The interview: a Martin Dufva special

“I need to see a need, and then I develop and do research regarding that need”


As the OrganoVIR Communication team we had the privilege to interview Martin Dufva, associate professor at DTU Health Tech. During the interview, we asked about Martin’s career story, his daily life, research perspective and important advice to inspire and motivate us during our career paths.  

Read the full interview with Martin Dufva below.


To begin with, tell us about your research career to date.

Well, it started with a PhD in Gothenburg or rather a doctorate that takes 5.5 years. It was on the molecular biology of the Epstein-Barr virus. I got a protein to study, which was very complex because we knew very little about that protein. Everyone else didn’t know anything about it either. The result we got was contradictory to the literature, so it was an uphill struggle.

After that, I moved to Denmark because my wife is a Dane – we met in Sweden. Then, we moved down to Denmark, and I was hired at DTU to study how to improve microarray technology. The reason for that is that during my PhD, I worked with high-throughput screening methods like microarrays and two-hybrid systems, and I got interested in that field. I stayed there and continued working with microarray for some time until microarray got out of fashion. In parallel, I started up activities in cell culturing on-chip, and that was 15 years ago.


Why did you choose your research topic?

Basically, it is because of my interest. It started with arrays and high-throughput systems – I still do that. Then, I switched to cell culture, and I did a lot of cell culturing activities during my PhD. So, it is not so difficult to understand why I chose that research topic. I have always been fascinated by cells and cell communication and molecular biology of the cells, so I think that is reasonable. But, at some point, I needed to switch from building devices and cell culturing devices to actually do more biology. So, in a way, it is a process to see where I want to go.


What do you love about your job?

Well, it’s both teaching, supervision, and being able to get ideas – the creativeness, probably, in both instances, is very, very important for me. Without that, it would not be satisfactory, so I love going into the lab and test a few things and see if they work or not. The same goes for teaching, helping people – to supervise them, teach them, and get them going. These are really, really important for me!


Where do your inspirations come from?

It’s more the entire literature and where it goes that are interesting. So, I don’t have, I don’t look up to certain big names in the research fields – it’s not my style. Rather, I need to see a need, and then I develop and do research regarding that need. So, I might be one of those who do not follow the common trend but sometimes tread a new path.


How did you become engaged in the OrganoVIR consortium? How can we relate your research to OrganoVIR?

I actually don’t remember how that happened. Still, it was very clear from Katja and Dasja that they needed some innovation part of it, making it slightly different from using the basic cell culture devices to study viral infections. At that time point, we had developed something that is the next step-up of a Transwell plate. Currently, we continue working on it within the OrganoVIR project to explore that path to build your own cell culture plates and place the cells where you like them and actuate them as you want. So, mine and Asli’s roles in OrganoVIR are a little bit odd compared to the rest of the consortium. We work with devices and materials to provide improved conditions for the cells and organoids to grow on. Many of you do that work as well, but we have additional tools in our toolbox to add on.


What have you learned during your PhD journey that has helped you in leadership / supervising?

I learned how not to do things. My PhD supervisor threw a lot of resources in my way, which was great. But I was also sort of forced to manage these resources (It sounds like a luxury problem!). Still, I actually needed supervision by him in the project so that it could progress much more rapidly, so I was more or less left on my own very much and had a technician and a chemist at my disposal to do my research. That is a lot of responsibility early on in life, particularly when the research subject is not trivial but controversial. So that is what you should not do. You must be very close to your students and give tight supervision for the projects to be efficiently executed.


What do you think are the qualities that a good PhD student should have?

At least, where I work, you need to be inventive. It is thinking out of the box that is sometimes not trivial for students or some people to do at any level. One thing is to get an idea, and the other is to realize it, so you need to have an idea and have the ability to go out to the lab and realize it. That was what my PhD supervisor said to me: “You are not only getting ideas, you also have to be able to go out and test them in the lab.”, which is a very strong point in the lab, and I think it is very important that you have first the ideas, and also the technical skills and interest to see if it works the lab afterward. As a good PhD student, you sometimes need to go very close to the limit and beyond your limit, and you should be able to do that. That is part of doing a PhD and prepare you for the life of a scientist later on. On the academic level, a PhD student should be, of course, very sharp, looking into the literature, and be able to translate the science and the methodology to their own project. It is a very important skill to have; otherwise, the supervisor needs to do that. Of course, the supervisor can always help, but it would be much better if the PhD students do things themselves. Often there is a progression from the beginning of the study to the late phase study where the PhD student is typically quite independent.


How do you separate your feelings and emotions from difficult decisions?

(He takes some time to think). That is not easy. It depends on what you mean. If it is regarding people, it’s not easy to explain as that is so dependent on what kind of situation it is. Sometimes you need to make some difficult decisions, and you do that every time you hire people, for instance.

But it’s more about; I can tell how I reason about methodology. We do a lot of methodology development, and it ends up often being in the case that some things we see there is a future for and some things there is not, and that doesn’t matter how much work was put into it. So, I’m not really sentimental about my own research. In my group, we often take things up into evaluation and then look at it critically and quite hard, and then if it is not good enough, we ditch it. We have done that several times and that’s the way it is – it is part of the development of research. You drive an idea; if it doesn’t work out or feels that it doesn’t have potential, we drop it and switch track; that’s how it is.


What’s the best and the worst career decision you’ve ever made?      

Well, that implies that you are always in control of your career, but in reality, you are not. Many factors go in and either enhance you by pure luck or sometimes stop you in your tracks. That’s how it is, and so it’s not easy to say what’s the best or worst career decision is because sometimes you’re not the one making the decision, at least not alone. It is very seldom that you are doing that in your life. Very few of us actually decide on our own to take a job or not, so there are always some social factors involved like family and friends and that affects you. So often, that’s not easy; it’s not exactly a clear cut.

I am also one that doesn’t cry over spilled milk, as we say in Sweden. So, whatever it is that is the best, or the worst is very difficult to predict, because if you decide and switch the track, how do you know it’s a bad decision? You don’t know the other track anyway – maybe you could have gotten a higher salary, really respected as a boss or whatever else. There are so many things going into what a best or worst career decision is. After all, we are never able to know it if we did take another decision.


What is the culture like at your university?

In general, we are very helpful to each other. If you know who to ask for help, you often get help, that can be a methodology, instrumentation, and so on. But, people are a little bit into their own sphere. It is difficult to interact with different parts of the institute, particularly since we are 500 people. This is a known problem that we have been fighting for a decade or longer; that is how to improve collaborations within the institute. Part of the problem might be that in the particular faculty, we have no real forum to meet. There is just the kitchen, and we cannot talk in private there since we have other people around. Moreover, we are extremely busy, so coordinating calendars gets difficult, so the spontaneous meetings are so important but problematic in our institute.


Are there any organizational challenges that you have faced? How do you handle these challenges?

Mostly no. There are always limitations because the university is, by definition, a resource-poor environment like many others is, and it is more that might be difficult. Sometimes, the administrative things are a little bit heavy to work with, but we often have very flexible solutions. It mostly works quite nicely.

We also have an attitude in Denmark that if there is a problem or challenge with something, we discuss and see how we can find a solution together. It may be a temporary solution or a long-term solution where we have identified the flaw in the way we do it. But it is very often the case that there is a good dialogue between different levels at the institute. Although I’ve seen that there has been increasingly top-down management that we have implemented probably from the UK and US, that is not really how the Danes are accustomed to working. It is more of a flat organization. But it will probably change at some point.


Was there a career setback you faced which you later realized was an advantage?

(He takes some time to think). Well, I have one story. The protein I worked with during my PhD was poorly understood. It didn’t behave as it should; it had no logic whatsoever, so I changed to this screening system. In the beginning, I looked at micro- and milli- arrays that were 512 dots on a piece of membrane, with 512 genes, so I could do gene expression analysis using radioactivity labeled probes and so on. They were the pre-runner of microarrays that led me to an interest in the field of microarrays, and that got me to the track of having work at DTU that I really love. Because my nature is cross-disciplinary. I would get bored if I only studied one thing. So, I really liked cross-itinerary.

What happened next is that I’ve got the job to develop the chemistry and array technology further. Then, BY CHANCE (That was not a career decision!), my boss left, and they needed a supervisor for his PhD students. I did a fit to the bill. I got hired as an associate professor. After 5 years, I got a permanent position, and that was actually PURE LUCK!

So, during my PhD, the challenge I had was that I had an unknown protein. I applied a very novel technology to investigate its function at the time, which landed me a permanent position at the university!


How do you motivate yourself and your team?

For myself, as long as I have the possibility to be creative in my work, then it is fine; if I have to say more or less what I am, I think inventor is a proper definition. I like to test new ideas and see if a thing works that is very central for me.

As for the motivation of my group, you should really ask my group about that. I am following the progress at least weekly, often more. I am always interested in their research and results; that’s not always the case for some supervisors. And if there is a motivation issue, I always TALK, TALK, TALK with the students to get them through the rough patch and help them lay-out a path so they are likely to succeed, so they have something to look forward to. When doing a PhD, the worst thing is when things are looking really dark, and the student does not see a path out of it. Sometimes I felt that myself during my PhD. But I had my resources to test to get results and succeed. That’s something that I always liked from my PhD supervisor, that his guidance dragged me out of that sort of black hole when I did my PhD.


How do you maintain a work-life balance? What are your daily habits?

That doesn’t go so well. I work at least 10 hours per day and also a few hours in the weekends, but I am fine with it. Sometimes you get a little bit burned out, but that depends very much on the work environment. Generally, it is not the supervision or the teaching that is stressful, but there are other things that are problematic.

Daily habits, well, I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I check my emails and the news at the same time. I wake up early to avoid the queues on the highway, my wife also has a long way to work, and we really like to be with our family in the morning. I also like waking up early in the morning because the labs are free. I can go into the lab to test new things that can be further investigated later on.  I don’t do much work in the evening, and I may check my emails, but I’m trying to reduce the email checking time.


What is the best lesson for a stressed-out PhD student?

A stressed-out PhD student is probably stressed because things are not working as they are supposed to do. Or sometimes they just have too much work. However, being overworked and stressed is not the same thing. So, you have to qualify what is being stressed and what is being overworked.

If you have too much to do as Asli has, you can get tired because of overworking. Do not be stressed about it! Lots of work doesn’t harm you, you get tired, and you just take a break and go up again. That will not change later on if you want to continue an academic life after your PhD. Typically, my working hours are 50+ hours per week, and that’s very average for every professor, at least in Denmark.

Stress is much worse; it is typically linked to when things are not working, and you have a timeline. And it also arises when the supervisor and the PhD student are not really on speaking terms. If you are stressed-out, you need to do something about it, and don’t beat around the bush! At OrganoVIR, we have lots of ways to discuss supervisor, PhDs issues when things are not working out. There is nothing to be ashamed of because we have different personalities, and that’s the way it is. Get help from others in the consortium, not only from other ESRs but also from the mentors or someone else we can talk to. Maybe someone has already been in this situation, and they can guide you.


Lastly, is there a quote that motivates you?

Mmm, that is an interesting question! I really like the quote from Edison when he got the question about when he had failed to make a light bulb 10000 times, and he said, “I have not failed; I have only learned 10000 ways that will not work to do a light bulb”. That’s a very positive take-home when things are not working.


With many thanks to Martin Dufva, Assoc. Prof, DTU Health Tech and mentor of Asli Aybike Dogan, ESR in the ITN project OrganoVIR.  


Interview conducted by the OrganoVIR Communication Team ((Emilia Barreto Durán (ESR-1), Asli Aybike Dogan (ESR-2), Laurensius Kevin Lie (ESR-7), Inés García Rodríguez (ESR-9), Ciro Esposito (ESR-15)), 22nd of November 2020.