Ragni Fjellgaard Mikalsen
RAGNI FJELLGAARD MIKALSEN, PhD Candidate
Western Norway University of Applied Sciences
RISE Fire Research AS
Otto Von Guericke University Magdeburg
What is your work/research topic? My research area is fires, more specifically smoldering fires, which are slow-burning fires without flames. Even though it might not sound like the most exciting fires, it is a really cool research field, with lots of unknowns. My research aims at understanding more about the fundaments of smoldering fires, including how to extinguish them. We work with smoldering fires because they are very difficult to detect and stop, which is causing residential deaths and economic losses worldwide every year. Also, in wildland fires, smoldering fires cause both destruction of the soil and vast emissions of greenhouse gases.
Ragni Fjellgaard Mikalsen is a PhD student, working for the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, OvG University Magdeburg and RISE Fire Research. You can follow her research on twitter @ragniragniragni.
What was your best day of science? That must be the day when I defended my master’s thesis in front of supervisors and sensors, in addition to quite a crowd of family and friends.
What was your worst day in science? I don’t think I’ve had a single worst day, but the days when nothing works in the lab are not very encouraging.
What did/are you study at university? I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in the department of chemistry. I also had a fun exchange semester at ETH Zurich. I am currently enrolled as a PhD student at the OvG University in Magdeburg, Germany, and at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Haugesund, Norway. My lab is located at RISE Fire Research AS in Trondheim, Norway. So it’s quite a mix of institutions collaborating. My work is a part of the EMRIS project, in which many of the best fire research institutions in Europe are involved.
What does your average day look like? First thing in the morning- a cup of coffee and catching up with emails. Then I head down to the lab, to check on the experiment that’s running, or to start a new test. I currently work with wood pellets, and since the burning process is very slow, it can take several days for a small pile of 1 kg pellets to burn. After checking that my fire is burning nicely, it’s time for some office work, which mainly consists of analyzing data, reading papers or doing some writing.
What are some of the highlights of your career? Getting accepted into and working in a PhD program on fire research is a unique experience, since such programs are rare in Norway. Also, before I started my PhD, I was leading projects in which I got to start huge jet fire tests, which was great fun. Another highlight, in which I felt I was really contributing to the Norwegian society on a larger scale was the intensive weeks when we were a large team working on extracting learning points from the large fire in the Lærdal municipality.
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? Well, as a fire researcher, I’m tempted to say a lighter, haha. But since I don’t actually use one in my smoldering fire research, I think I must say that I quite like my PC.
Life Outside the Lab
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Mo i Rana, which is a medium sized town in northern Norway. It’s actually known as the Arctic Circle City of Norway due to its location.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I was quite determined to work in a tiger-farm. Not quite sure if I realized that tiger farms aren’t very common in Scandinavia…
What do you do to relax outside of lab? I like to go hiking and skiing in the woods and mountain regions surrounding Trondheim, or to join some friends at yoga class. Also, nothing can beat Friday night tacos with some homemade guacamole and Netflix. Did you know that the majority of Norwegian households make some form of tacos on Fridays?
Do you have any pets? I don’t have pets, but while growing up my family had dogs, so I think I’ll always be a dog person.
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? My science teacher in high school got me interested in chemistry. Her interest and enthusiasm for science was inspiring, and encouraged me to continue on the science track after high school. A good teacher can really make a huge difference.
Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I think I’ve always been a researcher, asking “why” a thousand times till I got to the answer, driving my parent crazy. What first drew me to science, I think, was back in high school, when I discovered that I could use theory to understand something that I had just observed in the lab. It felt like I was able to unravel some of nature’s mysteries, which was wonderful. During my studies, I chose my direction based on what chemistry I found fun and interesting. After that, I sort of stumbled into fire research, which I happened to find super interesting.
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? That must be to stay focused and motivated every day during the PhD, when the goal seems so far away, both in time and in research progress.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? The fact that you get go in-depth on a really interesting topic was the main motivation for me. Also, I’m passionate about research communication, so at some point in my career, I would love to be able to combine fire research with teaching at a university level.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Good question, hard to answer without sounding like a cliché. Dare to just go for it, whatever your dream is. On the way there, remember to be nice, but don’t be afraid of being a little annoying or sticking your neck out. And ask “why” a thousand times, till you get understandable answers.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now, and why? May-Britt Moser is a real inspiration. Not only is she the first Norwegian woman to win the Nobel price, she’s the first Norwegian EVER to win the Nobel price in medicine, and to win when she was barely 50 years of age, such an accomplishment! It’s really cool to be an alumni from the university (NTNU) where she does her work.
If you left academia, what was the biggest hurdle you had moving to industry/other? After my master’s, before starting my PhD, I worked for 2 years with a combination of fire testing and applied fire research for customers at the research institute RISE Fire Research AS. The biggest hurdle for me was the contrast between academic and corporation thinking regarding use of time. I was not used to the “time is money” way of thinking, which took some time to get used to.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Women often have different perspectives than men, in the same way as people with different backgrounds will have different viewpoints on the same topic. A scientific collaboration with a balance between men and women is important to get the best possible results from research projects.
What is your favorite desk snack? Fruit from the fruit basket in the lunch room, such a luxury
What would you listen to while writing? I have this list on Spotify which is just a magic collection of guilty pleasures, most with a funky tune or sing-along qualities. I’d never ever show you it’s content though.
What was your favorite subject in high school? I liked a lot of subjects, think my favourites were chemistry, finance and drama. Quite a range, huh? I think my wide range of interests back then is reflected in my work today, which I love because of the many different aspects of society that are involved in fire research.
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? An owl containing lip balm, a cactus and a pocket knife.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? Definitely organization nut, give me all the things, and I will organize them. I think I am addicted to boxes and label makers.
What color socks are you wearing? Well, you caught me on a good day, they’re actually white with pink hearts on them (although on most days I must say that they are usually black).