Foto Bax Lindhardt

PhD students talk about sustainability in high school

Thursday 24 Oct 19


Taja Andersen Brenneche
Academic Officer
+45 45 25 10 57

PhD ambassadors for SDGs

At DTU, all PhD students are required to complete a short course in scientific knowledge dissemination and the UN Sustainable Development Goals as part of their PhD programme. As part of the course, they are taught presentation techniques and develop a presentation. They also gain an insight into sustainability perspectives of their research, and how their research relates to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Having completed the course, they can sign up and volunteer to visit high schools to talk about the research they are passionate about. The purpose is to attract attention to and make high school students more interested in the technical and natural sciences, and to highlight how the engineering sciences can play a key role in realising the 17 SDGs.

Read more about how to book a PhD student (in Danish)

Book a PhD student is a new service offered by DTU to Danish high schools. It is a chance for students to learn about the ideas of young researchers, how they work, and how their research is contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

When the black mamba came to Rødovre

It is a reasonable assumption that, thankfully, most of the 40 high school students assembled in a densely packed biology room at Rødovre Gymnasium this Tuesday afternoon in October are unlikely to ever suffer a potentially fatal snakebite. 

But this doesn’t dampen their fascination as they listen attentively to PhD student Cecilie Knudsen talking about her research into finding antivenoms for snakebites and an effective way of diagnosing snakebites, and about her own route into an academic career as an industrial PhD student at DTU, having herself graduated from Rødovre Gymnasium back in 2012.

Cecilie has prepared detailed and colourful illustrations to go with her presentation. And to make clear the extent of the problem which she and her ‘venom team’ have set out to resolve, we are first presented with some thought-provoking and scary facts:

Every six seconds, somebody somewhere is bitten by a snake. So, by the end of the presentation, 800 people will have been bitten – with unpredictable consequences for both them and their families.

Every year, approximately 400,000 suffer permanent disability following snakebites, and 125,000 deaths occur annually. And this is happening in some of the world’s poorest areas where access to treatment and health care is limited.

The figures help to emphasize the severity of the problem, and the students go very quiet.

Foto Bax Lindhardt

From here, Cecilie moves on, spicing up her presentation with curious and quite funny stories about some of the more alternative methods that have been used to treat snakebites.

They range from whisky (in considerable quantities) to freezing, cauterization, and electric shock to sucking out the venom yourself. Those days are now over, but medicine men and magic snake stones that are said to be able to extract the venom still exist.

Venomous cocktail

"A presentation like Cecilie’s is inspiring for our students. It injects fresh energy into our courses, and our students value that."
Liane Damsø, biology teacher at Rødovre Gymnasium

Snake venom is a unique cocktail of up to more than 100 toxins, Cecilie explains and shows in a video how a drop of venom very quickly causes blood to solidify. We are told about cytotoxins, hemotoxins, and fibrin, about neurotoxins and transmitters, and we are introduced to the black mamba—which out of hundreds of snake species is her primary focus area.

This is not Cecilie’s first visit to a high school. Every time she has to carefully tailor the contents and complexity of her talk to the students’ specific background, she explains after the presentation. Today, she got it right. The students—who are all senior high school students—are all doing high-level biotech and are already very knowledgeable in the field.

One element of Cecilie’s research involves animal experiments, and some of the students shudder at the sight of photographs of mice having venom injected straight into their brains. Others feel emotional hearing about the way in which small doses of venom are injected into horses to make them produce antivenom, and questions are asked.

At one point, Cecilie throws in a quiz challenging students to identify snakes from pictures. We see a close-up of the relatively harmless and well-known adder, a forest cobra, an Indian saw-scaled viper (responsible for causing the most snakebites), and, of course, the black mamba.

Reliable diagnoses

Cecilie Knudsen’s current research is about developing a new way of finding out what type of snake a patient has been bitten by. The method must be cheap, fast, and effective. Students prick their ears as she—nerdily—starts describing her research practice: the endless experiments, how they must try and try again, how they fail and try again until they finally get there. Which is basically how it is with all research.

Ahead of her is a trip to Brazil to further test their method. It involves a kind of test stick, a lateral flow assay—not unlike a pregnancy test—which probably looks quite simple, and which must be simple to use, but which is based on extremely thorough analyses and experiments conducted over a long period of time.

The goal is for the test stick to be able to quickly say which snake is responsible for a snakebite, based on a single drop of blood from the patient. Then you can quickly decide on the right antivenom to administer.

For Cecilie Knudsen, it’s important to highlight that biotech is an extremely broad scientific discipline with countless applications. Looking at the UN’s 17 SDGs, Good Health and Well-being is the most obviously relevant field, but by no means the only one.

The SDGs

After an intense hour in the company of fearsome snakes and filled with fascinating scientific facts, the students are asked to present their ideas on how biotech can support the realisation of the SDGs.

Several of the students are able to draw on knowledge from their own projects. They mention, for example, hunger and nutrition, and the vital role that algae may come to play. One girl points out that gender equality is also an important SDG, but the link to biotech needs exploring further.

What does the teacher and students say?

Liane Damsø, biology teacher at Rødovre Gymnasium:
“A presentation like Cecilie’s is inspiring for our students, and it’s a chance to meet a young researcher they can relate to. It makes it very real for them what studying and research can be about and lead to. It injects fresh energy into our courses, and our students value that. We would like our students to meet both students and researchers from different fields of biotech. And academically Cecilie’s presentation is a perfect supplement to our teaching because the immune system and ELISA tests are part of our core curriculum. Moreover, the students have previously worked on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which makes them highly relevant also.”

Foto Bax Lindhardt

Anna Timm Sørensen (year 3) biotech specialisation:
“It was quite exciting to hear about Cecilie’s incredibly in-depth work. Personally, I’d like to do medicine because I’m interested in the way in which the body reacts to vaccines and antidotes, like antivenoms. And it’s inspiring to see how research involves a process of exploring something, of finding errors, and of elimination as you work towards your result. I probably thought that everything would be happening in a laboratory, but it’s great that you also get to travel and enter competitions.

Foto Bax Lindhardt

Marcus Lund (year 3), biotech specialisation:
“Snake venom is a rather exotic field of research which I didn’t know anything about beforehand. But it was interesting to see how an idea can evolve into a finished product and turn into real work. And then it was really cool to hear about how she goes about getting funding for her continued research. At the moment, my plan is to study psychology, among other things because I’d like to work in brain research.

Cecilie Knudsen

Cecilie Knudsen is an industrial PhD student at the Department of Biotechnology and Biomedicine at DTU. She is extremely interested in deadly snake venoms and in increasing survival rates in patients who have been bitten by snakes. She is motivated by helping to develop better medicine and more effective diagnostics. Both can help in the fight against a serious illness which has been characterised by the UN–in Target 3.3. under Goal 3 and inspired by the WHO–as an example of a neglected tropical disease which is most prevalent in areas where people have limited resources.

Her work with venomous snakes falls into two categories. In her MSc thesis, she focused on inventing a new type of antivenom which should be better, cheaper, and with fewer side-effects than currently available antivenoms. And for her PhD, her research involves developing a piece of diagnostic equipment which can tell exactly which types of snake a patient has been bitten by. The advantage is that the sooner you can identify the type of snake, the sooner you will be able to start treatment using the right antivenom, without having to wait until the venom starts causing symptoms in the patient.