Multi-tasking at the top

This autumn she was awarded SEK 22 million in ERC grants for her Alzheimer’s research. In addition, she is a member of the Nobel Prize committee for chemistry, she has written children’s books, won the veterans’ European Championship in orienteering and is director of Humlegården, a day centre for people with autism. Meet Professor of Chemistry Sara Snogerup Linse.

Sara Snogerup Linse 2

Sara Snogerup Linse has many irons in the fire. When not doing research, one of her activities is deciding who should receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

When LUM comes to visit, we barely have time to shake hands with Sara Snogerup Linse before her steps turn towards the laboratory.

“I just need to take a quick look at the measurements”, she explains amiably over her shoulder.

She is in the middle of yet another series of experiments, one of several hundred, in the search for knowledge about what drives the early stages in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. After a brief check of the equipment, she patiently explains the various elements of the work going on in the laboratory; how every morning, the samples that are to be measured must be purified, how important it is to work in a cold room for certain stages of the purification process, how the samples are diluted to various concentrations. She attaches great value to taking part in her research team’s laboratory work, not least because she loves the task of actual method development, i.e. designing experiments that can provide answers to the researchers’ questions, but also because she sees it as completely necessary to the research process. Between 30 and 50 per cent of her working hours are spent in the laboratory.

“In this type of experiment, you have to be there yourself in order to understand where the errors are when the measurements do not turn out as expected”, she says.

Sara Snogerup Linse emphasises the importance of not neglecting secondary phenomena that emerge during the experiments; they can provide interesting clues, indicating the way forward. That is why she also thinks it is valuable, as a supervisor of younger colleagues, not to have too close an eye on what they are doing.

“Many discoveries arise by chance, from unexpected mistakes in the laboratory set-up. It is good to get things slightly wrong sometimes,” she says with a smile.

Besides, it was also by chance that Sara Snogerup Linse ended up in her current research on Alzheimer’s. From the outset, she was going to study how nanoparticles affect a particular protein fragment suspected of being involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. To her great surprise, she discovered that there were no well-functioning experiments to understand an underlying molecular process in the context; she realised that this was a research field full of assumptions, without an adequate experimental basis.

“I believe this can happen when a subject is hot and many people launch into it at the same time. Citations of someone else’s speculations can then quickly acquire the status of fact”, says Sara Snogerup Linse.

What she and her research team did instead was to spend a full two years developing a functioning experiment in which all possible sources of error were systematically eliminated. Now she can enjoy the rewards for this patient work, in the form of acclaimed research findings and prestigious ERC funding.

Since 2009, Sara Snogerup Linse is also a member of the Nobel Prize committee for chemistry. She observes that the work of appointing a Nobel Prize winner claims a lot of her time, but that it is very rewarding.

“I see it as an opportunity to study chemistry all over again! You get close insight into the best research and a good overview of researchers’ work within various branches of chemistry”, she says.

Over the past seven years, she has written and illustrated four children’s books in her spare time, together with her partner Kyrre Thalberg. In addition, she practises orienteering, a sport she has loved since she was a child. The fact is that she has not only competed at the elite level in orienteering within Sweden, but also won the veterans’ European Championship and been runner-up in the veterans’ World Championship a couple of years ago.

“It’s fun to be able to realise your hopes and ambitions when you’re old” she laughs.

She is also very committed to the cause of people with autism and, for many years, she has been the director of Humlegården in Södra Sandby, a day centre with outdoor activities for people with autism. One of her three sons, Ulf, had autism, which is what led her to start the organisation at Humlegården together with a few others. Although her son is no longer alive – he died of a seizure three years ago – Sara Snogerup Linse has stayed on as director.

“It is such a good organisation. It is all about allowing the person’s capabilities to emerge by removing the obstacles that come with the disability”, she says, and describes how a clear structure and a predictable everyday routine are important for autistic people, who have trouble planning ahead in several stages.

But where does she get all the energy from? And how does she manage her life as a successful researcher in combination with everything else?

“I learnt from my son Ulf to live in the present, it gives me energy”, she says thoughtfully and explains that for her son there was only now and later, never more than those two stages.

She observes that she is good at prioritising; what she is doing right now is important. When she is in the lab, she does not think about other activities and vice versa. Trying to solve all problems at once only drains energy, she believes. On the other hand she can rapidly switch between the different elements of her work.

“What’s more”, she adds, “it is not worth worrying about not having enough time, as there will always be things you don’t find time to do”. In practice, she tries to set aside blocks of undisturbed time for herself, which is a requirement in order to do good research and to come up with new experiments. Thinking in the same old way does not require separate blocks of undisturbed time, according to Sara Snogerup Linse.

She also explains how she learnt from her son Ulf to see joy in small things, such as a beautiful ray of light coming through the window, or sitting at home enjoying a good cup of coffee.

”I am the sort of person who loves everyday life”, she says.

Text: Lena Björk Blixt

Photo: Gunnar Menander