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Published: 2018-05-29

His dissertation is followed by the important establishment years

NEWS Things starts coming together for the determined structural chemist Sten Nils Skoglund on several levels. With two major research grants from the Swedish Scientific Council and Formas, a small baby at home and pending guest research position in Vienna and Berkeley, he cannot be anything but satisfied. But the road there has been arduous.

"The first three years after my doctoral degree have been very labor-intensive," says Nils Skoglund, researcher at the Department of Applied Physics and Electronics at Umeå University.

He has participated in lots of smaller parallel projects in order to get enough work for a full time position and periodically this has meant working seven days a week to keep up with the research tasks while simultaneously devoting his time to consciously applying for research funding.

With time, my conscious efforts gave results. Towards the end of last year not only one but two large grants materialised from the Swedish Scientific Council and Formas totalling more than SEK 7 million. Nils Skoglund starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel and a more stable life as a researcher, at least for the next five years.

The research funds give Nils Skoglund the opportunity to carry out large projects and he will be able to have his own doctoral students. The new projects mean that at times he will be able to work abroad; at the Technical University in Vienna and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the United States.

"It will be exciting! In Vienna, to where I will be going in just two months, there is an advanced X-ray diffraction laboratory. I hope that the work there will give me inspiration and that I can take new ideas home with me to Umeå. In Berkeley there is a synchrotron facility where I will be able to investigate whether phosphates and heavy metals in ash are tied together. In the past, we have seen that we can affect the phosphates that are formed in ash so that they become more accessible to plants – now I'm going to study if there is also a risk that heavy metals can be released when the plants split off phosphorus".

Where will you be in you in your career in five years from now?

"By that time I'll have used up all the money I have now," Nils Skoglund laughs.

"I think I will still be working work with structural chemistry and nutrients and trace elements in ash, but that we have also linked it to nitrogen flows in society. I hope we have a northern community for synchrotron use and that there is a strong user base here at Umeå University".

Nils Skoglund moved from the inland municipality of Dorotea to Umeå in 2001 and as a free course student at the university began picking courses in chemistry, biology and earth sciences and noticed that chemistry suited him best. It was the possibility of working with analytical X-ray methods during the course that got him hooked on pursuing a doctoral program. He started as a PhD student in energy technology specialising in thermal process chemistry during the fall of 2008.

"The fact that I settled on X-ray methods is a bit of a coincidence, but during my graduate studies I got the opportunity to work with structural chemistry and synchrotron-based methods. It is fascinating to see for yourself how the world around us is stuck together at an atomic level using these methods. Having the opportunity to continue looking through that window, and matching the pieces of anatomic puzzle that no one had previously solved by solving the crystal structures of important phosphorous compounds, was a driving force behind my decision to pursue a research career".

Nils Skoglund's doctoral thesis is already cited by other researchers. Here are the basic concepts of his research.

After his dissertation, Nils Skoglund worked for two years as a post-doctoral researcher at Luleå University of Technology, LTU. The reason he applied here was partly due to the close collaboration he earlier had with researchers in Luleå over the years. He expanded his academic network through cooperative ventures with SLU and also within the Bio4Energy research environment. After his post-doctorate period he moved back to Umeå to take up a position as principal research engineer at Umeå University. And last autumn, he obtained the post of a researcher.

Despite the fact that there is no long-term job security in academia; e.g. there is the constant pressure of acquiring funds for one's research, of possibly having to frequently change one's place of residence and the formation of a family can be more complicated, Nils Skoglund really loves his career choice.

"Another aspect that I think is a lot of fun in my research area is the great interest displayed by industry. Several of the projects that I have previously worked in have been co-financed by industry. We present theoretical problems to the representatives of industry and show them that we have the competence and skills to solve these problems. After many long days spent in the lab we get to go out to our industrial partner and test our solutions on an industrial scale. This means that I spend a lot of my working hours outside the campus area."

Many people opt out of an academic career after completing their dissertations. What tips would you like to give along the way?

"As a post-doctoral researcher, it is important to acquire qualifications and start applying for your own funding. I would like to support young researchers in this phase of their careers because it is a shame to already lose talented people at this stage. We have to get better at taking care of talented young people!"

Quick facts:

Name: Nils Skoglund
Comes from: Holmsjö outside of Risbäck in Dorotea
Lives in: Vännäsby
Leisure time activities: Has no free time; recently became a dad
Likes: fishing and hunting
Unsuspected talent: An ordained minister – has been a wedding officiate in the United States.