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The PhD supervisor of the year sets an example for ambitious younger female researchers

Professor Helle Terkildsen Maindal from the Department of Public Health receives the JCD Prize 2021. In addition to being a talented and well-liked supervisor, she is also a role model for her PhD students. She boosts her students and helps them through the practical and organisational challenges faced by younger female research talents in particular.

2021.01.28 | Sabina Bjerre Hansen

Helle Terkildsen Maindal is the PhD supervisor of the year at Health. She received the prize and the accompanying personal award of DKK 25,000 at Health's PhD Day on 22 January 2021. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo.

Helle Terkildsen Maindal is the PhD supervisor of the year at Health. She received the prize and the accompanying personal award of DKK 25,000 at Health's PhD Day on 22 January 2021. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo.

"As female researchers, it is inspiring to see Helle exemplify in excellence that an ambitious research career can be combined with a family life, winter bathing, and time for travelling."

This is what the three PhD students Anne Timm, Maja Thøgersen, Nanna Husted Jensen and Postdoc Anna Aaby wrote in their joint nomination of Helle Terkildsen Maindal for the Jens Christian Djurhuus or JDC Prize, commonly known as ‘PhD Supervisor of the Year’.

Our supervisor is a role model

Each year, the PhD Association at Health awards the JCD Prize to a particularly committed PhD supervisor, and only the PhD students themselves can nominate candidates and select the winner. This year, the faculty's best PhD supervisor is Helle Terkildsen Maindal, and she is particularly proud of the above-mentioned two lines in the recommendation.

"I’m obviously pleased that my PhD students see me as a role model. I’m happy to take on the role of ambassador for showing that it’s possible to combine having a family and being active in your leisure time with an ambitious research career. In fact, I think that having more dimensions in your life than just work makes you a better and more reflected researcher," she says.

Acknowledge supervision

Helle Terkildsen Maindal does not hide the fact that taking responsibility for a junior researcher’s academic development over a number of years is a big responsibility. And for this reason, she is disappointed that supervision work is not recognised as an educational activity in the job descriptions of academic staff, instead being considered part of their research.

"I'm ambitious on behalf of my PhD students, and I take the role of supervisor seriously. Management should do the same if we’re to succeed in creating a healthy and well-nourished pool of talented researchers who continue to carry out research after their PhD," says Helle Terkildsen Maindal and elaborates.

"At my department, we must deliver the same number of classroom hours, regardless of whether we have PhD students or not. All things being equal, this leaves both a limited number of hours and incentive to focus on e.g. the students' career development, on supporting their pedagogical skills and on supporting them wherever it is they need that support."

Researchers should also have the opportunity to start a family

For Helle Terkildsen Maindal, it is crucial that early career researchers have good conditions and receive qualified supervision, so that the pool of talented researchers can really take root in the research environments. She believes that we as a university ought to ensure that both younger women and men can forge a career in research. It must be possible to start a family while at the same time taking the first fledgling steps in a research career. However, this presupposes that the university adapts the organisational and structural frameworks which younger female researchers in particular often trip over.

"Younger female researchers should, for example, be able to work part-time for a number of years, and in connection with appointments we must take maternity periods properly into account, e.g. in relation to publications. This is possible if we think more in terms of research programmes and teams. Both female and male colleagues should prioritise supporting their colleagues, even while these colleagues are on maternity leave, so they have something to return to. They must not be put on standby due to maternity or paternity leave and young children. We must support each other and respect that working life must occasionally make way for private life. That’s only natural – for all workplaces," she says.

She motivates, recognises your work and is always ready to help

Back to Helle Terkildsen Maindal’s academic and personal involvement in not only supervision but also in the lives of her PhD students.

"Helle is always the first to call and encourage us, no matter whether it's about sparring on a scientific publication, announcing a pregnancy or discussing an interesting tweet. She has even stepped in as both chauffeur and babysitter, pushing the stroller up and down the streets while we’ve held presentations for the Danish Health Authority, the Danish Diabetes Association and local authorities all over Denmark," write the four women in their nomination.

Helle Terkildsen Maindal has been supervisor for 11 completed PhD degree programmes, and is currently PhD supervisor for a further eight projects – four as principal supervisor and another four as co-supervisor.

Helle Terkildsen Maindal:

  • Was one of Denmark's first professors of health promotion when she was appointed in 2017.
  • Gained her PhD degree in 2009.
  • Has been employed at Health since 2005, interrupted only by a two-year appointment as head of research at the Steno Diabetes Center in Copenhagen.
  • Was already a supervisor while writing her own PhD project as she already had lots of managerial and teaching experience.
  • Was originally educated as a nurse, and has always been driven by a passion for working with health. Considered a career as a sports journalist, but found her rightful place in public health science.
  • Conducts research into the prevention of major prevalent diseases, particularly diabetes, and social inequality in health.
  • Is the coming chair of the Danish Society for Public Health, member of the research committee and advisory committee for the Danish Diabetes Association and affiliated expert on Aarhus Municipality's health promotion committee, etc.

The JCD Prize:

  • Is named after Professor Jens Christian Djurhuus, who was head of the Department of Clinical Medicine from 1978 to 2012.
  • Is awarded annually (since 2012) by the PhD Association at Health to a supervisor who has done an extraordinary job.
  • Has been given to Christian Kanstrup Holm (2020), Ole Mors (2019) and Per Kallestrup (2018) among others. 


Professor Helle Terkildsen Maindal
Aarhus University, Department of Public Health
Mobile: (+45) 25 46 23 20
Email: htm@ph.au.dk

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