Some people are practical and like to make things with their hands, but Vista scholar Henrik Anfinsen has always been happiest with basic research. He likes to solve equations so difficult that they have scared away other researchers. That has its advantages - you can actually pick and choose between problems that few people in the world have studied, and go on a real Indiana Jones adventure of discovery in the world of science.
Text and photo: Maria Amelie
When I meet him one summer's day at Oslo Central Station, Henrik has just landed after a trip to Italy. Presumably a holiday, I conclude in my mind, imagining grapevines, sunset over the Mediterranean and lots of good food. But no: Henrik has been at an international conference to present his research findings.
- It was a conference for people researching the same type of problems as me, so people came from all over the world," says Henrik.
Were there many people at the conference then?
- There must have been about 60 people there, and almost all were temporary staff at a university, doing a PhD like me or doing it in addition to other research. But there are some with permanent jobs working on this.
Henry stops and counts quickly in his head.
- Let's see. There must be about 10 in the world that I know of: a couple of Chinese, one Frenchman, one German, one Spaniard, a small group in the US, one in Canada and one in Norway, who's my supervisor. And also some PhD students and postdocs spread around.
Before we talk about what you're researching, did you have good maths teachers at school?
- Not all the time. In middle school I had a teacher who was very good and gave me challenges and made sure I got books that were used at secondary school long before I started there. But at secondary school I didn't get any help like that, so I did nothing there for three years. At high school, everything was new, so then I had the same progression as the rest of the class.
After high school, Henrik took a year off studying to join the army, and after that he took an engineering degree in cybernetics.
Did you know you'd do a PhD after you graduated?
- No, I didn't. I had a supervisor and another professor who tried to persuade me to apply for a PhD, but I was pretty fed up with studying. My master's thesis was related to research, so I didn't feel like doing more research straight away. I did a one-year full-time Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). I wanted to try something completely different, like I did with the army before.
Today it turns out that it wasn't such a bad idea, because now engineers are rushing to take a PGCE as lots of them have lost their jobs and they want to retrain to teach. After one year, I was offered a PhD by my supervisor and accepted."
You were fed up with studying, but then you studied some more and also agreed to do a PhD?
- I wasn't exactly fed up with studying, but tired of that kind of technical reading and writing that I'd done until then. But then I longed for technology again after one year on the PGCE course. So in autumn 2014 I started as a research fellow at NTNU and in 2015 I got the Vista grant.
How did you choose your research topic?
- It was quite by chance. I had a summer job in an oil company and in 5th grade I wrote a project for them. They wanted me to write my master's thesis for them too, but my supervisor realised I was better at theory, and suggested a more research-oriented thesis. I agreed and did that instead.
What do you think about that today?
- Well, I think it was more interesting to work with pure theory, instead of writing for a firm that wanted my work to be based more on their practical needs.
It's not everyone who can do very theoretical work?
- Yes, my supervisor tried to persuade other people to solve the problem, but he couldn't find anyone - he thought they were scared of all the equations, says Henrik and laughs.
But you weren't?
Did you solve the problem in the master's thesis?
- Yes, and then I presented parts of my thesis work in a research paper at a conference in Cape Town. I finished writing the paper while I was on the PGCE course after I'd finished the thesis.
Seems you had a good supervisor?
- Yes, he's very good and really has lots of time for you if you need it. When I went to the US to do research under another professor in this field, I hardly ever saw him because he was so busy. It's great to have a good supervisor, because if you get stuck you can ask for help, and he has time once a week for a chat.
What do you research?
- The aim of my PhD is to improve the safety and efficiency of oil drilling. I research oil and gas leaks in pipelines and those types of systems can be understood using mathematical equations. So what I look at most is the equations, and not so much gas and oil. It's pure theory.
What else could you use the same equations for?
- They could be used to describe channel currents, road traffic, air traffic, gas pipes. Most things that flow. I look at multiphase flows indirectly.
In your project description, you mention the Deepwater Horizon accident from 2010 on the Macondo oil well off the coast of Louisiana, which was the biggest uncontrolled oil spill in the history of the industry.
- I research leaks, which normally involve the loss of something. As for that accident, what probably happened was that a gas bubble appeared when they were drilling for oil. That gas bubble isn't very big, but when it comes up, gets much bigger and hits the top, and then it can explode. Usually when that happens, you'll notice it much earlier and close all the valves and taps. You drain off the gas very carefully. But in that accident, for some reason, they didn't notice it either offshore or onshore.
Henrik adds that reasons for not detecting leaks in time may be poor planning, lack of information or unclear messages.
- I research algorithms that will do all this automatically, regardless of whether people are monitoring it or not. Then the leak function should work automatically by sending an order to close all valves. To get that far, you have to model a lot and look at different equations.
So you have to lay the foundation to build that kind of system?
- Yes, or as my supervisor says: I'm working at plugging the gaps that exist in the theory.
Do you have any everyday routines?
- Many people have a kind of strategic plan that they have to do so and so much within a certain time. But I'm not like that. I can get tired of working at a particular thing, and then I might prefer to work on two articles at once, or read some theory, so I get some variety.
Do you think a lot about your research in your spare time?
"Yes," he answers quickly.
- Sometimes I get some good ideas when I'm at my summer house or walking in the woods. Then it's good to have something to write with. One of the problems I solved in a hotel in Warsaw. I had to wait for something for half an hour. So I thought I might as well sit down and write a bit. So I solved something there and then, and printed it when I got to Trondheim.
Any other subjects you like?
- Not many, but I like physics. I've just done a qualification in physics during my PhD. Just one subject each semester. Useful to have.
Would you like to teach?
- I have a feeling that's what I'll do eventually. There are no jobs to be had with what I'm researching, and I consider myself a bad engineer as I like theoretical work better. Or I could move on in academia and do more research. But maybe I'll take another year of doing something completely different when I finish my PhD.
Teaching isn't very theoretical. Why do you want to do that?
- Well, I liked it. I did teaching practice in secondary and high school, and in high school I had the simplest possible maths. For me, it was just a bit too easy.
Don't you get impatient when you teach children?
"I don't know, it's a test," he says and smiles.
- It's a completely different way of thinking. There's something about having to explain everything with oranges and bananas similar to what you have to do with those engineers who want everything practical and physical," says Henrik with a smile.
Do you have any tips for people who want to be researchers?
- Find something you're interested in. If I'd written that master's thesis for the company I turned down, I think I would have been bored, because it looked to me to be just like the project work I'd submitted.
Find a niche. Now I'm working at something that just a few people in the world have researched, and it's easy to find new things. There are lots of problems to be solved. It will increase the production rate.