PhD students at DTU are not only trained to do research, but also to talk about their research and how it contributes to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Since June 2019, more than 300 PhD students at DTU have completed a four-week course in scientific presentation and the UN Sustainable Development Goals as part of their study programme.
The PhD students on the course receive training in presentation techniques, an understanding of the sustainability perspectives of their research, and how this can be incorporated into one or more of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. After completing the course, they can volunteer to join a corps of PhD students who visit high schools to talk about research and sustainability.
The aim is twofold—to increase the knowledge and interest of secondary school students in the technical and natural sciences—and to highlight how the engineering sciences contain indispensable knowledge in the realization of the 17 SDGs for sustainable development.
“Sustainability is a key part of DTU’s strategy and goal to develop technology for people. Therefore, this course is a mandatory part of the PhD programme at DTU. It enables the PhD students to critically assess the sustainability of their research projects. At DTU, this is a tool in the academic toolbox in line with source criticism and statistics,” says Philip Binning, Dean of Graduate Studies and International Affairs.
When Philip Binning introduces the course for new PhD students, he explains that you have to go all the way back to DTU’s mission to find out why DTU is so committed to the UN’s sustainability goals:
“DTU was founded more than 100 years ago by the scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, who among other things discovered electromagnetism. He formulated DTU’s mission which states that the University must develop and create value through the technical and natural sciences for the benefit of society.”
“The UN Sustainable Development Goals are formulated by world leaders who have given their views on the challenges facing society in the years ahead. A common denominator for most of these goals is that technology will play an essential role in solving the world’s problems. We have therefore decided to embrace the SDGs and use them as a platform for our future work.”
A challenging audience
In addition to the PhD students being made aware of the sustainability of their project in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, they also receive training in presentation and communication so that they can, for example, explain the impact their project is having on society to high school students. Such competences are necessary according to Philip Binning—not least if later in their career, for example, they want to secure a grant from the European Research Council (ERC), which awards funding for cutting-edge research projects:
“In order to secure a prestigious EU grant, you have to attend an interview where you only have a short time to pitch your project. This interview is quite simply the decisive factor in determining whether the grant is awarded. But regardless of the students’ ambitions following their PhD, they will need to communicate their messages to a broad audience.”
And according to the dean, the best way to test your communication skills is to give presentations at the nation’s high schools: “High school students are a curious, but also challenging audience. Their powers of concentration can be very limited and they get bored quickly. If students are still curious at the end of the presentation, the PhD student will know that the presentation has been a success.”
Research provides value for other people
What is your PhD project about?
“It’s about how to treat bone infections—now and in the future. Antibiotics are currently injected into the bloodstream and then given in pill form if you get a bone infection. This results in a high concentration of antibiotics in the blood, which affects the whole body and can result in, for example, liver damage.
In my group we’re working on how to use ‘drug delivery’ to improve treatments. ‘Drug delivery’ is about sending the drug to a specific part of the body—without exposing the whole body to medication. In my case, it’s about treating bones locally with antibiotics.”
What does it mean for you to link the project to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
“I’m all for it. It’s like viewing the project from a multi-level perspective. When you called, I was in the lab working on a test. You could say that’s level one. You can also go up a level and look at how the project affects society in Denmark—and later the rest of the world.
In this connection, we have analysed our own PhD project to assess its sustainability in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This has given us a more holistic picture of the project’s global relevance. This isn’t something that normally happens.”
What is your key takeaway from the course?
“I think that working with the world goals makes research more qualifiable—and I like that. For me, it has highlighted that our project will improve people’s quality of life and that motivates me. It’s a kind of validation that our research provides value for other people and for society. I also think it dovetails nicely with DTU’s mission to use science for the benefit of society. That’s exactly where I want to go with my research.”
Why did you choose to give a presentation to a high school class?
“I decided to give a lecture at the Danish high school Høng Gymnasium and HF in September because I wanted to see if teaching appealed to me and because it was a good chance to give a popular presentation. I was nervous about people falling asleep or fiddling with their mobile phones—but the students were incredibly nice. They listened to my presentation and asked questions. I really enjoyed the experience.”