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Niels Peter Revsbech cuts back: "You can’t do it all"

Retirement is approaching for Professor Niels Peter Revsbech from the Department of Biology, and tomorrow, 1 July, he is passing on one of his biggest jobs as head of WATEC as he slowly cuts back on his work commitments. He leaves behind him a long and remarkable career, with inventions that have influenced research around the world. However, with a pension just around the corner, the professor wants to round off his career properly.

2020.06.30 | Michaela Louise Thulesen

Niels Peter Revsbech. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo

A three-digit AUID reveals that Professor Niels Peter Revsbech (67) has been part of Aarhus University for a long time. 40 years to be exact. However, tomorrow, 1 July 2020 marks a cut-off date for his career, because the professor has just handed on his leading position at the Centre for Water Technology (WATEC) as he tries to reduce his working hours to 10% by the end of the year.

"I can't just say goodbye to research, but it's difficult to lead the way with new research programmes as I approach retirement age. It’s been an extremely exciting and rewarding journey, and there’s still so much I’d like to do and so many ideas I’d like to try out, but you can’t do it all," says the professor.

World-class research

Mexico, Montana, the Pacific and Israel are just some of the places where Niels Peter Revsbech has made a strong impression with his research and results. Niels Peter Revsbech had demonstrated his ability to invent and develop things even before he graduated from Aarhus University as a microbiologist. He built his first sensor during his Master's degree programme together with an associate professor who remarked: "That was your thesis – what now?"

"It was a fantastic start. I was so fortunate with it and with the people I met on my way. I ended up in the right place early on, and I welcomed the input I got from others and the opportunities that arose," explains the professor.

After a successful period developing sensors in Israel and elsewhere, Niels Peter Revsbech found himself in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA, where he came up with his first actual invention.

"We were working on heat sources, and we got some good data out of our research, but we needed a sensor for soil research, and at that time no such thing existed. We couldn’t use the sensors I’d previously developed, so I had to invent something new. And that’s what I did," says the professor.

The university in the US encouraged him to patent his new sensor, but he did not do so, and today revenues from the invention flow to the Aarhus company Unisense and its 30 employees.

Recipe: Success also depended on luck

Countless trips abroad, titles such as professor and centre director, 183 authored articles and start-up of one of Aarhus University's interdisciplinary thematic centres, are just some of Niels Peter Revsbech’s achievements during his many years as a researcher. He is also an internationally recognised researcher, but even though his ideas are unique, his success is also due to a certain amount of luck, he says.

"If you do something unique, you’ve also been lucky. I was lucky to end up in a job that matched my abilities, and I've been lucky with the people I’ve met on the way," he explains.

But success is also about choices. In the 1980s and 1990s, the professor experienced a "peak", as he calls it. This means that there was a great deal of interest in his work, but since then attention has moved away, among other things towards molecular biology. Niels Peter Revsbech could well have changed course too, but he stuck to his subject and his sensors.

"I’ve never regretted it. It’s better to be very good in one field than be less good in several fields. We’re constantly developing sensors for new substances. For example, I’ve spent almost ten years using one of them to clarify metabolism in the Pacific Ocean. It’s given some fantastic experiences and interesting results," says the professor.

Waves at WATEC

2017 offered very different experiences and results than Niels Peter Revsbech was used to, when he helped start the Centre for Water Technology (WATEC). The Poul Due Jensen Foundation granted DKK 40 million to WATEC, and after just three years, the centre could boast noticeable results with extended collaboration with the business community, a new summer school, and important research results.

"Many research results are worth mentioning. Groundwater mapping, degradation of pollutants, ecological and hydrological modelling and removal of nutrients from agricultural drainage water," lists Niels Peter Revsbech, and he continues:

"It’s gone well in many areas, but there are also things we’d like to have done differently. The recruitment process has been too slow, and it proved virtually impossible to appoint professors in new research areas. This has affected the development of the centre, which was also delayed," he explains.

WATEC has employees from many different departments spread across Denmark, and this geographical spread has also been a challenge for Niels Peter Revsbech.

"It’s difficult to create an identity for a centre when employees are not there physically. Perhaps we should have worked harder to group ourselves together and create a clear identity, for example through joint activities across the organisation, online seminars and newsletters," he says.

Career obligations

Niels Peter Revsbech has also found success outside the yellow walls of Aarhus University. He has two children with his wife of 34 years, and much of his spare time is spent with the couple's four grandchildren. He is looking forward to being able to spend more time with the family.

"It's sad to leave instead of continuing where you think you can make a scientific difference, but cutting down also gives me opportunities to do other things that I'm really looking forward to. There’ll be more time for the family: to spend time in the country and sail together. And I dream of going out fishing and hiking more," he says with a smile.

Niels Peter Revsbech will be freeing up this time for the family from 1 January 2021, when he will reduce his working hours to 10%. It will also enable him to round off his academic career properly.

"It’ll mean that I can work with what I do best: developing techniques for water analysis. WATEC received a large grant from the Poul Due Jensen Foundation at the start, and I think this leaves an obligation. In the last years of my career, I’ll concentrate on ensuring results from their investment in us. I really want to see this through," he says.

Professor Niels Peter Revsbech

  • Born 13 January 1953 in Voer, Norddjurs Municipality.
  • Master’s degree in microbiology from Aarhus University in 1979. PhD from the same university in 1981, and subsequently postdoc from Montana State University (USA) in 1982. Returned to Aarhus University and made assistant professor in 1984.
  • Employed as an associate professor at the Department of Microbial Ecology at Aarhus University.
  • Co-founder of Unisense in Aarhus in 1997.
  • Employed as an associate professor at the Department of Biology at Aarhus University in 1997.
  • Head of the Department of Biology, 2002-2004.
  • Centre director at the Centre for Water Technology, WATEC, at Aarhus University from 2017-2020.
  • He has also taught microbiology and microbial ecology and held PhD courses at WATEC’s summer school in 2019.
  • He has received several awards for his research. Among others, the Holst-Knudsen Award (1991) and the Grundfos Award (2013). Fellow at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (2013) and the Geochemical Society (2018).
  • Lives in Aarhus with his wife, with whom he has two children and four grandchildren. Also has a house two kilometres from Voer.
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