Foto Peter Clausen

“It’s great helping to make humanity smarter”

Tuesday 21 Jan 20


Thea Maria Bjørk Kristensen
PhD student
DTU Fotonik
+45 45 25 68 74


Thea Maria Bjørk Kristensen is 27 years old and has a house in Valby where she lives with two cats and two tenants.

2019-2022. PhD student at DTU Fotonik
2019: MSc in Photonics
2018-2019: Student assistant and later engineer at Norlase
2016: BSc in physics and nanotechnology
2016: Assistant lecturer at DTU Qualifying Education
2013-2018: ‘Nanotekar’ at DTU Physics
2015-2016: Substitute teacher and homework assistant at Sukkertoppen high school, Denmark

If you ask Thea Bjørk what brings her most satisfaction in her daily life, her immediate response is: “getting things to work down in the lab.” A PhD student at DTU Fotonik, she both has a flair for laser experiments - and the patience such experiments demand.

Our desire to do a feature on Thea Bjørk does not come as a surprise to her. As one of the few women at DTU Fotonik, she is accustomed to being noticed and chosen for all kinds of things—during her studies she has often been used as ‘poster girl’ to sell the programme. Not that she has anything against it, but she finds the whole thing a bit comical.

“What’s it all for?” she asks. “It doesn’t reflect reality. In photonics, electronics, and physics study programmes, women are in the minority. You have to be able to take being part of a male-dominated environment where the tone is different than it is between women. It’s much harsher and if you can’t take being teased, you’re going to have a very hard time. There’s no mum’s shoulder to cry on.”

Thea is used to it. At HTX, there were two girls in the class, but the boys said: ‘There’s only one—you count for a half each.’ She was not bothered by this because she also sees herself as a bit of a tomboy who has always wanted to play Battlefield with the boys rather than chat about clothes and makeup with the girls.

“I was mainly raised by my dad. He gave me a remote-controlled car for my birthday and I had a secret hideout with my own camouflage netting. I also had a Barbie doll, but I couldn’t be bothered playing with it,” she says.

There is only one remark that really annoys Thea: ‘You only get a good grade because you are a girl.’ Unfortunately, it is something she has heard many times—also at DTU.

"I’ve spent endless hours in the lab, but my life philosophy is that as long as I think something’s fun, exciting, instructive, and interesting, it doesn't matter what I do."
Thea Bjørk

“It may be a joke, but it’s not funny. You need to be confident to shrug off that kind of statement,” she says oozing confidence.

Designed her own programme

Her energy level and good spirits are evident. Ever since she had to do a high school report on laser diffraction, Thea has known that she wanted to work with light. She finds the effects of light on nature interesting and exciting to exploit—and especially interesting that you can use light to manipulate materials. In fact, this is also the subject of her current PhD.

During her time at high school, she accepted an invitation to attend a week-long Optics Camp at DTU during the summer holidays—‘for real geeks’ she smiles. Here she saw for the first time the laser laboratory where she now works—and she was utterly captivated.

“They made plasma with a laser. It was super cool to see how the air gets ionized and the molecules torn apart. There were lots of colours and mirrors and it all looked very scientific.”

But before you can study photonics, you need a BSc in physics. And it almost proved too much for Thea even though she had an average top grade from high school and physics and mathematics at level A.

“It was a mistake to take HTX. Here you learn to program and a whole lot of other stuff, but not how to work out sums on paper with a pencil and a rubber as your only aids. So when I started at DTU, I got a big wakeup call—I failed the first test in mathematics,” she says.

But she did not give up, and when she took the experimental photonics course, everything fell into place. She got 02 in the theoretical part and 12 in the experimental, which showed her which road to take. She simply loves her time in the lab and she can spend a whole day adjusting a ‘stupid mirror’ down to the last nanometre without realizing where the time has gone.

After the first experimental course, Thea began taking a lot of special courses. Instead of the electives that were part of the recommended package, she went straight to the professors and said:
“Hey, I’ve five points and I think what you’re doing is exciting. Do you have a project for me?”

On the MSc programme, a three-week course even ended up as a three-month research project in Canada. Throughout her education she has attained the skills she wanted, ending up with a unique profile and a lot of experimental experience.

“The fact that it’s doable is one of the most amazing things about DTU. Of course, you shouldn’t take special courses with the idea of lightening the workload. Quite the opposite in fact—it can lead to more work. I’ve spent endless hours in the lab, but my life philosophy is that as long as I think something’s fun, exciting, instructive, and interesting, it doesn't matter what I do.”

Sailing is like natural science

Thea could easily have ended up as a professional sailor. She sailed an optimist dinghy from the age of nine and was on the Danish national team for two years. But at a certain point she realized that she would rather have an education, and instead of pursuing her own sailing career, she became active in DTU Sejlsport (DTU Sailing). She wanted to get others interested in the sport and succeeded in increasing club membership—thereby ensuring that the club was not completely closed by DTU Sport.

But now Thea believes that the club can stand on its own two feet, so she is back in her own dinghy, setting sail from Hellerup Harbour as often as possible—among other things to take part in competitions around the country.

For Thea, sailing and the natural sciences are closely related. Sailing is actually highly theoretical. When you prepare for a competition, you try to work out the best course—you take into account how the wind changes in relation to the landscape, etc.

“That’s vector calculation, and the process is incredibly similar to conducting an experiment. You start by checking the weather forecast and the course. Then you form a hypothesis, and when you finally sail, you find out if the hypothesis is correct. It’s all about patience. When you spend the whole day at 0-2 metres per second, you learn to be patient in achieving a goal. I think this has really helped me in my experimental work.”

The future

After graduation, Thea worked for half a year at Norlase—a spinout from DTU which has developed a laser for operating glaucoma. But she wanted to delve deeper into theoretical physics and realized that if you are serious about doing industry-related research, it is a good idea to add a PhD to your CV.

Professor Peter Uhd Jepsen, with whom she had taken special courses, had a project he thought she should take a look at. She started in September and was thrown head-first into the task of getting different materials—including graphene—to generate terahertz pulses. The very long wavelengths and short pulses are very good for investigating the properties of materials without causing damage or initiating unwanted processes.

“Many people ask me what you can use it for. But it’s basic research and it can be difficult to see a direct perspective in the real world. I don't know if it’s going to work. But it’s great if you can help to make humanity smarter and solve some of the problems we face. I don’t have any ambitions like becoming a CEO and making lots of money. I just want to know more and delve deeper into the natural sciences.”

Thea has also taught quite a bit and enjoys sharing her knowledge.

“Unfortunately there’s a shortage of skilled physics and math teachers—especially women teachers. So I’m happy to act as a kind of role model and say, ‘Hey, it’s not that dangerous’—if I can do it, so can you.

I’ve not been a top-grade student at DTU at all. But you don’t have to be—you just have to have the desire and the determination. If you’re really passionate, you’ll succeed in achieving your goals.”

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