Rigmor and Carl Holst-Knudsens Award

Bo Barker Jørgensen

Researcher in deep water

By Helge Hollesen

“It’s like discovering a new continent on our planet.”

This is how Professor Bo Barker Jørgensen describes the research that has made him a pioneer in the study of the seabed and the life that unfolds deep down at the bottom of the ocean.

This research has resulted in major awards and international accolades for the 67-year-old professor from Aarhus University. The university has just awarded him the Rigmor and Carl Holst-Knudsen Award for Scientific Research, which he can now add to his extensive CV.

Since 2007, Professor Jørgensen has spearheaded the Centre for Geomicrobiology, which focuses on studying organisms deep down below the seabed that are not related to any known forms of life and were largely unknown until a few years ago.

 

Incomprehensible life

“We’re dealing with something completely incomprehensible,” says Professor Jørgensen and, as an example, mentions breathing bacteria, which his team of researchers discovered in 86-million-year-old layers in the seabed, as well as organisms whose metabolism is so extremely slow that a generation for them is hundreds to thousands of years.
“Our principal task is to understand the limits of life – how life is possible at such depths where there is no light or oxygen, and how it differs from life on known surfaces,” he explains.

Professor Jørgensen led the first drilling expedition exploring the deep biosphere, which essentially triggered the research into life and the environment in the seabed. It was also his team of researchers who, in 1999, were the first to discover the microorganisms that live on methane in the oxygen-free seabed.

“That discovery contributed hugely to our understanding of climate development. Microorganisms break down the methane produced in large quantities in the seabed and thereby prevent the potent greenhouse gas from escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming,” the professor explains.

 

Recreational diving led to Aarhus

It was probably on the cards at an early stage that Professor Jørgensen was destined to become a researcher. As a child, he often accompanied his father on weekend trips to the laboratory at the University of Copenhagen, where he was a professor of zoophysiology.

“It was exciting and probably made it easier for me to choose this path. I also joined Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) at an early stage and spent a lot of my spare time in the field looking at animals and plants – which I still do. I’m particularly fond of birdwatching,” says Professor Jørgensen, who commenced a degree in biology at the University of Copenhagen. Here he also met other biology students in a self-established group called Circulus, where the members presented lectures to each other.
“It was very informative, and we still keep our old network going,” says Professor Jørgensen.

During his years as a student, he was also a very enthusiastic recreational diver with a great interest in life in the ocean. His thesis therefore had to be in that field, and this took him to Aarhus.
“I had an appointment with the researcher Tom Fenchel, who worked at the University of Copenhagen’s Marine Biology Laboratory in Helsingør (Elsinore), to hear if he had any good ideas for interesting projects. When I met him in 1970, he had just received a letter an hour earlier informing him that he had been appointed professor in Aarhus, so he asked me whether I wanted to join him and become his first MSc student,” Professor Jørgensen explains.

 

A thesis that attracted attention

He moved to Aarhus after a good deal of deliberation and partly because his girlfriend was keen to go back to Jutland, where she came from. Here Professor Jørgensen spent the following years writing a thesis that would attract considerable attention in the world of research. His thesis was the first to introduce quantitative data about the role the sulphur cycle plays in the breakdown of material in the seabed, and demonstrated that an important part of the carbon cycle in the oceans occurs in the oxygen-free world in the seabed. “This was a huge and exciting discovery. Of course, it’s also immensely satisfying to realise that you’ve actually contributed to a new understanding of how nature works,” says Professor Jørgensen about his thesis, which was published in the Marine Biology journal and some years later in summary form in Nature with new, supporting evidence.

“I’ve always enjoyed writing. You only really understand a lot of what you discover as a researcher when you have to write it down because you have to think the material through in the process,” he says.

His thesis and his subsequent PhD dissertation highlighted a unique aspect of Professor Jørgensen’s many years of research, during which he has not only developed new methods, but has also incorporated data in the models he works with. He has repeatedly shifted both the quantitative and qualitative understanding of the biogeochemistry of marine environments.

 

Headhunted to Germany

Professor Jørgensen was appointed to a position at Aarhus University in 1973, where he conducted research for almost twenty years until being headhunted in 1992 by the elite German research institution – the Max Planck Society. They wanted him to establish the Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen.

“I went to Bremen with my entire group of young PhD and postdoctoral students, and we formed a true group of pioneers. The individual employees gradually returned to Denmark and today they are good colleagues of mine,” says Professor Jørgensen, who headed the institute until 2011 and made it a leading marine microbiology institute internationally.

From 2007 onwards, he shared his time between Bremen and Aarhus University, where he established the Centre for Geomicrobiology with five years of funding from the Danish National Research Foundation and the Max Planck Society. Last year, the Danish National Research Foundation granted funds to finance the entire centre for another five years, and Professor Jørgensen simultaneously received an Advanced Grant, which the European Research Council (ERC) awards to the absolute research elite in Europe.

 

A flying start in Aarhus

“We were two from Bremen who started the Centre for Geomicrobiology in 2007, but it took a few years to get a good team together and purchase the necessary equipment. On the other hand, we were off to a flying start, as the microbiologists here in Aarhus gave us free access to their laboratories. It meant a reunion with several former students, and it was really great to be back home. I’m very grateful for that,” says Professor Jørgensen.

Today, Professor Jørgensen divides his time between his job as a centre director and his research, which is a bit of an art, in his opinion.
“It means that you mustn’t get frustrated because you can’t do either job as well as you’d like. You have to be serious about the job as a director but, at the same time, you run the risk of losing contact with your research,” says Professor Jørgensen, who for many years has had no time to spend in the laboratory.

“I help supervise PhD students and discuss projects with postdoctoral students and colleagues, so in that way I’m still involved in research. Of course, I’m also away from the environment when I take part in expeditions for a couple of months. That’s when you really have a chance to literally get your hands wet, and that motivates you to be part of the research and is a way of recharging your batteries,” Professor Jørgensen says.

 

The sulphur bacteria joergensenii

Over the years, he has participated in or spearheaded many research expeditions on ocean-going vessels in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Black Sea, and he has been on expeditions with deep-sea submersibles that dive several kilometres down below the surface of the sea.

“I was the leader of the first drilling expedition that explored the deep biosphere, and that really triggered the start of research into life and the environment below the seabed,” he says.

On an expedition in 1997, Professor Jørgensen and his team of researchers discovered the world’s first sulphur bacteria in the seabed off the Namibian coast.
Today, literature calls this the Thiomargarita joergensenii in honour of the researcher from Aarhus who, since his PhD dissertation, has studied the sulphur cycle in the ocean and the important sulphur bacteria that maintain the balance in the ocean by ensuring that the powerful cellular toxin hydrogen sulphide does not rise with the water column to the surface, killing life there.

 

Climate research in Danish waters

Right now, Professor Jørgensen is busy planning the scientific drillings that will take place this summer south of the island of Anholt in the southern Little Belt east of Bornholm and further out in the Baltic Sea. Here the researchers will drill 300 metres down and 140,000 years back in time.

“This gives us a chance to study the transition from the last Ice Age to the Holocene, which was replaced 10,000 years ago by our current interglacial period. We’re going to study the sediments of organisms that once lived in the seabed and compare them with the organisms that live there now. This can provide us with new knowledge about how the climate in our part of the world developed and thereby tell us something about how the Earth functions as a climate machine in the long term,” says the professor, who is reluctant to predict when we can expect a new Ice Age.

“Right now, we‘re emitting so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we’re postponing a new Ice Age. However, previous interglacial periods lasted 10,000–15,000 years, so we should probably expect the ice to set in again in around 5,000 years,” says the award-winning professor.

 

Professor Torben G. Andersen

World-class finance pioneer

By Lis Fisker

Two close friends from Grindsted Upper Secondary School had considerable influence on Torben Gustav Andersen’s choice of studies at Aarhus University. Together they enrolled in Mathematics-Economics, a small degree programme from which they all graduated with an MSc in Economics some years later, in Dr Andersen’s case in 1985.

The three maintained their friendship and the former classmates still get together as often as possible when Dr Andersen is in Denmark.

 

Dr Andersen continued his studies with a PhD in Economics from Yale University, USA (1992), followed by a permanent job at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, where he now works as a Professor of Finance. He has just received the Rigmor and Carl-Holst Knudsen Award for Scientific Research.

 

A number of Dr Andersen’s colleagues describe him as ‘a world-class pioneer’ within the field of finance. He has developed a specific field of research, which has gained popularity since 2000. His theoretical and empirical research uses model-free methods for measuring and evaluating the uncertainty of the yield of financial assets by means of high-frequency price data. In practice, these techniques are used for price setting and risk management. Realised volatility is today a standard method used by academics, laymen, regulatory authorities and central banks the world over.

 

The fascination of probability

 

Dr Andersen’s choice of degree programme at Aarhus University was, of course, no coincidence. His fascination with theoretical mathematics, the calculation of probability and statistics can be traced back to his childhood at school in Esbjerg and Agerbæk and the long bus rides to and from the upper secondary school in Grindsted. In addition to reading, he spent his time designing games calculating the probability of winners and losers of the Tour de France. Together with his friends, he played lots of football and volleyball, but actually quite enjoyed entertaining himself. He did not avoid socialising, but was sufficiently happy ‘keeping busy’ in his own company. Every now and then he bemoans that today’s children have so little unstructured time on their own, but admits that his own three adopted daughters aged 10, 11 and 14 also have a very busy calendar. “Unfortunately, it’s difficult to avoid these days,” he says.

 

Dr Andersen was born in 1957 in Vilhelmina, Sweden – close to the Arctic Circle – to Danish parents who began their careers as dentists in the far north of Sweden. The family returned to Denmark when he was four years old. His fluent Swedish disappeared during his years at Gammelby School, Gjesing School, Agerbæk School and Grindsted Upper Secondary School.

 

“I was fascinated by both mathematics and economics as early as my upper secondary school days. My interest in economics grew during my years at university, but I really hadn’t thought much about it until it was time to decide what to study. It’s always been the formal mathematical and statistical aspects of theoretical economics that interested me most, and I was fortunate that it turned out to be a degree programme with a future and an excellent basis for a research career. It was a very small degree programme, but many successful academics graduated from it. I ended up at Yale as a result of a research visit after completing my Danish degree. I enrolled in traditional PhD courses, but did so well that Yale offered me a place in the programme,” he says.

 

An obvious choice

 

For Dr Andersen, the USA was an obvious choice. “It’s still the most interesting environment for an academic career in economics. There’s more going on here, good research funding, and the job is well paid. In addition, the northern suburbs of Chicago facing Lake Michigan are a lovely place to live.”

 

It is obvious to ask whether the financial crisis came as a surprise to the economist who can predict fluctuations in financial markets.

 

“Yes, the scope of the crisis surprised me. I’d expected a slow-down in the economy, but not the biggest crisis in recent times. Neither are financial crises my specialty within economics. I think the causes are to be found in the interplay between financial institutions, national economy and regulations. But that’s no excuse. We should all have thought more about it and raised the alarm, but regulators and economists within the industry were probably closer to the problems than anyone else.”

 

He continues: “One of the main reasons was that we’d got used to stability. It was as if huge crises and bank crashes were unthinkable so nobody paid attention to the worst-case scenarios. In addition, many of the markets, products and banks were interconnected in new ways with which nobody had any experience.”

 

A reliable thermometer

 

The theory about realised volatility makes it easier to predict the size of future fluctuations in financial markets without providing any explanations for the fluctuations, including psychological factors such as rumours and panic.

 

Dr Andersen explains: “Volatility is closely connected to our concept of risk in financial assets. Realised volatility is a new approach to the measurement of volatility, which previously could only be estimated using models that weren’t always that reliable. Imagine that you want to take a patient’s temperature. It’s nice if the thermometer works in almost all cases so the measurement is accurate, apart from minor uncertainty, and doesn’t depend on many external factors that can be difficult to verify.

 

Realised volatility gives us good measurements that make it easier for us to predict the future temperature. It makes it easier, but it can never be done without uncertainty. However, accurate measurements give us a better basis for understanding how things work. The concept of realised volatility has since been further developed, which enables us to better measure different related factors. The temperatures of such related factors can be studied separately and better analysed.

The thermometer doesn’t say anything about whether the increased temperature is due to psychological or fundamental (rational) uncertainty. I normally look for rational solutions but, in general, it’s possible to further study or measure many interesting questions about how the temperature develops without having to consider the psychological aspect.”

 

In response to the question about whether the recession is over or a new bubble is on the way, he says: “We’re facing a long and difficult adjustment following the crisis. It takes time to get the debt under control and rebuild confidence. I don’t know enough about Danish conditions to say anything about the situation in Denmark, but I trust that it’ll be a long time before things go that wrong again. Now there’s more awareness that it can happen.”

 

He emphasises that, from his point of view, it is not the share market but the banks that need to be subject to tighter control if new complete crashes are to be avoided.

 

“It wasn’t the share market that went wrong, but the financial institutions, mortgages, house prices and various derivative assets. It should be possible for one bank to crash without taking all the others with it. The banks should be forced to put their cards on the table – much more data is needed about who depends on whom, and there must be a detailed plan for what action is to be taken if one or more banks crash.”

 

Links to Denmark

 

Dr Andersen is very pleased and grateful for the support he has received from Denmark. He has remained in close contact with Aarhus University, currently through his work with the Centre for Research in Econometric Analysis of Times Series (CREATES), a Centre of Excellence supported by the Danish National Research Foundation. Since 2007, he has been an International Research Fellow at CREATES.

 

“CREATES conducts first-rate research in my field. It facilitates contact between many international researchers through conferences and other activities. It’s an incredibly fertile environment,” he says.

 

Dr Andersen’s own scientific production is comprehensive, but he has also found time to work as editor or co-editor of a number of scientific journals and is a popular lecturer the world over. He maintains his roots by remaining a Danish citizen and networking in Chicago, where he often helps Danish PhD students and participates in the work of gathering other Danish economists in an organisation called DAEiNA – Danish Academic Economists in North America.