Photo: Joachim Rode

"The most important thing is to contribute to society"

Friday 08 Mar 19


Xiaolin Hou
DTU Environment
+45 46 77 53 57
Portrait: Colleagues at DTU Nutech characterize Xiaolin Hou as an extremely skilled chemist with a tremendous work capacity. He is now being honoured with the world’s most prestigious award in the field of nuclear chemistry—namely the Hevesy Medal Award.

May 5 will be something of a red-letter day for Professor Xiaolin Hou. At a major conference in Budapest, Hungary, he will receive the highest recognition in radio analysis and nuclear chemistry—the Hevesy Medal Award—from the scientific community. The medal was established in memory of George de Hevesy who received the Nobel Prize in 1943 and who also worked closely with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen.

Xiaolin Hou is 52 years old and the youngest recipient of the award to date. Of the previous 42 recipients, the youngest was 60, and the award is usually given for lifelong achievement, so Xiaolin’s initial reaction to the nomination was: “I’m not that old.”

While naturally proud and delighted to be receiving this award, it is important for him not to view it as the crowning achievement of his career. He is happy to devote another 20 years of his life in the service of science and society.

“I’m still aiming to improve and contribute more. It gives me energy to think like this. If I said, ‘now I’ve fulfilled my potential’, the world would be a lot less interesting,” says Xiaolin with a hearty laugh.

World famous

The list of Xiaolin’s academic qualifications is long, but if you ask him which achievement he is most proud of, he replies modestly:

“Well yes, there are a few of them that have benefited society.”

Since 2001, he has, among other things, developed a number of analytical methods to determine low-level isotopes in the environment.

"DTU offers me exciting opportunities and everyone respects my skills and the plans I have for my research."
Professor Xiaolin Hou

“With these methods you can make accurate measurements based on very small air or water samples. The measuring methods are easy to use and do not require toxic chemicals as in previous methods. We have also automated the process, so you can just turn on the apparatus and go home, and when you arrive in the morning, the result is ready,” he says with a smile.

Readers may be wondering why these methods were developed in Denmark—a country which never introduced nuclear power and where the experimental reactor at Risø was shut down in 2000. However, from time to time there are nuclear meltdowns of varying degrees of severity in the world around us, so it is important to be able to measure whether any radioactive leaks pose a threat to the country.

Similarly, when cleaning up following the closure of a nuclear installation, it is also necessary to measure the level of radiation in the materials. Xiaolin’s method has also both been used by Danish Decommissioning, which took over the work of dismantling Risø’s nuclear facility—and the method has spread to other places in the world following the closure of nuclear power stations.

“Because of Xiaolin’s method, DTU has a fine reputation with regard to handling such difficult analyses. And the method also represents a significant part of DTU Nutech’s financial foundation,” says Sven P. Nielsen, Scientific Director of Radioecology until 2015.

At home in Denmark

Xiaolin came to Denmark in 1998, shortly after receiving his PhD from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He had met the head of department of the then Isotope laboratory at Risø—Kaj Heydorn—at a conference and applied for a postdoc position there. Heydorn, however, was approaching retirement, but passed Xiaolin’s papers on to his successor, who immediately declared: “Yes, we want him.” And neither party has had cause to regret the decision.

“DTU offers me exciting opportunities and everyone respects my skills and the plans I have for my research. I travel a lot and often work for shorter periods elsewhere in the world. But only in Denmark do I feel that I’m on firm ground. Here I feel relaxed and comfortable,” says Xiaolin.

The only thing that bothers him a little is the language. On his arrival to Denmark, Xiaolin, with his usual zeal, immediately embarked on the task of learning Danish, quickly attaining the highest level at the language school—i.e. in reading and writing. Pronunciation, however, is and will continue to be a huge challenge. He simply finds it difficult to distinguish different sounds in the Danish language. Danish has, however, become a part of his everyday language, among other things, at Christmas parties where—according to the current section manager, Jixin Qiao—Xiaolin always contributes very positively with its relaxed and humorous manner:

“A typical remark from Xiaolin is, for example: ‘ the Danish language is very easy: when you say hello you say ‘hej’—and when you say goodbye, you just say ‘hej, hej’,” she says.

Photo: Joachim Rode

World’s best lecturer

Jixin was also Xiaolin’s first PhD student, something she thinks back on with pleasure.

“He’s extremely knowledgeable and I learned a lot from him. But he was also good at making you think for yourself and not just giving you the answers,” she says.

And Xiaolin explains:

“When I don’t provide a solution, it’s also because my way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best. That’s just science. I learn a lot from my students. If their way turns out to work better, I simply switch. The most important thing in science is to be open to new ideas and always aim to do better.”

Xiaolin will do whatever it takes to help his students get ahead and help them whenever they need it. But he does not force them to work as hard as he does.

“It’s important they follow their own plan. But if they want to do more, I’m happy to help. And I always give feedback as quickly as possible. If they send me something on a Friday evening, they have a response before the following Monday,” he chuckles.

Collaboration—the root of all good

Xiaolin prefers talking about his group’s results than his own. You can be very skilled, but truly great results only come from cooperating with others, he says. And this is a mindset that he believes characterizes the entire Danish educational system.

“In Denmark, you learn to cooperate—from primary school to University. In my research group, too, where we all have different academic competences, we discuss all the solutions and really work as a team. That’s very different from what I experienced in China.”

In general, Xiaolin’s Chinese upbringing is a far cry from that of his own children. For him, the choice of education, for example, was less about what he wanted to and his abilities—and more about how his parents and teachers viewed his job opportunities. Xiaolin was best at physics in high school, but went on to study chemistry. Following graduating at MSc level, he was left with two options: To take the job designated to him by the authorities in the little town where he had grown up—or continue at university.

Xiaolin chose the academic route and was now ready to enrol as an environmental chemist. However, the evening before the entrance exam it dawned on him that the professor at the department was not registered as supervisor. So he had to change horses in midstream, opting instead for the study programme in radio chemistry. Fortunately, he passed his entrance exam and escaped being sent back to his home region. And it turned out to be a good choice, for he has been able to use his knowledge of radioactive isotopes in the service of the environment to study how the world’s oceans transport all kinds of pollution.

But Xiaolin’s own children can choose freely in which direction they want to go.

“The most important thing is that they contribute something useful to society. And how do we ensure this—by constantly striving to be better. The harder you work, the greater your potential contribution.”


Photo: Joachim Rode

Xiaolin Hou is 52 years old and lives in Valby, Denmark, with his wife, who is also Chinese. They have a son aged 27 and a daughter aged 13.

2013 – Professor at DTU Nutech
2007: Senior Researcher at DTU Nutech
2003: Member of the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences, Nuclear and Radiochemistry Division
2003: Senior Researcher, Risø National Laboratory
2002: Member of the Board of the International Nuclear Chemistry Society
1998: Postdoc at Risø National Laboratory
1995 – 1997: PhD studies at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
1991 – 1995: Research Assistant at the China Institute of Atomic Energy
1988 – 1991: MSc studies at the China Institute of Atomic Energy
1984 – 1988: BSc studies at the Northwest University, China