“Chance has been a big part of my career”

Since he started medical school, Per Brøndsted Höllsberg has seized every opportunity that crossed his path. Get to know the new vice-dean for research.

Per Brøndsted Höllsberg

  • Age: 62
  • Originally from Kolding
  • DMSc from Aarhus University in 1999
  • Professor of medical virology from 2008
  • Per was also briefly head of the former Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at AU.
  • He will join Health as the vice-dean for research on 1 January 2024.
  • He joins the faculty from his position as the head of research and studies administration at NIDO, the centre for research and education at Gødstrup Regional Hospital.
  • Lives in Aarhus N with Charlotte, who is a lecturer at Marselisborg Gymnasium.
  • Has two children from a previous relationship – a daughter, who is a dentist, and a son, who is a photographer.

Per Brøndsted Höllsberg loves chess. As a child, he fell in love with the game on the black and white board. A game that requires patience, concentration and strategic thinking.

Although he’s been kept busy in recent years by his job as the head of research and studies administration at Gødstrup Regional Hospital, he is still a member of Nordre Skakklub chess club in Aarhus, and he enjoys checking out results of international tournaments during his weekends.

The future vice-dean for research at Health likes to solve problems. Perhaps that is why he already began dreaming of becoming a researcher back in primary school and why he set up a one-week work placement for himself at the Risø National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy.

It was during his time at upper secondary school in Kolding that Per decided to study medicine, and during his Master's studies he became interested in paediatrics.

“I was assigned to an outpatient department for children with cancer. It was hard and I couldn't ever completely get the images out of my head after work. That’s when I realised it might not be the right path for me," says Per Höllsberg, who then became fascinated by nephrology. He was studying for his final exam when he was contacted by the former Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at AU with an offer of a two-year research grant.

A fateful trip to Tivoli

As a young researcher, Per Höllsberg participated in congresses, including one in Copenhagen, where a subsequent gala dinner in Tivoli set the stage for the next decade of the then 27-year-old doctor's life. The congress included visitors from Harvard Medical School, and during a walk in the gardens of Tivoli, Per Höllsberg was offered a position as a research fellow in Boston, Massachusetts.

For the next nine years, he lived with his then-wife in the Boston suburb of Brookline while carrying out his research at what was then known as the Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. His work consisted mainly of investigating the mechanisms viruses use to reprogram cells, and how viral infections of immune cells can lead to a sclerosis-like disease.

Per Höllsberg lights up when he talks about his time in the 1990s among the world's leading thinkers in the field of immunology.

“It was a fairy tale. The people around me, the lectures I could go to. The visits from leading researchers. It was fantastic," he says, joking that he only returned to Aarhus because his US-born son and daughter began correcting their father's English.

Just reached the 25th anniversary

The 62-year-old head research and studies administration looks forward to becoming the vice-dean at Health. However, he’s well aware that it won’t be a walk in the park when it comes to dealing with GDPR issues, better on- and off-boarding, building relationships with foundations, career development, research support at the faculty and updating the cyber security and data management of Health's mountain of individually identifiable data.

These issues, however, are not why he hesitated in applying for the position when it was advertised in the spring of 2023. He still had a number of unreached goals for his job at NIDO, the centre for research and education at Gødstrup Regional Hospital. But when the position was re-advertised, Per Höllsberg leapt at the opportunity.  

He knows what he’s getting into because he is very familiar with Aarhus University. He worked at AU as an assistant professor when he returned from the US, and managed to celebrate his 25th anniversary at the university before he joined Gødstrup in 2021.

As a professor of medical virology, one of his research areas was the mechanisms for herpes virus infections of immune cells and the connection between Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis. As the director of studies for the study programme in medicine, he was part of developing the current academic regulations at Health. It was an extensive process that to some extent took Per Höllsberg away from his research.

“Chance has been a big part of my career. There are many things that weren’t planned but where I just thought “Wow!” and leapt at the opportunity," he says.

"Drawing up new academic regulations was very interesting. I discovered that I liked working on a scale that’s bigger than my own little laboratory. When you’re a researcher, you get a kick out of discovering connections and being responsible for discoveries yourself. When you become a manager, you’re happy when you see research thriving and developing.”

What will be the most challenging?

Per Höllsberg doesn't have to think long before he answers the question about what he believes will be the most difficult part of the job as vice-dean:

"If I have to be honest, I think the most difficult thing will be rallying support for decisions that set us on new paths. Scientists are not much for having other people's decisions imposed on them. They’ll resist any changes if they don't see the point. So the hardest thing will be to get backing from a diverse group of intelligent people, each of whom has their own opinions,” he says.

Although he will approach his new position with an openness to all input, he wants to reveal what he hopes to achieve as the vice-dean at Health: It is about quality, communication and good conditions for the youngest researchers.  

Quality can be improved by publishing fewer but better articles, he believes.

"The best research shifts paradigms and our way of seeing the world. A breakthrough means something different in basic research than in clinical research, and something else again in prevention research, for example within public health. But good research creates breakthroughs. Either for society or for our understanding of how things are interconnected," says Per Höllsberg.

Communication is important because the university's contract with society must be visible.

"The contribution of research must be clear if we want to continue receiving risk-bearing investment and encourage young people to take an interest in a research career. Our own survival depends on us talking about why universities are useful to society.”

Six questions for Per the person

1. Do you have a talent outside of work?
I can renovate a house. I can put a door in a wall where there was no door before, I can take down a chimney, grout an exterior wall and put up new ceilings.

2. What makes you happy? 
When things are going well for my children or for my partner Charlotte. Or if something I've been working on for a long time is successful.

3. What makes you angry?
If I can't trust people. If they have a hidden agenda or are not completely honest. I have a hard time with that.

4. What is your favourite place in the world?
The first place that comes to mind is Edinburgh. It’s a really beautiful city, Charlotte introduced me to it. She lived in Scotland for 13 years and we’ve spent a lot of time there together.

5. What is your guilty pleasure?
I have a soft spot for chips and other salty snacks. Especially when I get home after a long day, the urge for something salty is often too great, even though I know it's absolutely not doing me any good.

6. Who do you look up to?
When I lived in the US, I was sometimes asked about my role model, but I can't point to just one person. I appreciate different traits in people - for example, I can admire people who have a broad general knowledge beyond their own expertise, or people who are intelligent but humble and who wear their success without letting it go to their head


Professor and future Vice-dean for Research Per Brøndsted Höllsberg
Aarhus University, Health
Email: ph@biomed.au.dk
Mobile: +45 51 36 23 53