Foto: Janne Møller Hansen

A runway to the lab

Sunniva Stordahl Bjørklund is a woman of many talents. She has a PhD in breast cancer genetics, and is currently working as a cancer researcher at the Norwegian Radium Hospital. She is also known as one of Norway’s most successful supermodels of all time, with clients such as Versace and Vogue Italia on her resume. In other words: a doyenne in more than one field, something we love!

Hi Sunniva! You’re a molecular biologist, with a PhD in breast cancer genetics. For those of us who aren’t too familiar with the subject, can you tell us a bit about what that means?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work in a group at the Norwegian Radium Hospital that’s had an important role in showing that breast cancer isn’t one disease,but many different types. They have worked with defining subgroups of the disease to be able to provide better and more accurate treatments.

 

How impressive! But what does a normal work day look like to you?

That depends on what stage of a project I’m in. Thus far, I’ve been in the lab a lot. What I usually do then is start the day with a bit of time in the office (or on the subway) planning experiments, and then my day might consist of performing a protocol, either working on cell lines or isolating DNA/ RNA from patient tests. Many of these protocols can take days from beginning till end, so it’s important to follow the instructions closely! In breaks, I might write down and look at results, or read articles about what I’m doing to understand the results better. I also work with statistics quite a bit, often in collaboration with a bioinformatician, to analyse the results from the experiments. Then, there can be weeks of writing articles and meeting with colleagues to discuss projects (both your own and the others’), where you can voice ideas and challenges you’ve faced.

 

Why did you choose this fields of study?

It was actually a bit random! I came home after a few years abroad and took some classes at Bjørknes (a private college, ed. note) to finish my high school diploma. I did most of the classes as self-study, but needed a teacher in maths, physics and chemistry. I’d always liked science, but hadn’t studied biology in school, so I decided to try it for a semester. It’s difficult to explain, but when I took my first course in biochemistry, I was hooked! It’s incredibly fascinating when you’ve studied so many complicated reactions and molecules! And then, when the exams were approaching, it was like all the pieces fell into place.

 

You have previously worked as a model, what’s the best part of having such a varied career background?

 

I feel that I’ve been able to use very many different sides of myself, and I’ve met many and very different people. I still keep in touch with a lot of people I know from the fashion world, and I really liked working as a model; the kick you get from doing a show, being on set with talented photographers. While I was doing it, I felt that I communicated well with many of them, and I enjoyed expressing myself in front of the camera and creating something. In addition, there was all the travelling, becoming independent at a young age and feeling that I could take care of myself. I think my modelling career has made me very open when meeting new people, something I think is an advantage no matter what you do.

Photo by Tim Walker from Sunnivas's portfolio at her model agency, Heartbreak Management. 

Have you faced any prejudice due to your background in the fashion industry?

 

I was very lucky when I found supervisors for my PhD at the Norwegian RadiumHospital in Oslo, they were both very open and positive people, and thought what I’d done earlier was exciting. Other times, I know people have been sceptical of me having modelling on my resume, they don’t see how it’s relevant. Therefore, I’ve also made a CV without it. The biggest challenge is actually that modelling has taken several years of my life, and that I’m therefore a little older than many of the people I apply for jobs with, you can call it a gap in my resume. But I don’t think the people I work with, who have taken the time to get to know me, think about my background a lot. Personally, I’m happy that I’ve been able to do both things!

What accomplishment are you most proud of? Progress in your research,
seeing a project taking shape, or something similar?

 

I’m particularly proud of being able to finish my PhD at all! With two small children, and supervisors on another continent, it wasn’t easy! But I learned incredibly much, and I also think I became very autonomous; I had to have a good overview of the projects I was working on.


A research degree is very demanding. Were you equally motivated the whole
way through?

 

Absolutely not! Hehe! The motivation came in waves. I started my PhD right after my master’s degree, even though I’d had children in between. My husband started
working in the US, and I thought that was really fun, I’d missed New York a lot! Not
the fashion industry in particular, but I really loved the city. I had to let a PhD scholarship go by doing that, and that was really hard. I was therefore at home for a couple of years, as I didn’t have a work permit. At that point, I had to rethink the whole thing and find my motivation again! I didn’t know if I should do the PhD or not, but at the same time, I didn’t know what to do if I decided not to do it either! I started doing research in the US, but found my supervisors through friends. Not a very Norwegian way of doing things really; I dared using my network, and it worked right away! But I don’t feel like I’m finished yet, I’m not fully a researcher, and that’s part of the challenge, that there aren’t many permanent jobs.

 

 Could you expand on that?
You’re supposed to get a permanent contract after four years, and therefore, you only get three years at a time. Always when you’re closing in on the fourth year, you have to reapply. I think that’s where many women fall off. I mean, it’s very strange how there’s such a disparity in academia, where you have mostly women, almost all the way up to post-doc level… and then, when you get to professorships, the numbers are 1 in 10 or 1 in 6, depending on institute. Something quite drastic happens on the way there. Always having to apply for funds take up a lot of time, and it’s usually those who feel they are the best, who become the best at that.

"... Especially when you look up from your own work and see what those around you have been creating as well, that it all together is turning into something!"

Yes, studies have shown that men are better at singing their own praises in
applications…?

 

I think that’s part of it, that they have more self-confidence in the application process. If you always feel that you know a bit less than you actually do, it becomes harder. I don’t know, but there’s something there that isn’t very female friendly! Inger Sandlie, who was a candidate for Deputy Rector this year, had that as her main cause: promoting and supporting outstanding female researchers. I think that’s very good, that you as a role model see new ways of doing things.


What’s the most exciting part of your job?
 

That I can do it as much as I want to! Haha! No, that’s a hard question, but I guess it is when you’ve been working on something for a really long time, and you see that it’s going somewhere. Especially when you look up from your own work and see what those around you have been creating as well, that it all together is turning into something! I haven’t done anything yet that has contributed to something tangible, but that’s what you hope to do, that’s the exciting part: thinking that it might happen.
 

Do you have a goal you’re working towards now?
I was at an interview with a professor at UCLA last year, which I really messed up. I was three months pregnant, really nauseous and couldn’t think straight. Then he asked: “what are your goals as a scientist”? I didn’t have an answer, and it was terrible! But then I thought: what everyone who does medical research wants; to be part of, even just a tiny part of, something that can make just one person’s life better. That’s the overarching goal, to be able to help someone. Sometimes you feel that what you’re doing aren’t very important, that it’s such a little thing... But then you hope that many small things can become something!


Do you have any advice for girls who would like a career within science?
Go for it! And trust yourself, we need more female scientists!