New funding provides valuable freedom

Mikael Lund is a chemist who doesn’t wear a lab coat. Instead, his research involves computer models of atoms and molecules. Being named a Future Research Leader means both freedom and new challenges.

Mikael Lund

“Using computer models, we can zoom in on molecular details to gain insights that are difficult to achieve with classic experiments”, says Mikael Lund, a theoretical chemist.

What does it feel like to have received this award ”Future Research Leader” and suddenly have SEK 10 million at your disposal? Does it make you nervous?

“No, mostly relieved. Although shocked at first – it took a day or two for it to sink in”, says Mikael Lund with a smile.

He explains that he was initially doubtful whether to even apply. It takes a lot of time to write an application, which has to be weighed up against the chances of the application being approved and the urgency of the need for funding, he says. With hindsight, he is of course pleased he sent in his application and is looking forward to expanding and strengthening his modelling activities in Lund. By international comparison, these computer models of cellulose and clay are unique. The new funding provides freedom that is valuable for the research, he says.

He turns his computer screen round and shows a sequence of images of a cow to illustrate what his research involves. The cow is gradually reduced to fewer and fewer components. In the end, all that is left is a circle, representing the cow’s body.

“This is another way of describing a cow, depending on what it is you want to study”, he says, pointing at the shape on the screen.

The method is known as coarse graining and involves making the picture less and less detailed with the aim of sifting out the properties one wants to study in the model. The same principle applies to the chemical processes that Mikael Lund studies on the computer. The more details that are retained, the more power the computer needs to perform the calculations. If only the most interesting aspects are retained, much larger calculations can be performed.

With the help of the computer, Mikael Lund studies a range of different processes linked to both basic and applied research. For instance, he studies how ions and small molecules bind to proteins and how this eventually affects the bindings between different proteins. Understanding of this interaction between the proteins is particularly important in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as in food production, where milk proteins, among others, are used on a large scale.

As a Future Research Leader, he also has a strong interest in the terms of employment for researchers. He says that many researchers are calling for better job security. In his own division at the Department of Chemistry, researchers are required to have 50 per cent own funding, and at another related division the level is even higher.

“There is a risk that capable individuals leave academia for the private sector”, he says, emphasising that the strong research environments OMM and eSSENCE have been crucial for him to become established as a researcher, both in terms of finances and valuable contacts.

In his research, Mikael Lund also studies the processes behind the decomposition of cellulose. There is major interest from the Swedish wood industry in finding methods to transform wood fibre into textiles, he says. Clay and cement are other materials that are studied. The way cement hardens has relevance for the creation of stronger cement, which in turn could lead to savings on materials in the construction sector.

“Chemical modelling is very interesting because we can perform experiments on the computer that are expensive, dangerous or simply impossible to carry out in the lab”, says Mikael Lund, explaining that a combination of computer simulations and real experiments is often unrivalled.

Text: Lena Björk Blixt

Photo: Gunnar Menander

“Using computer models, we can zoom in on molecular details to gain insights that are difficult to achieve with classic experiments”, says Mikael Lund, a theoretical chemist.