Interview with Maja Dibbern Kaaber – University of Copenhagen

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MSc in Agriculture - Plant Science specialisation

"Just imagine being able to spend your days researching the flowering of roses."

"One of my fellow students put it so well when he said that agronomy/plant science is the perfect study programme if you like plants, but are not that keen on tractors," says Maja Dibbern Kaaber (31). When we meet her, she has just commenced a "4+4", as it is generally known. Instead of writing your thesis, you spend the last year of your MSc programme on an extended PhD programme, which takes four years rather than the usual three. "It's simply perfect. I love flowers, and I can now spend four years studying the flowering of roses."

Maja

Why did you choose this particular programme?

I originally wanted to study literature or medicine. But I have always loved plants, and then just by chance my grandmother had heard about the BSc programme in Hortonomy (Horticultural Science, ed.). I thought about what I love most, and that is actually things which grow. Especially flowers. So I applied to study what turned out to be a very small subject. There were only five of us (the Hortonomy programme has now been discontinued and incorporated into Plant Science under Natural Resources, ed.).

For my MSc I have chosen the specialisation in Plant Science and am moving more and more in the direction of molecular plant science: physiology, genetics and chemistry. These are subjects which you can use to study individual plants at the molecular level.

It is pretty far removed from literature?

Yes. And as I did modern languages at upper secondary school, I had to do supplementary courses in mathematics (level A) and physics and chemistry (level B), which are part of the admission requirements. But I just love the natural sciences.

Did you always know that you wanted to study at the University of Copenhagen?

I could probably have found similar programmes at other universities, but I grew up in the Copenhagen area, so the University of Copenhagen seemed like the obvious choice.

You are now well under way with your MSc degree. But you have decided to spend the last year on a PhD. …

Yes, I am now starting a four-year PhD programme, commonly known as a "4+4". This means that you transfer the last year of your MSc programme to the PhD so that you can spend four years doing research rather than the normal three. I am going to be doing research into flower induction, trying to identify the genes involved in the flowering of roses. I will probably be working with both grafting and RNA sequencing.

It's simply perfect. I love flowers, and I can now spend four years studying the flowering of roses!

Until recently, I have been spending most of my time at Frederiksberg Campus, which is a lovely place. However, I have just moved to the experimental farms in Taastrup outside Copenhagen, where I have just been given an office. Professor Renate Müller, who is my supervisor, and many of the people I know from my studies work out here. So it is not like starting a new job. It is lovely and very pleasant, and everybody is very friendly.

What about money?

For the first two years of my PhD programme I receive extra student grant portions, and during the last two years I believe the monthly pay is about 26,000 kroner.

How do you like the study programme?

I really like it. As a student, you are free to combine subjects in which you are particularly interested, for example within molecular science, botany, breeding or chemistry. When we started our studies, our professor, Renate Müller, took us round to various plant nurseries in a minibus. Our teachers are generally around a lot and very involved; they will, for example, help you find the materials you need. My boyfriend used to study at CBS, and from what I hear things are very different there; we have much more contact with our teachers. Also, a lot of what we do has very direct applications. For example, major assignments such as our bachelor projects can be of interest to the agricultural and horticultural sector.

It is a programme which demands a lot of you as a student. The programme is divided into blocks (i.e. 8 to 9-week modules followed by an exam, ed.), which I think has been hard at times. I have often been studying more than full-time. We have had up to eight exams a year, and our teachers are extremely ambitious. For example, Analytical Chemistry is only supposed to take half your time, but in reality I was working full-time on this subject. We often have lectures and classes from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon several days a week, plus set reading and assignments. Coming from upper secondary school was a bit of shock, and having to write in English was hard. But you soon get used to it, and it has become much easier.

There were 200 students sitting the second-year Chemistry exam – getting an average grade of 3.1. It was the same with Statistics. I could easily have worked full-time on half the syllabus.

We study a lot of different subjects, for example botany, genetics, plant diseases and post-harvest (how to handle crops etc. after harvesting, ed.). Sometimes I miss the more holistic subjects, the ones which look at the whole plant and not just aspects of it. I have just done a subject called 'Fruit and Berry Crop Physiology and Quality' where the teacher brought everything together: harvesting, growing, production, chemistry, physiology, photosynthesis, light conditions, cropping ... This is something which I would have liked more of – the whole picture, the whole plant.

Maja Dibbern Kaaber
 
What are the chances of studying abroad?

As a PhD student, you are obliged to work in a different research environment for at least three months, and this often means going abroad. The question is whether you will be able to take your family.

What does the programme lead to?

Often to research positions at universities or in companies working with the breeding of agricultural crops or ornamental plants. It can also lead to jobs in big nurseries involving the optimisation of growing conditions. Or you can find employment within wine production or as a consultant to growers of fruits and berries. However, at the moment I hear graduates complaining a bit that they are not able to find jobs within the agricultural and horticultural sector.

What would you like to work with when you finish?

I would like to do research, either at a university or with a private company.

Would you recommend the programme to others?

Yes, definitely. The courses have been fantastic, and so have the teachers. I feel that I have learnt a lot. It is a really good programme, and I have been quite engrossed in the various subjects – most recently Analytical Chemistry because our teacher was just brilliant. So brilliant in fact that I have been feeling totally immersed in the world of chemistry. And I loved the botanical subjects, of which I have done quite a lot.

Where will you be in ten years' time?

I hope I am manager of some huge gardens and responsible for flowers and research projects into the plant sciences. Either that, or breeding roses.