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Interview with Christina Divne, director of third-cycle education (FA)

Christina Divne
Published Dec 06, 2018

Christina Divne is CBH's new directory of third cycle education. Learn more about her and her thoughts about the doctoral studies at the school.

Can you say a few words about your background?

– I am originally from Umeå in the north of Sweden, but have lived for nearly forty years in Uppsala and Stockholm. Uppsala University is my alma mater where I studied biology in the mid 80’s. In those days there was no master’s degree in biology, so I started my doctoral studies directly after the bachelor degree. I received my doctoral degree 1994 at Uppsala University, and three years later I started my own externally funded research. I became docent 2001 at Uppsala University, and moved to KTH the same year, where I continued as assistant professor at the School of Biotechnology. During the years 2000 to 2004, I had three kids, which meant I spent quite some time being on parental leave during my first years at KTH. A few years later, in 2007, I landed a position as associate professor in structural biology at KTH, and in 2017 I was promoted to professor. During my seventeen years at KTH, I have also spent six years as associated senior scientist at KI.

Tell us a little about what you work with at CBH

– My work includes research, supervising doctoral students, teaching, administration and various commissions. During CBH’s first year I have also acted as the deputy director of third-cycle education, vice FA, for two of our doctoral programs. My research group consists of four people, two of whom are PhD students, and another PhD student will join us in January next year. Briefly, my research concerns understanding how proteins work based on information about their three-dimensional atomic structure. This type of information is for instance needed for rational protein design and engineering. The atomic structures are determined by the experimental method macromolecular X-ray crystallography.

How do you feel about being appointed the CBH director of third-cycle education, what made you want to take the role?

– I feel honored, and very humble about the duty and responsibility that comes with the role. The decision to accept the offer felt quite natural since I have always been interested in issues related to education. During the past year with the new school organization, I realized that there is a lot to do in the third-cycle education at CBH. In the role as FA, it becomes easier to survey the organization and influence decision-making. I think that the benefit of having worked with research, supervision and teaching at three different Swedish universities can make it easier to see new opportunities and solutions.

What does it mean to be FA? What do you do?

– FA has an overarching responsibility for the third-cycle education. We have nearly four hundred doctoral students at CBH so it is a major responsibility. As FA, one should work with KTH’s management, program directors (PA), and the education administration (UA). The list of tasks is extensive, but in short it entails to take a number of decisions related to the third-cycle education, to ensure quality of the education, to disseminate information, and to deal with conflicts between doctoral students and supervisors that sometimes arise.

You have now been vice FA for almost a year, what conclusions can you draw after this time?

– It has been an enlightening year. The current FA has put a lot of effort and dedication into trying to land the third-cycle education as smoothly as possible in the new school organization, and not least our administrators have worked very hard and made an outstanding effort. It is my hope that we are now in a position where we can focus more on forward-looking and visionary activities over the coming term, rather than just keeping operations afloat.

How has it been to be a vice FA in a reorganization?

– Personally, I do not have a problem with changes, but rather I view it as development - a natural element of life. I have felt confident with the communication with my colleagues. We have consistency and willingness to work for good conditions and quality. I am very grateful to my predecessor who has laid the foundation for much of the development work we will carry out during the next term of office. Surely there has been some turbulence. That is also why I choose to combine the FA role with the tasks I perform today as vice FA in the forthcoming term of office. I hope that will create some continuity and security in the yet "young" organization of third-cycle education at CBH.

How are you as a person? What drives you?

– I strive to get things done – to get goals, small and big, realized. I have an inquisitive mind, and greatly appreciate to discuss and exchange opinions and experiences with others. The free, prestigeless conversation with colleagues and students is immensely important, and also the more formalized conversation that we refer to as higher seminar. The inner conversation is also important, the times when I choose to be introspective. For me, all forms of conversation are developing and driving by creating the conditions for thinking different, new and ahead.

How do you view the President's thoughts about One KTH?

– A vision that should really be a matter of course. It is about creating a cohesive and inclusive organization focusing on working together to achieve common goals on equal terms. Cohesion and the sense of unity are prerequisites for collective strength. The president has taken decisions on a number of major changes and that is brave. My personal vision for third-cycle education is along the same lines. Increased efforts are needed to clarify the goals, and strengthen the sense of togetherness, equality and security among the doctoral students. Efforts are also needed to support the supervisors who often navigate under extreme pressure with high demands on delivering top-class research and teaching.

What are the strengths and challenges of CBH?

– The strength is our collective knowledge, expertise, experience and diversity. CBH is a broad school scientifically. There is a huge resource in our committed and positive employees and students. We need to recognize, visualize, support and manage this resource in the best possible way. Certainly, there are also challenges. After all, CBH is a merger of three schools with a number of differences, which also applies to the third-cycle education management. Some processes need to be adjusted, but not necessarily all. A practical complication is that we are spread across five different campuses, which makes information dissemination and direct contact with PhD students and supervisors more difficult. An important task in the future will be to review how we can spread information better and more efficiently to more PhD students and supervisors.

What do you want to accomplish as FA in the short term and long term?

– There is much to reflect on here. I can start with the organization. For example, I want to strengthen the PA function at CBH. That work has already started through the recruitment of two program directors. An important long-term goal, as well as direct orders from regulatory bodies, is to periodically evaluate, analyze and also raise the quality of third-cycle education in general. This requires constant work on quality assurance of the programs, which becomes an important task for the reinforced PA function. It is also a matter of being better at securing future human capital in a long-term perspective. For instance, we need to ensure that there are competent and committed program directors who, when needed, can be recruited into the role as vice FA or FA, and also to work preemptive by identifying new candidates for this function that can contribute to renewal and dedication. It is also necessary to strengthen our administration, and then primarily by reviewing the conditions and workload of existing staff so that they land in a role that they can appreciate and grow with.

– Regarding priority issues, equal treatment and legal certainty will be high on the agenda. For example, we should not have a situation where the salary ladder for doctoral students is used too arbitrarily. Here we need to assist supervisors and doctoral students by clarifying the performance requirements for the different steps in the ladder. Another example is that crediting of educational activities has been handled slightly differently at the previous schools, which is not good.

– The employee survey and information from the PhD council show that there are areas where CBH’s PhD students are quite dissatisfied. Among the findings, there are criticisms regarding insufficient information and differences in regulations that lead to unequal treatment. Also frustration over some more practical problems, such as difficulties in finding information about current course offerings. Some PhD students are also dissatisfied with their tutoring. The reasons for this vary of course, but at least part of the problem is often due to lack of communication between the doctoral student and supervisor. What do I as supervisor expect from the PhD student? What does the PhD student expect from the supervisor? Do we have realistic expectations of each other and the potential of research? Do we have consensus regarding the goals?

– As a researcher and supervisor, I also reflect a lot about how research and research funding influences the third-cycle education. Unlike education at the basic and advanced levels, our PhD students are largely finance by external personal research grants to individual researchers. I am proud that KTH can offer the highest doctoral wages in Sweden, but it is a lot of money that has to be secured before a doctoral studentship can be established. About one million per year is needed for four years to provide a doctoral student with salary, service and overheads. I find it somewhat risky that the financial responsibility for the education is put on an individual supervisor. For obvious reasons, the supervisor feels a strong commitment to the funding agency, and is often under great pressure to deliver the promised results on time, which means that the learning outcomes risk coming second.

– During the forthcoming term of office, I want to push for an increased focus on progression towards goal achievement. According to the information I have at hand, the quality of our research education will be reviewed by the Swedish Higher Education Authority, UKÄ, on a basis other than theses. Among other things, UKÄ will evaluate the conditions for good education, the quality of the education environment, the fulfillment of the objectives stated by the higher education ordinance, equality issues, student influence in education and how we work with quality development and follow-up. We have strong mandates from KTH and our PhD students to ensure that these goals are met.