A combination of maths, computer science and biology
Arriving from Greece to study MSc in Bioinformatics in Copenhagen, Evdoxia Karadoulama found Denmark a strange but quite pleasant place to be. “I really wanted to leave Greece, and I was looking for something that was totally different. In the beginning everything was very strange to me but very interesting. And it’s a good university,” Evdoxia told us after she had been studying here for two years.
What’s your background?
I have a bachelor in Mathematics from Aristotele University in Thessaloniki. That’s a four-year study in Greece. I did mostly theoretical maths.
Why did you choose to study mathematics?
Actually my first choice was architecture and then mathematics – that’s the two things I liked the most. But I didn’t have the grades to get into architecture. So I started studying mathematics, and I liked it, so it was fine.
But now you have changed direction. Why?
I was thinking of continuing and doing my master in theoretical maths. But because of the lack of jobs in this area, I looked at other possibilities like economics or statistics. While I was searching, I started reading about bioinformatics. In Greece it’s not a popular field yet, although they have started up something along the same lines in Athens. I found it very interesting, because it’s a combination of maths, computer science and biology.
Did you have any special interest in biology?
I always had an interest for natural science. I didn’t have a special interest in biology, but I have always wanted to work to improve human health and quality of life. So I found Bioinformatics a good way to achieve this goal.
What exactly does a bioinformatician do?
There’s a big variation in the field. Bioinformaticians can work with the structure of proteins, whole genome analysis, population genetics, ect. To analyse data and create tools for data-analysis – that’s the main thing we do.
So bioinformaticians usually work together with researchers from other fields?
Yes, it’s very common to work with either doctors or labs providing the data and then we have to analyse it and hopefully discover something useful. But Bioinformatics is also about building tools. If you analyse data, you can use already built tools or you can build your own – or both. It depends on your skills, your interests and what you want to do. Actually, I’ve heard recently that a lot of hospitals need bioinformaticians here in Denmark.
What’s your thesis going to be?
Eh, it’s a bit too technical to explain fully, haha. I’m working with RNA and proteins. I am trying to find correlations between specific proteins and some properties of the structure of RNA.
What do you want to do when you finish your master?
I would like to be a researcher. I think it’s an interesting job because you always do something new and have to read and study all the time. Generally, I would prefer to get a job at a university, but I wouldn’t say no to a job in the private sector. Especially here in Denmark I think the private sector is very good. And of course private companies often have more money than the universities, so in that sense it can be more attractive.
Why did you want to go abroad?
Actually I really wanted to leave Greece, and I was looking for something that was totally different. The fact is that I disagree with a lot of things that are taking place in Greece. And I can’t fix them, so I didn’t want to stay. It’s not political it’s mostly the social structure.
Why did you choose the University of Copenhagen?
Actually I made applications for universities in all the Nordic countries except Norway, but my priority was Copenhagen, because it’s a bit more south so it’s not getting too dark here in the winter.
I wanted something totally different and I thought I could find it here. I didn’t want to go to England, because the master there is only one year. Since I wanted to change direction, I don’t think I would be able to learn enough and create a network there in one year. Recently, I thought about having had to leave after only one year, and that would have been stupid. You still have to see more things, and learn more things. It’s a totally new world here, so …
I guess you could have studied in Paris or in Austria or … ?
Those countries are quite different from Greece, but I was interested in the Scandinavian/Nordic way of living and studying . Also, since almost everyone speaks English here, and the courses are in English, language was not an issue.
I had heard about your ways here – and they were quite different compared to the Greek ones.
For example that children move from home very early, and are more independent. There is more personal freedom.
When do children move from home in Greece?
We generally move when we get married. Unless you start working … but even then it’s easier to stay with your parents, because your mom is going to do everything for you, so you don’t have to spend your time cooking or washing clothes. You also save money, because you don’t have to pay extra rent. Everybody stays with their parents, so nobody is questioning this. Except if the students go to other cities to study of course.
I guess the students don’t really have the money to move because it’s their parents who are supporting them. They don’t get any help from the state.
What was your experience here?
It was exciting in the beginning - and difficult at the same time. I was missing my family and friends, but with all the new things you have around you, you don’t really have time to think about all your troubles, loneliness, language problems, etc.. Everything was very strange to me but very interesting.
Have you been learning some Danish?
Of course, but it’s a very hard language to learn. It’s always nice to learn a new language and when it’s for free, why not do it? Even if you are staying for a shorter time, the language courses will bring you together with other internationals who are in the same situation as you. You also start to understand the culture, because the way you express yourself – the language – has a lot to do with your culture.
What is your experience of the university and studying here?
For me it’s been good. First of all, I didn’t know that you are so informal here. You are on first name terms with the professor. In Greece, you call them Mr. professor and then their surname. You don’t even know their first name. The first day in the class, I heard the Danish students call the professor Anders. I guessed it was some kind of title. It took me some time to understand it was his first name, haha …
The professors are so open. That was a great surprise to me. They get involved in your projects and you can discuss with them. For me, those things were almost unbelievable.
The university is such a nice place where things are not destroyed and the students they are behaving in a proper way. I have 24-hour access to the building at the university. If you did something like that in Greece, I think nothing but the walls would be left standing, haha … I think that somehow the Danes know how to live in a community, like we – a lot of people from southern countries – do not.
What was it like going from being a bachelor to being a master student?
It was very hard and it required a lot of studying. Before I started my masters here, I didn’t even know how to use a computer properly, except for Facebook, mails and browsing. . The difference after a year was very big. Of course in the first couple of months I was quite lost, because the teaching is in English and my English wasn’t so good. I had only used Greek books in my studies, so it was a big difference. Things here seem to move very fast. Faster than I was used to. Education here is more about critical thinking and not about memorising, so it was quite different compared to what I was used to.
I also didn’t have any experience with oral exams or with group work – so everything was new. But you can always ask help from your fellow students.
One difficulty is that it’s not easy to make friends with the Danes or to approach them.. Either I don’t know how to do it or they are not so open. In the master’s programme, it’s mostly the internationals forming a group separate from the Danes. If I could change something here, it would be to make the Danes a bit more open.
Why do you think it is so?
I think the Danes have very closed groups in the sense that they have their Danish friends from school and university and they don’t easily break the circle. It’s understandable on the one hand, but it is difficult for the internationals. It’s not that they will not help you – they are very open people if you ask them something, but you don't feel so close to them. I think the best way to meet Danes is by doing some kind of activity or hobby together like football, singing, knitting or whatever. .
Do you have any Danish friends?
I have my roommate – he’s a fellow student – I also know a family that’s half Danish, half Greek and a Danish lady that I stayed with when I first arrived here. That’s another thing that actually was very surprising to me, that people of different age interact more freely with each other. In Greece, normally you don’t go out with people who have the age of your parents.
Let’s talk a bit about housing …
There are huge housing problems. I think it’s really important when you come here as an international student that you have somewhere to stay without having to search yourself. I think the university should have enough rooms for everybody.
I applied for a place in a hall of residence on the internet. They gave me a room in a hall in Tingbjerg, but most people told me I shouldn’t move there if I was able to find something else. Then, one week before I came here, I incidentally found someone who knew about a place. So I ended up staying for six months with an old lady in Rødovre – very nice but 8.5 km from the university. I was using my bike, so it was a bit hard. After this, one of the students from my master's class – my roommate now – told me that one of his friends had a room available. I then moved into the apartment of my Danish friend from my master’s, and now we have moved to a bigger apartment. It was the fourth time that I moved. Now I can stay as long as I want, because the apartment is in his name, I’m just renting a room.
What’s your rent?
Now it’s about 2200 DKK. In the beginning it was 3000 – so I think the average is 3000-4000 DKK for a room. I know a lot of students pay around 750 euros (5000 DKK) for a room, and I think that’s a lot of money.
Would you recommend others to come here?
Definitely! I like it very much. The city is multicultural and beautiful and you can find almost anything and do whatever you like. Of course everything is a bit expensive, like eating in restaurants, and housing is a big problem – but other than that it is a nice city. Life here is very comfortable and pleasant, there are green areas everywhere and you can do all kinds of sports and activities.
And you like the programme?
Yes, very much. I believe that you will have a very good future when you have been through the education system here. It’s closely connected with the job market, so the knowledge you obtain is useful. It’s a very good university. So … I like it here … haha … what more can I say?
Anything you want to criticise?
No, not anything I haven't mentioned already… In the beginning everything was strange to me, but when you start to understand, it becomes easier. For example – at first I thought the Danes were very rude. But now I understand that this is their way, and they don’t just do it to me – they are also doing it between themselves. A lot of times they say things to you that I wouldn’t say to anyone. For instance … in the beginning I was always using the elevator. One day I just entered the building and ran because the door of the elevator was almost closing. There was a Danish lady in the elevator who looked at me and said “If you’ve got so much energy to run, you should take the stairs instead.” I thought it was so rude, but she was only joking. And now I always take the stairs… hahaha …
Bioinformatics – the Sexiest Field
Andra Tolbus completed her MSc degree in Bioinformatics at University of Copenhagen in 2012. Now she is employed at Agnitio, a Danish company offering marketing software for pharmaceutical companies.