup Lauridsen said.

In his current position as a resident physician, he still has some time for research. He is working on a more comprehensive study to test the promising model for standardised communication than he was able to develop in his PhD project.

Kasper Glerup Lauridsen

Niels Kristian Kjærgård Madsen


Niels Kristian Kjærgård Madsen has developed improved equations for the calculation of the quantum dynamics of molecules which will make it possible to study chemical reactions by simulating them more precisely.

For Niels Christian, a recent PhD graduate in theoretical chemistry, the answers to all of his questions lie hidden in quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1925 equation. And although quantum physics is highly specialised, the questions he studies are of very general interest:

“Technological development depends on our understanding how molecules behave and interact with each other. For example, in the pharmaceutical industry and in the development of green energy solutions. But we can’t see molecules under a microscope. Instead, we can use the Schrödinger equation to simulate what goes on in molecules,” explained Niels Kristian Madsen.

Although the equation has been in use for almost a century, it hasn’t yet been possible to exploit its full potential in relation to simulating the quantum dynamics of the atomic nucleus. Quantum mechanics has made greater advances in understanding electrons. But in order to understand what takes place in a chemical reaction, it’s also necessary to understand the dynamics of the atomic nucleus.

Niels Kristian Kjærgård Madsen’s PhD project just might have cracked the code.

The curse has been broken

He has shown how new methods of calculating quantum dynamics can “break the curse of dimensionality,” as he puts it in the title of his dissertation. The ‘curse’ is a wall quantum chemists hit when performing calculations of this kind that sets limits on what is practically possible.

“With Schrödinger’s equation, we can carry out quite accurate calculations on a molecule with four atoms. But the problem is that with each additional atom, the complexity of the calculations grows exponentially if you use the conventional method. In this specific case, you hit the wall as soon as you try doing the calculations on a five-atom molecule,” explained Niels Kristian Kjærgård Madsen.

While the alternative models that have been proposed until now can be used to approximate calculations on larger molecules, but without the desired accuracy.

“We succeeded in developing methods with a high degree of accuracy that can be used on larger, more relevant chemical research problems. The way they work is that instead of scaling exponentially, so that the calculations become 1,000 times more complex with the addition of just one atom, they scale polynominally, so that you get calculations that are maybe 10 times as complex with a molecule of twice the size.”

For non-experts too

Niels Kristian Kjærgård Madsen explained that while the research group’s groundbreaking results were the result of a collaboration, he doesn’t hesitate to claim responsibility for refining the theory and developing the right variations of the Schrödinger equation.

“Since then, the group has continued working together to develop a program that can solve the equations more quickly. This is also important work, because this research with have broader applicability if we can actually offer software that can be used by both experts and non-experts,” Niels Christian said.

He knows how quantum chemistry research is used by companies in the business; since completing his PhD, he has worked with software development in two of them.

Niels Kristian Kjærgård Madsen

Niloofar Yazdani


Niloofar Yazdani’s work has shown how networks with smart devices can be future-proofed. In particular, her data compression technique can accelerate development in this area.

For our smart homes, companies and public spaces with their increasing array of wirelessly connected devices in the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) to function, it’s decisive that our digital infrastructure keep up with the times. But the amount of data in these networks continues to increase, and the IoT devices themselves may have limited capacity and bandwidth, not to mentiojn a relatively unreliable data stream.

Software engineer Niloofar Yazdani’s PhD project is a step in the direction of a faster and more sustainable direction.

“My project focuses on effective IoT data transfer in three main areas: data compression, recovery of damaged data and network coding. In each of these areas, I have contributed new ideas,” she said.

There is high degree of direct practical applicability in Niloofar Yazdani’s work, which is the result of collaboration with companies, including Kamstrup; using a special form of data compression, she helped the company dramatically reduce the amount of data transmitted from their sensors.

A greener alternative

“If you have a number of identical temperature sensors in a building that are sending data to the server, it’s obvious that the data being generated is highly uniform. In these cases, multisource data compression can reduce the total data transmission on the network significantly by exploiting the uniformity of the data, without any form of coordination between the sensors,” Niloofar Yazdani explained. With her new data compression technique, she demonstrates how data transmission can be reduced without the need for individual sensor units to ‘know’ about data from each other.  To achieve something similar with previously existing techniques would require extremely complex mechanisms; Yazdani’s solution is practically speaking endlessly scalable.

“Our proposal is interesting for a lot of applications. The technique is loss-free, in other words, it doesn’t affect the quality of the data. At the same time, it reduces the amount of energy needed to transfer the relevant data – and energy consumption is top of mind these days.”

Faster and more efficient

One extremely important factor is that Niloofar Yazdani’s data compression technique also minimises data delay.

“With conventional techniques, there’s time considerations involved, because the sending device must gather sufficient data before it can deliver the compression, which takes time. But we’ve shown that our proposed data compression technique removes these considerations, which means we can improve the compression rate and minimise delay at the same time,” she explained.

Niloofar Yazdani has also broken new ground with her techniques for restoring damaged data and a proposal for a new kind of network coding she calls ‘revolving codes’.

She has a degree in electrical engineering from her home country, Iran. She is now based in southern Holland and is working as a software engineer in the research-based company TWTG, which develops IoT devices for industry.

Niloofar Yazdani