A promotion of sorts.

After a lengthy multi-phase assessment process, in the spring of 2020 I was appointed as Docent in Biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. “Docentur” is not something I was familiar with before I started working in Sweden, so I’d like to explain what it means for those of you who may not know. In this post I’m going to explain what (I think) the Docentur is, how I achieved the status of Docent, and what it means for my academic career.

What “Docent” used to mean, and what it means now

I hold the permanent employment position of Researcher (Forskare in Swedish). I recently wrote this article for ecrLife explaining what exactly a Researcher position is, so check that out for a detailed description. In essence I perform many of the same tasks as a junior member of the university faculty (e.g. an Assistant Professor), but I am not on the tenure track, so will not be promoted, and my salary is funded entirely by external grants, rather than having a portion of my salary paid by my school.

As I understand it, the role of Docent was originally a promotional step on the academic career ladder in Sweden, allowing one to be directly promoted from post-doc to Researcher to Docent. Many older academics in Sweden still translate “Docent” to “Associate Professor” while writing their CVs in English. However, at some point the tenure track was introduced in Sweden, and the role of Docent was divorced from the Ass Prof → Assoc Prof → Prof pipeline.

Now, if you are employed as a tenure track Assistant Professor at my university, your Docent application often goes hand-in-hand with your application for promotion to Associate Professor, as the requirements are highly similar. If you are non-faculty, like me, then becoming Docent feels less like a promotion and more like a sort of pedagogic qualification. A certificate that acknowledges I have made a substantial contribution to the missions of my university: research, education, and societal outreach. It sure feels good for my achievements to be noticed – but it would’ve been really great to get a pay raise, I guess!

The Docent assessment process

In my case, the formal assessment procedure took almost exactly one year from submission of my written application to formal notice of appointment as Docent. This is longer than it really needs to take, but seems to be a typical duration right now in our university (and others with similar procedures). There are several points along the way where the process gets held up in classic Swedish bureaucracy – a meeting needs to be held for all managers to agree that an application has been received, then another meeting for all managers to agree that a reviewer should be selected to review the application, then another meeting to agree to the choice of reviewer, etc. These management meetings happen once a month, I think nine months of the year. In addition, I spent almost a year preparing and polishing my application before I even submitted it, as I wanted it to be perfect and packed with supporting evidence. The written application is 28 pages long, stretching to 73 pages with all of the appendices, and follows a strict academic CV template that is used by all (most?) Swedish universities.

The written application comprises the following sections:

  • basic CV information (1 page),
  • basic description of higher education completed (1 page),
  • research portfolio, describing my future plans and achievements to date, as well as a personal essay summarising my approach to research (8 pages),
  • pedagogic portfolio, describing every bit of teaching I’ve done for under-grad, post-grad, and PhD students, as well as an essay on what I have learned form my own pedagogical training, and how I apply it to specific instances of my teaching and supervision (12 pages),
  • management portfolio, describing my approach to leadership and the training I have taken in this area (3 pages), and
  • a list of my ten most significant research publications, with paragraphs explaining why each of them was a landmark for my career or personal development.

The following appendices are also included:

  • my degree certificates,
  • evidence of all awarded research funding,
  • every bit of teaching material I have written (syllabi, lab guides, assignment instructions),
  • completion certificates for pedagogic courses, and
  • full copies of my ten most significant research publications.

After submitting the application, the basic information was checked by HR to make sure I had reached the minimum requirements, which is that I had made some contribution to teaching and supervision, and had shown independence in my research. I was sure this would be fine – I had taken an extra year to prepare my application precisely to make sure that the application would be fully assessed. After all, if your application to Docent at KTH fails, you are required to wait 18 months before re-applying!

Next, my application was sent out to an external expert in my field, who reviewed the research portfolio. After receiving a very positive assessment, my application was passed to the internal pedagogic committee. They reviewed my application and decided that, yes, I should be interviewed, hurray! The interview was performed by three faculty members and one student representative, and they grilled me for about an hour about the way that I teach and supervise students, and how I see the next few years playing out.

A few days later they told me they were satisfied that I could pass to the final stage of the assessment – giving a public pedagogic lecture about my research! At this point, it was early April 2020, so of course the lecture had to be given online – I think I might have given the first online Docent lecture at KTH. It was a really nice chance to talk about the topics I’m passionate about in a “popular science” way, lots of my colleagues past and present attended, and many asked really interesting questions. I felt genuinely very supported, and was only sad not to be able to celebrate with them in person after the lecture! The slideshow below gives you a very condensed view of the lecture I gave, using Mike Morrison’s Twitter Poster gif template.

So how is my job different now?

Day to day not much has changed. I didn’t get a pay raise when I became Docent, but it will be a major plus for me when I have my next annual salary revision. I still teach and supervise as I did before the assessment, and have the same financial and managerial levels of responsibility as before. But I am now eligible to recruit a PhD student and be their main supervisor, and I am now eligible to serve on PhD defence committees or as a PhD examiner. I feel like some people maybe take me more seriously now I am Docent, and in the next few months I’ll learn if it has an impact on how I am viewed by the research councils when applying for funding.

The biggest change is simply how I feel about my job. Although becoming Docent was not a promotion for me, I really do feel seen by the university now in a way that I didn’t before. I know I have gone the extra mile the past few years in organising and performing teaching duties and events that promoted the university or department, and never really felt that those efforts were acknowledged. Now I do. That feeling of being seen, and that the work I do is noticed, has carried me through some weird and dark moments in this weird and dark year.

New publication! An enzymatic method to produce nanocellulose from softwood chips.

Nanocellulose is an amazing natural material. It is produced by taking cellulose – found in wood, paper, cotton, and so on – and disintegrating it into nanoparticles. These can be used to make paper, films, and gels. They can be assembled into super-strong fibres, or blended with other biomaterials to increase strength and reduce production costs. And because they are made from natural plant biomass, they can be considered a quite sustainable product, since they are derived from renewable resources.

The use of nanocellulose is particularly advanced in Japan, where you can find it in pen ink, some clothing, and footwear. It is very lightweight and also very strong, so it is ideal for these applications. Exploitation is not so advanced in Europe, but companies like Cellutech are developing cellulose-based packaging materials and even a bicycle helmet.

Although the material is produced from environmentally responsible renewable resources, the typical methods for disintegrating cellulose into nanocellulose involve a lot of quite nasty chemicals. Sulphuric acid and a chemical called TEMPO are used, which generates a lot of chemical waste. Sustainable industrial development requires us to minimise the production of waste at all levels, and to find alternatives to chemicals that can damage health or the environment.

This is why many researchers, like a team at KTH Division of Glycoscience, are keen on developing enzyme-catalysed nanocellulose production. Enzymes work at moderate pH and temperature conditions, and no harsh chemicals are used in the enzyme reaction, so the ecological footprint of nanocellulose production can be greatly improved.

This new paper is the first PhD publication for doctoral student Salla Koskela. I co-supervise Salla at KTH in Stockholm, helping her to optimise protein production and enzyme assay protocols. Her main supervisor is Prof Qi Zhou, an expert in biomaterials based on natural polymers like cellulose and chitin. Another of Qi’s students, Shennan Wang, was also instrumental in this work thanks to his ability to characterise biomaterials.

In this work, Salla and Shennan showed that we can take one enzyme – belonging to the class called Lytic Polysaccharide Monooxygenases, or LPMOs – and convert spruce wood into nanocellulose fibres. The wood is first chemically treated to remove lignin and form large cellulose fibres. Then, Salla’s enzyme chops those down to nanofibres. The nanocellulose fibres can be formed into nanopaper, which Shennan can investigate for strength and toughness.

One of the people who peer-reviewed this article before it was published praised our nanocellulose production process for being quite easy (it has relatively few processing steps), and having a high yield of nanocellulose production. These are crucial factors to consider if enzymatic nanocellulose production is ever to be implemented at large commercial scale.

Ours is not the first report of an enzyme being used to make nanocellulose, but we were pleased to be able to achieve a highly detailed characterisation of our final material, including producing nanopapers with high strength. We also believe that we are among the first to produce such thin nanofibres of cellulose – ultra-fine nanocellulose can confer higher strength than slightly thicker fibres.

You can read the paper now at Green Chemistry.

Lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase (LPMO) mediated production of ultra-fine cellulose nanofibres from delignified softwood fibres. Koskela S, Wang S, Xu D, Yang X, Li K, Berglund L, McKee LS, Bulone V, and Zhou Q. Green Chem., 2019,21, 5924-5933