Charles Marcus – Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

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Charles Marcus

Charles Marcus came to the NBI from Harvard University, USA and has been employed as Villum Kann Rasmussen Professor at NBI since 2011. He is now the director of the Center for Quantum Devices and Microsoft Station Q – Copenhagen here in Copenhagen.

Professor Marcus has recently been awarded the prize for ’Research Excellence in Nanotechnology’ by the nanoscience centre, NBIC at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. It is an international prize and is given in recognition of outstanding research in nanotechnology.

Choosing Copenhagen

I think the story of me falling in love with Copenhagen during my sabbatical here in 2009 has been told quite a few times.  Yes, I was happy to have the opportunity to come to Copenhagen, and yes I love to bike everywhere. It is lovely here, but it is no longer the honeymoon. Things are now about everyday life, research and running the center of 60 people.

What was challenging when you first came to Denmark?

I don’t think my move to Copenhagen was any more of a cultural shock than my move from California to Boston.  Americans can experience some serious culture changes when moving within the US. We have huge cultural differences from one coast to the other so I felt prepared.  From the very beginning I felt pretty good about my move to Denmark and I have never felt out of place. My overall perception of the Danish culture was and still is that we have a lot of things in common. We have pretty much the same humor, same style of interaction with one another, and our basic norms and values are very similar. There are of course always the unwritten and less evident norms in society that can be tricky to deal with at times.

I find that the organizational structure at the University of Copenhagen is different from what I know, and I still find myself puzzled by it. At times I find it unclear who, why and when decisions are made, and who should one talk to about this or the other?

It is not always obvious to me why things are done in certain ways.  I frequently challenge my colleagues when it comes to this. “Why is it done this way? Could it be done differently?”  I think this, from time to time, can be slightly challenging for people I work with. That being said, I know that I am also getting more and more integrated in the cultural aspects of both life and work here. I therefore don’t see things with “an outsiders eyes” as much as before.  However, I do think my way of thinking will continue to challenge both colleagues at NBI and the University system in general for quite some time to come. I see this as necessary and beneficial for all parties.  

I find that young people in Denmark are every bit as skilled, but more modest in their vision of themselves than I have experienced at Harvard.  My hope is to get young people to dream big. Maybe even beyond what the Danish society encourages.  This is perhaps an American perspective, to have in mind a great outcome for one’s self. Of course it’s a difficult philosophy, because it naturally implies a high relative outcome; it’s not a fair philosophy, but it can lead to great things. Perhaps a hybrid of both cultures would be preferable.

What would your advice be for any researcher considering to settle in Denmark?

My way of doing science is not so much about culture. Not really. So, I don’t have separate advice for foreigners versus locals. Any advice I have regarding my discipline applies equally well. In fact, I have lost the distinction between foreigners and locals, at least in the lab and around the university. It’s a false distinction, and it vanishes if you don’t focus on it, which I don’t.  I am very passionate about what I do, and to me great science requires passion. Research is a certain way of living, and to me thinking about science, which is my work, is like breathing. It is fully integrated into my life. My intentions and hope is to spread this passion and happy integration—lucky integration really, because not everyone gets to live like that.  NBI has many passionate people. It’s a place where you are not made to feel like a weirdo if you are deeply committed to abstract ideas. It also happens to be in a great city where living is a pleasure.