Photo: Joachim Rode

A tender engineer

Friday 08 Sep 17
by Bertel Henning Jensen


Pernille Krogh Ohms
PhD student
DTU Management

Young Global Pioneers

A non-profit organization that establishes global networks for young talents aged between 19 and 25.

Each YGP network starts with a three-week trip to India, China, or Tanzania. The aim of the trip is to stimulate the approximately 20 participants’ global understanding, intercultural competences, and ability to think innovatively in a global context.

Honours Programme at DTu

DTU offers honours programmes on all its MSc Eng study programmes.

Honours programmes are elite study programmes, where students are offered particularly challenging courses.

A maximum of ten 10 per cent of MSc students are admitted to honours programmes. 

She would really have preferred to be an architect, but the combination of aesthetics and technology at DTU Civil Engineering are such a hit with Pernille Ohms that she is ruing the day she has to leave the University.

Pernille Ohms has just returned to a vacationing Denmark after a three-week intense study tour in Tanzania. Nevertheless, she is quick to suggest holding a meeting with DTUavisen out at the University—a place most of her fellow students are keen to avoid in mid-August.

“We may as well meet there—I’m there all the time anyway,” she says happily over the phone as we arrange to meet.

That is just how she is—industrious and dedicated. She does not mind being referred to as an over-achiever, but prefers the word ‘ambitious’. Regardless of the choice of words, she is enrolled in one of DTU’s honours programmes for elite students so there must be some truth to it.

The 24-year-old honours student is working on her Master's in Architectural Engineering at DTU, and has spent part of her summer holiday working in Tanzania with Young Global Pioneers—a talent network for students from all over the world.

Here, she met like-minded people from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Africa and forged contacts and experiences that can hopefully inspire her future career. That is certainly the intention of the network, which each year sends young people on study trips to meet other talented and ambitious students and give them the opportunity to follow lectures at universities and meet companies in the countries they are visiting.

But this is not the most important aspect when Pernille Ohm talks about her trip.

People first

You would think that she would highlight the lectures at the university in Arusha or visits to COWI or Vodacom in Das-es-Salaam. That it would be the professional aspects that weighed most heavily with Pernille Ohm—the daughter of an engineer and sister to a DTU student who has been exposed to engineering since early childhood.

But no....

What features in her retelling of her trip is the meeting with the other students—not in their capacity as students, but as human beings. The Chinese girl whose family was not the slightest bit interested in her education, but only in who she one day would marry. The Masai women who were trapped in loveless forced marriages. And Luiza from Brazil, who fought for women’s rights in her home country.

“She had a passion and a drive which left me standing,” remembers Pernille Ohm, who goes on to talk about one of the boys on the trip:

"My dad’s old school, so I’ve had a hard time convincing him that I’ll end up being a proper engineer... The fact that I’m an honours student is something he finds it much easier to relate to."
Pernille Ohms

“On one of the last days of the trip, he told me about how many beatings his father had given him throughout his childhood and how the beatings had continued at the hands of the older pupils when he arrived at boarding school. I noticed that his handwriting was perfect—really beautiful. And he explained that it was hardly surprising when you get beatings every time you make a mistake.”

This gave Pernille something to think about, as the other students on the trip were in many ways just like her. They shared the same approach to their courses—and many of the same thoughts and reflections. The big difference was that they have had to fight a lot harder for things than people in Denmark:

“I had some very inspiring conversations with the other students. One person said that if you want to be an engineer, you must be the best—or the one who makes a difference in the world. It has to mean something. I could feel that the others on the trip didn’t take their education for granted in the same way many people in Denmark do.”

Soft core

For Pernille Ohm, it was the human experiences that made the biggest impression. And the same sensitivity characterizes her relationship with the engineering profession—there is a ‘tenderness’ to Pernille Ohms, who others might superficially pigeonhole as ‘the perfect student’, given her tremendous diligence and staunch dedication. She is everything politicians could wish for in a student—and yet there remains a softness just below the surface.

“Actually, I wanted to be an architect, but I was worried about my job prospects following graduation, so when I heard about architectural engineering at DTU, the decision came naturally,” she says and continues:

“There are many—mostly seasoned civil engineers—who think that we have a foot in either camp with this programme, and it’s also true that I’ll never be able to do their job. But they’ll probably never be able to do mine either,” she says before breaking into an excited explanation about urban planning and why, for example, the centuries-old Gråbrødre Torv square in Copenhagen works fantastically well as an urban space—while the newly built Ørestad never will.

Photo: Joachim Rode

Dubious dad

“I’ve always loved big cities—and travelling. And I’ve always been aware of when a city was nice place to be—and when it was not. What is it that makes an urban spaces a joy or unsettling—that interests me and appeals to my creative side even though it’s not something that engineers normally like because it is not a quantifiable parameter.”

She has not the slightest doubt that she has landed in the right place—but she is also delighted to have found a degree programme with a softer touch and with a greater human focus than many other engineering subjects:

“My dad’s old school, so I’ve had a hard time convincing him that I’ll end up being a proper engineer. For years he talked about me becoming a ‘kind’ of engineer because he wasn’t familiar with the programme. But it annoyed me just the same. The fact that I’m an honours student is something he finds it much easier to relate to,” says a smiling Pernille Ohm, who can not hide the fact that there is still a good deal of prejudice surrounding architectural engineering:

“When you tell people you’re studying architectural engineering, they sometimes say ‘Oh, so you couldn’t become an architect.’ People refer to the course as ‘part-time engineering’, which tells you something about the fact that it’s not as hardcore as many of the other programmes offered here. For example we have lessons in croquis and that kind of thing, so it’s very creative, and there’s always at least one design subject per semester. But it’s always linked to something technical, so I’m never in doubt that I’m a real engineer,” she says.

Mutual understanding

And that is exactly how she likes it—the combination of technical and human aspects. It is precisely these ‘softer’ aspects of life and the study programme that appeal to her. She therefore highlights an internship and high school stays as some of the experiences that have shaped her the most. And travelling, of course—most recently her trip to Tanzania:

“I believe that in order to be good at designing cities for people, you need a deep understanding of how other cultures live and thrive.

And in general, I think you become better at what you do if you have more than one string to your bow. I don’t know whether you’d actually become a better chemical or mechanical engineer for having attended a folk high school,” she says, then quickly cuts herself short:

“Actually, I think you would. You become better at your subject if you can draw on skills and experiences from another realm.”

Technical aspects a necessity

Her dreams of becoming an architect far behind her, Pernille’s initial focus is completing her MSc—including an exchange semester in Canada—and she is so happy with her studies at DTU that she is in no hurry to leave and enter the labour market. She is right where she wants to be:

“I don’t think that I would’ve made a particularly good architect. I have a great respect for architects, but I would never have thrived in that environment because I still need a high degree of technical emphasis. The converse is also true. If I had studied mechanical engineering, it would’ve been far too technical. So I’m very clear about having landed in the right place,” she says happily.


Photo: Joachim Rode
Pernille Ohm is taking a Master's in Architectural Engineering at DTU. She currently resides at the Villum Kann Rasmussen Hall of Residence together with her brother, who is studying physics and nanotechnology.