Rejection led to success

Pitted against a highly competitive field, researcher Karl Börjesson fell just short of securing a grant from the European Research Council, in spite of his first-rate application. Disappointment turned to enthusiasm, however, when the Swedish Foundations organisation decided to fund his research on the strength of the Council’s evaluation. “It’s a true acknowledgement that they believe in my ideas and consider them interesting,” says Börjesson.

Sitting on the eighth floor of the Chemistry Building, Börjesson calls out into the corridor:
“I’ll be with you in a second, Alexei!”

Alexei is a doctoral student, and the second staff member hired to form part of Börjesson’s new chemistry research group. Another doctoral student was also recruited to the group earlier, which is so new that, in reality, it barely exists yet.
“The contract for the research funding hasn’t been signed yet, but the Swedish Research Council has announced the grant on your website, so I trust that everything is in order,” says Börjesson and smiles.

At the time of our meeting, barely two weeks have passed since Börjesson received the news that he is set to receive up to SEK 14 million in funding over five years through the Swedish Foundations’ Starting Grant. The chain of events leading to this windfall began when Börjesson applied for a starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Competition for ERC research grants is fierce, and Börjesson fell just short of successful selection. Although this was a setback, the Swedish Foundations organisation subsequently decided to grant Börjesson five years’ funding based on the ERC’s evaluation.

“The ERC is incredibly thorough in its assessments and awarded me the highest grade, ‘A’. The Swedish Foundations organisation doesn’t have the capacity to carry out the same assessments, but felt it could use the ERC’s evaluation as grounds for assessment. It feels great; my research is secured for the next several years and I have the ability to plan and put together my own group.”

Börjesson holds a PhD in physical chemistry and sees himself as a chemist working in the borderland between chemistry and physics.
“I like that chemistry is about building things. It’s a bit like Meccano or LEGO, except that I’m building molecules; if I want a certain type of molecule, I build it.”

Börjesson’s research focuses on light and what are known as excited molecular states. This concept describes all states in which an atom or molecule has a higher energy than in its ground state. In his research, Börjesson infuses molecules with energy, and his aim is to be able to control what happens to that energy. In other words, he investigates what you need to do to make molecules behave the way you want.

One area where the results of Börjesson’s research may be applied is in designing screens for mobile phones. He points out that there is a relatively long way to go before his results will be useful in this kind of area of application, however.

“I study the physical process involved in light emission. I hope that my group and I will be able to produce results that, in the long run, will have a practical use and will drive the applications forward.”

Börjesson carried out his post-doctoral work at the University of Strasbourg, which is recognised as one of the world’s premier institutions in the field of chemistry. The university’s status was further cemented while Börjesson was working there when, one autumn day in 2013, the news came that Professor Martin Karplus, who worked in the office next to his, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“All of a sudden an almighty hullabaloo broke out in the corridor. Karplus wasn’t in his office, though, so his phone rang non-stop for the entire day, and people with cameras this big came in,” Börjesson explains, measuring a span of over half a metre with his hands.

Börjesson returned to Gothenburg in 2014, and last spring he received the Ingvar Carlsson Award, research funding that gave him the opportunity to establish himself as a research associate. These funds are granted on the condition that their recipient change department or even university, however. In Börjesson’s case, this meant moving from Chalmers University to the University of Gothenburg in September 2015.

“I think changing environments is a good thing, that research benefits when you receive input from fields completely different to those you work in. I think you can get a bit drained when you work with the same thing for a long time. At the department I was working in at the University of Strasbourg, no two research groups worked on the same thing.”

Karl Börjesson

Karl Börjesson, Kemi, Naturvetenskapliga fakultetenAge: 34
Family: Wife and two children
Occupation: Researcher at the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology
Happiest when: “Work-wise, it’s when I can be in the lab and figure out a solution to some problem. Otherwise, it’s when I’m with my loved ones.”
Hobbies: “I like brewing my own beer. Other than that, I have my hands full with research and my family.”
Latest news: One of five researchers to receive the prestigious Swedish Foundations’ Starting Grant. The Swedish Foundations organisation is made up of four different foundations, including Ragnar Söderbergs Stiftelse and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.