Robert Madsen - Fotograf Bax Lindhardt

"I think chemistry is the most exciting subject in the world - it probably shows in my teaching"

Wednesday 02 Oct 19

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Robert Madsen
Professor
DTU Chemistry
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Professor Robert Madsen is one of the lecturers of the year—according to DTU students.

Robert Madsen is no natural talent as a lecturer. In the evaluations he received at the start of his career, he was criticized for being boring and monotonous. He soon realized this himself, and in the true manner befitting a researcher, he began analysing his personality and performance. And based on that analysis, he developed his very own personal style.

“Teaching is a kind of performance art and you can’t take a captive audience for granted. That’s why you have to make an effort to deliver a commodity the students find valuable,” he says.
Direct communication—was one of the important dogmas that Robert discovered. Having your eyes glued to a computer screen or a script does not work—and he never uses PowerPoint presentations. Robert is a firm believer in a good old-fashioned teaching method—he moves energetically around the blackboard—with a pointer and chalk in several colours as his only teaching aids.

“The blackboard places certain restrictions on how much you can communicate. That’s why it forces you to cut to the bone,” he explains.

But despite having no script, there is nothing improvised about Roberts’ lectures. Before every lesson, he spends half a working day preparing—typically the day before—not the night before because he never does anything at the last minute.

“That way I’m sure I can memorize everything for the next day. This leaves me free to focus on getting the message across in a clear, intelligible way. I don't use a microphone, and my style may have developed from the fact that the many people in the auditorium need to be able to hear what I’m saying.”

Key role

Robert has taught the introductory courses in organic chemistry for almost 20 years. In that time he has met a wealth of students—both those with a keen interest in the subject and those who are mostly there because they have no choice.

“It can be hard to excite them all, but Robert manages to make the subject interesting to most people thanks to his personality. So he is a key person for the department,” says his colleague, Professor David Tanner.

Robert also never tires of seeing the students move on:

“I get older myself, of course, but the students are always the same young age. Every new batch of students looks differently at things than the year before, which is hugely inspiring. I always participate in the exercises after the lecture, as it gives me the chance to get closer to the students. Then they speak more freely and I can measure the effectiveness of my teaching—the more hands that go up, the worse the lecture, which allows me to make adjustments for the next one.”

Chemistry is a practical subject

Robert comes from a family of farmers dating all the way back to the 1600s. Growing up, he helped out on the farm and was very good at looking after the cows. The family had 34, and Robert knew each and every one of them—and exactly what every moo meant.

The obvious thing would have been for Robert to take over the farm and continue in the family’s footsteps—but he realized early on that agriculture was becoming a state-regulated industry where farmers would lose their freedom. So instead he opted for his favourite subject at high school.

“Chemistry is a subject that unites theory and practice. You can get an idea in the morning and try it out in the lab in the afternoon. That really appealed to me,” he says.

Although practical work was always close to his heart, Robert displayed an above-average interest in the theoretical side of the chemistry and from the outset dreamed of becoming a researcher. He certainly knew he did not want to become a high school teacher and therefore chose to study at DTU where he could see that there were more career opportunities.

It turned out to be a good choice. He found the study programme easy—so much so that he decided to challenge himself by studying economics at CBS at the same time.

“I was a little uncertain about my future and was also interested in economics—I traded shares in typical yuppie style. I managed to complete both studies concurrently, but I ended up choosing the research route at DTU and have never used my economics degree for anything.”

White spots on the chemistry map

If he had the whole thing to do over, Robert would not split his time in this way. Instead, he would opt to complete his studies at DTU faster—even though it was barely possible, given that it only took him four and a half years to graduate.

Looking back on things, Robert thinks that his double studies gave him the sense that he could deal with just about anything and that it taught him not to fear challenges—nor has he in the course of his research career. He has changed track and launched himself into new research areas several times.

“My vision of the researcher is that of an explorer. I look for white spots on the chemical map and try to sail my ship—or my research group—in that direction. If you just sail around the area where all the others are, you probably won’t discover anything new.”

One of the white spots Robert is trying to explore is catalysts—i.e. metals that speed up chemical reaction. He has also discovered several new and highly efficient catalysts, but as yet none have proved effective enough for large-scale industry.

“It takes a lot of optimization and I haven’t had the necessary resources. But that’s probably not the researcher’s job either. So I’m moving on in true Christoffer Columbus style,” he smiles. 

“Sustainability is a driving force for me. Our way of life is not sustainable in the long-term—not even in the field of chemistry. Annual global production of some of the metals we use is a few tonnes, which is clearly unsustainable. I would like to help to make the world a better place through my research. A lofty ambition—and perhaps a cliche. But we need new discoveries before we can make the necessary transition.”

Important journey of discovery

Apart from five years in the United States at the universities of Duke and Stanford, Robert’s entire research career has been at DTU. At Stanford, he became part of the world’s top organic chemistry research group. It was really instructive and exciting, and he would not hesitate to encourage his students to travel abroad and gain international experience while they are still young.

At the time, Robert considered living abroad, but he has never regretted his decision to return to Denmark. He feels there is a high respect for Danish research and that he has enjoyed many opportunities within his field. Opportunities that he, according to colleagues, also knows how to manage.

“He’s a skilled and visionary researcher who can look holistically at his own research and change course along the way,” says Associate Professor Charlotte Gotfredsen.
“He is also extremely diligent and thorough, and his door is always open to colleagues and students.”

Cycles to stay fit

Robert never does anything half-heartedly, which is one of the reasons he turned his back on farming and livestock.

“I miss it and think about it every day, but it couldn’t be any different. Being a leading researcher is a full-time occupation. It requires total dedication.”

So he simply enjoys the sight of other farms from the comfort of his bicycle saddle—minus an engine or racing equipment.

The crucial thing for me isn’t to get from A to B quickly — I’m just looking for exercise and the experience of nature. It’s important to stay in physical shape—both to stay healthy and to be a good lecturer. Giving an inspiring two-hour lecture is a demanding task.“

It is safe to say that Robert has grown into the teaching role, and if all else had failed, he would probably have ended up as a high school teacher.

“This is a really important job, and I don’t think there is enough prestige in providing quality education. It is easier to set target numbers on good research. I am therefore incredibly proud to receive the Lecturer of the Year award. Now I have proof that I know how to teach.”

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