"I'm actually just a bit of a nerd"

Friday 03 Feb 17
A 100-metre freefall, a trip into space, or a job as head of a department that is on the point of falling apart ... Hanne Jarmer takes it all on the chin, and loves tackling problems that seem impossible to solve.

Hanne is facing a giant pile of pine logs, an oil barrel, and a couple of rolls of sisal twine. The idea is to use it all to build a raft that can be sailed across a lake. As quickly as possible, ideally, because there’s a prize for the first raft to cross the finish line. Hanne’s in it to win it. She knows what has to be done, and she’s familiar enough with her group of scouts to know they have absolutely no interest in this particular task.“Off you go ... I’ve got this,” she promises them—and then builds the winning raft on her own.

Hanne Jarmer has taken on more than a few different tasks over the course of her 41 years. Even though she is a natural born researcher—inquisitive and a bit nerdy—she has never spent long following the same path. She simply has to have something new to work on all the time, and she’s never backed down from a challenge. Quite the reverse! The tougher the task, the more committed she is to solving it.

One of the more difficult assignments she has taken on was the job of Head of Department at DTU Systems Biology, where she ‘grew up’, having taken a PhD there before putting in four years as a researcher and course manager. The department was facing serious challenges with regard to cohesion and finance, but she had no hesitation in diving into the assignment of building up a shared culture. Finally, however, she was forced to concede it was a battle that simply could not be won and, against every instinct, nerve and fibre in her body, she decided to resign from the position. We’ll come back to that later.

Cave-builder and nerd

Hanne Jarmer built all kinds of caves and hide-aways during her childhood, preferably high up in the tree-tops so that she could sit and search for birds’ nests—when she wasn’t slinking around the woods looking for them.

"I would love to help DTU become one of the finest universities in the world for educating engineers. This is a goal I’m sure we can achieve. We have the right attitude, the right culture and the right basis."
Hanne Østergaard Jarmer, Associate Professor, DTU Compute

“I’m actually just a bit of a nerd. It was only natural for me to become an engineer, because I’ve always loved problems—and finding solutions to them,” she says.

While at secondary school, she read in a biology textbook that scientists at DTU were researching suicide genes, and she knew instantly that was where she wanted to go; it was just so cool! After graduating with an MSc in biotechnology, she was on the point of taking a job at Novo Nordisk, but dropped that particular plan when she realized that she was more of a researcher. And even though she loved working with genes in the laboratory, she chose instead to take a PhD focused on the computer processing of data at the Center for Biological Sequence Analysis.

Everything seemed to be laid out neatly for a career in research, and then Hanne chose to head off in a different direction.

“A really good researcher stays in one area, and develops his or her skills there. But I’m not like that. I need to be working on something new all the time. I started off working with bacteria, and then found out that data analysis was more exciting. As a researcher, I became interested in investigating whether there was a link between genes and human behaviour. But then I was talked into taking the course manager job—against my better judgement, in fact, because I thought it sounded a bit dull. However, it turned out that there was a small budget combined with plenty of freedom to come up with new ways of developing courses and lecturers. So it was a lot of fun, and one of the best things I’ve ever experienced.”

One of the things Hanne spent the budget on was an initiative she called the ‘Teachers’ Retreat’: every second year, she took all lecturers on a day-and-a-half seminar, where they could spend the time ‘nerding away’ about teaching and sharing their experience. Mikael Rørdam Andersen, a new lecturer at the department at the time, explains that the idea was pure gold, significantly raising the level of teaching:

“When the course evaluations came in, she always made a point of getting back to us with constructive feedback. It was hugely motivating. Hanne is largely responsible for the way I teach today.”
Crazy and boundary-breaking

Let’s go back to 1997. Hanne is standing on a bridge 102 metres above the Shotover River in New Zealand. She made the long journey up the mountain with a screaming hangover and a bout of car sickness threatening to erupt at any moment. The boys start to tease her: “you’re scared to jump ...” But they are so wrong. As soon as the elastic rope is secured around her ankles, Hanne leaps fearlessly into the gorge, experiencing The Pipeline Bungy—the highest stationary bungy jump in the world—and loving every minute of it.

“First come the butterflies in the stomach, then the long swoop, where you have time to sense the air whistling past your ears and the burbling blue water coming closer and closer ... I felt high as a kite afterwards.”

It sounds remarkably habit-forming, but she assures us she’s not an addict.

“I don’t escalate it, and I don’t want it ever to become dangerous. I’m actually quite ‘grandma-ish’ when I’m driving my car.”

That said, Hanne came close to experiencing the ultimate rush: being launched into space. She made the shortlist of nine candidates to become the first Danish astronaut—a position that finally went to Andreas Mogensen. At one of the final interviews, she put on a convincing presentation about how she planned to study osteoporosis and gene expression in space.

“It was all going smoothly, and I knew I had them in the palm of my hand. But then they asked if I’d always dreamed of being an astronaut. ‘No’, I replied, I’d never dared dream of that. Then I explained that I had wanted to be a fighter pilot but I couldn’t because I was a bit short-sighted at that time. Bang! End of story, even though I’d since had my short-sightedness corrected. The ESA wouldn’t accept people who’d had that particular operation back then. All things considered, it was probably a good thing because I was pregnant with my third child at the time, and I probably wouldn’t have had my daughter—my fourth child—if I’d become an astronaut.”

A taste for management

So Hanne stayed on at DTU and threw herself body and soul into the project intended to establish whether a link existed between a person’s genetic code and his/her personality—and whether people can actually read each other’s personality by looking at their faces.

It was a fascinating project that attracted a good deal of attention. However Hanne dropped that particular line of study when the position of head of department opened up.

Hanne applied for it, even though she was well aware that she was accepting the mother of all poisoned chalices. At the same time, she was convinced that she was the right person to bring the department researchers together.

After all, she knew them all, thought they were highly skilled and really liked them, and while she had the opportunity to build up a new teaching culture, she might as well tie it in with creating a new departmental culture.


“Hanne dived headfirst into the assignment, she was accommodating and inclusive; she listened to people’s opinions ideas and maintained an open and communicative management style. However, some people misinterpreted her approach as having no clear goal,” explains Mette Haagen Marcussen, Head of Communications.

Associate Professor Christopher Workman adds:

“Hanne is courageous, positive, easily enthused, and skilled at motivating people and encouraging them to work together. She always makes sure that people have fun while they’re working—and remembers to celebrate successes afterwards.”

Despite the best of intentions, the assignment of uniting DTU Systems Biology around a shared culture did not end in success. And when the decision was taken to divide the department into two units, Hanne decided it was time to pull the plug.

“It was a hugely difficult decision that I could only make once I realized that I would be letting people down more badly by staying in the position than by stepping down,” she says, conceding that it felt like a defeat.

“But I knew that I couldn’t have done it any better —and that probably no-one else could have either.”

Five-year perspective

One of Hanne’s greatest successes as a course manager was having DTU included—as the first Nordic university—on Coursera, the online platform through which video courses are made available worldwide. Digital teaching methods in general make up an area that interests her hugely, and which she believes has enormous potential.

She therefore feels fully at home in the new centre for digital learning technology at DTU Compute, where she has just started work together with Helle Rootzén and Karsten Schmidt. She can also envisage herself working here five years from now:

“I might be a professor and deputy head of centre at LearnT, which could have grown to encompass 80 employees, and I might have published all kinds of fascinating scientific articles about learning technology. I would love to help DTU become one of the finest universities in the world for educating engineers. This is a goal I’m sure we can achieve. We have the right attitude, the right culture and the right basis. We just need to keep on focusing on development.”



Hanne Østergaard Jarmer is 41 years old, married, and lives in Kgs. Lyngby. She has two children aged 7 and 11 with her current husband, two aged 16 and 18 from a previous marriage, and two dogs (whippets).

2016: Associate professor at LearnT, DTU Compute
2015: Head of Department, DTU Systems Biology
2011: Course Manager, DTU Systems Biology
2011: Group manager for ‘Behavioral Phenomics’ at DTU Systems Biology
2007: Associate professor at the Center for Biological Sequence Analysis
2005: Shortlisted to become the first Danish astronaut
2003: PhD in bioinformatics 
1998: MSc in chemistry, with an academic profile in biotechnology


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