‘In Copenhagen I could choose almost everything …’

Sebastian Theobald, 24, from Köln/Cologne in Germany, is doing his master’s programme in Biology-Biotechnology and has finished his first year when we meet him at the Science Library. ‘I searched for a programme where I could choose the courses I wanted. Here in Copenhagen I could choose almost everything. I got what I came for. I’m totally satisfied, actually,’ says Sebastian. ‘Coming from Germany, there’s more reading here. Much more reading!! You really love reading here … haha.’

Where did you study before you came to Copenhagen?

I went to Bonn University. It’s right next to Köln – 20 kilometers from there. I studied for my bachelor in Biology for three years. And then right after my bachelor, I went to Copenhagen. I handed in my thesis, took the train and came here. The deadlines were so close because I wanted to do a language course, so I had to be here in August. 

So you are learning Danish too?

Yes! Haha … jeg kan snakke lidt dansk. (‘I can say a few things in Danish’)

The course was a good help. I came here without any knowledge of the language. It was actually pretty hard at first, because I couldn’t read the contracts I signed, I couldn’t read the signs in the supermarket, and with some people I couldn’t communicate. So it was really tough and the language course in August helped me a lot, because it was every day, and progress was fast.

So you are counting on using Danish in the future? It’s a big effort to learn the language of such a small country …

I live in this country, so I want to communicate with people in their native language, and I also want to get a job here. So it’s a requirement and it’s just better if you can speak Danish.

So you chose to study Biotechnology here. Did you choose Copenhagen because of the programme or did you just want to get abroad?

I think it was a combination. On one hand I really wanted to go abroad. And also the programme is pretty good. I searched for a programme where I could choose the courses I wanted, and in other countries you had mostly quite strict structures and everything was preplanned. Here in Copenhagen, I could choose almost everything. So that was the main reason why I chose Copenhagen.

Which courses did you choose?

I began with computer programming for the life sciences, pharmaceutical analysis – so, a bit outside of biology. One course was actual plant biology and the other course was really technical … so a bit different, something interdisciplinary. And then basic biotechnology afterwards - heterologous expression - which gave me a good basis for my work on my thesis, because it deals with everything you need for biotechnology, a broad basis. 

What’s your choice of subject for your thesis?

Actually it’s a project which includes everything I learned in heterologous expression. You transfer a gene to another organism. Heterologous expression is if a gene is transcribed to a protein in another host, which is not a native one. It makes an enzyme, for example you can produce insulin which is normally produced in us humans. You can produce it in yeast. That’s what Novo Nordisk does. I will do genetic engineering of yeast for better protein production. If for instance the current yield of a protein which research groups are interested in is very low, I will use the genetic
tools and attempt to increase this yield sufficiently, so we can use it for structural studies. And for that kind of studies you need a lot of protein.

So the flexibility of University of Copenhagen is important to you. Couldn’t you have found similar programmes somewhere else in Europe?  

Well – I was in Scandinavia last summer and experienced a bit of the social system and the people and everything, so I also wanted to learn more about that too. The education is very good and it’s free to study here, so that’s also a very good point. Because if you study in the UK it will cost you a lot of money.

Did you know anyone who had studied here?

No, I didn’t. Everyone was like: Oh … Copenhagen? … Where did that come from? Haha … 

So how do you like it?

Oh, it’s very good. As I said – it was tough in the beginning, because I didn’t speak the language. But now I’ve arrived here in Copenhagen. I can really call this my home. I feel really good here.

How about your study mates – how’s the mix of international and Danish students?

In our programme we are about 50 people and 8-10 are international students. But of course all of them are able to speak English. It works. Actually better than I would have expected in a country where English is not the first language.

Are you satisfied with the programme?

Yes, I like it. I’m satisfied with the courses. I chose what I wanted – and basically I got what I came for. Totally satisfied actually. Coming from Germany, there’s more reading here. Much more reading!! You really love reading here … haha.

What do students do in Germany then?

The same but … we read less articles. I had a really big load of articles for my past courses. And also the kind of learning is different here – maybe it’s connected to coming from bachelor to masters …

It’s getting tougher?

Yeah, but here it’s also more about giving an overview of the topics and to give the students a broad knowledge about the topics. And in Germany it was about knowing details. Specializing. I think … this broad overview … I like it more, and I think I take more out of it.

What about the environment here. Does it differ a lot from a German university?

It’s quite similar, but this university is far more international. It’s a really good thing.

Does this specific programme put special demands on you? Or was it as expected?

As mentioned, there has been a lot of reading, and that was really time consuming, but apart from that, I didn’t have any trouble. Well, the computer programming was a bit tough in the beginning, because I didn’t do any programming before that, but the other courses … nah ..

What about the social life here? I guess it can be tough coming here on your own?

We are a lot of people in the same situation, so you get together really easily. And there are a lot of social activities around here, sports you can do, and meeting places like the Friday Bar at A-vej (A-vej means A-road and refers to one of the roads in the campus), where you can have free coffee on Tuesdays and Thursdays, games you can enjoy with some friends, and the joy of just meeting people. And Copenhagen is such a vibrant place – especially when the full degree students arrive in August and September, there’s a lot going on here. So it’s really easy to socialize in Copenhagen.

What about jobs? Do you have to work while studying?

First I relied totally on the German state education grant and loan scheme, but it’s not enough. So the coming year I will work as a lab technician. And also I will have to find another job – I will see about the possibilities..

What about housing?

I came here in August last year, and it’s really difficult to find somewhere to live. I have moved four times. I started in a hall of residence, but it was not really pleasant – not a good place and too expensive. And then I went from one sub-renting to another and finally I found a place where I can be quite permanent. It’s in Vanløse – a bit far away. I will try to move to Nørrebro (one of the central districts of Copenhagen) at another point, but right now I’ve got something permanent and that’s good. I’ve got a room in a shared flat – the rent is 3,.300 DKK. Coming from Bonn and seeing the prices here, you think, this is ridiculous, because the rent is just so high in Copenhagen. And also the housing searching – I mean people are making an advertisement, but they receive so many responses, and it’s impossible to answer to them all. So there’s a great need of new places in Copenhagen, where student could live.

What are your plans when you finish your studies?

It would be great if I could find a job and work here for a while.  Or maybe I’ll do my PhD in biotechnology directly after finishing my Master’s.

But what kind of job would you like to end up having?

Actually,  I would like to become a scientist and stay in university.

So you want to do your PhD in Denmark?

Well – right now there are so many options. Maybe in one year I’ll have to say ok, I’ll have to leave for somewhere else. But it’s a possibility.

Would you recommend the programme to others?

Haha … yeah ... of course. I’m still here, so … if you are not satisfied with something, you just leave and go somewhere else. I would recommend it but I would definitely think a lot about which choices to make – about how to pick the right elective courses. Really think about what do I want to do and where do I want to end up with my studies! Because you can end up with the wrong choice.

Are you sure you haven’t made the wrong choices?

Yes, I am. Some people think: well I have a really broad spectrum - but then it just gets out of control and they don’t have specialization anymore. It’s about focus – your education shouldn’t get too broad.