27 January 2011

Security expert and DNA detective honoured as Elite Researchers

Award winners

University of Copenhagen Professors Lene Hansen and Eske Willerslev have been awarded the Elite Researcher award by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. The award is given to internationally recognised young researchers.

Denmark’s first female professor of international politics was named in 2009. Now, 43-year-old Lene Hansen from the University of Copenhagen, can add “Elite Researcher” to her CV. Hansen will officially receive the prestigious award from the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Charlotte Sahl-Madsen and Crown Prince Frederik, during an award ceremony today.

“I’m overwhelmed to be receiving the Elite Researcher award, but I also recognise that research isn’t an individual discipline. I’d like to say thank you to all those who have helped, inspired and supported me along the way. The award goes to show how much importance is placed on the high level of research into international politics being done in Denmark,” says Lene Hansen.

The University of Copenhagen’s other Elite Researcher award recipient is 39-year-old Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum’s Centre for GeoGenetics.

“I am happy to receive the award as personal recognition as well as recognition of the work being done in my field. DNA research in this area began in the 1980s and it really began attracting attention in the 1990s. Today, we see almost explosive interest thanks to the results of our latest research. New technologies are going to allow us to get an even clearer picture of our past, and I’m counting on being able to we’re going to see a number of the details of history rewritten over the next five years. Doing so will also help us predict the future a little better. Climate change is one particular area where we might learn a more,” says Eske Willerslev.

Professors Hansen and Willerslev will each receive DKK 1 million to fund future research projects as well as DKK 200,000 for their personal use.

Eske Willerslev – expert in the history of the past

Professor Willerslev is director of the University’s Centre for GeoGenetics and is one of the world’s leaders in the field of evolutionary research and DNA analysis. His work has focused on creating a picture of various forms of prehistoric life, as well as trying to map prehistoric climate.

Professor Willerslev’s most notable achievement to date came last year, when he and assistant professor Morten Rasmussen used a single hair sample to recreate the genome of a prehistoric tribe that inhabited Greenland. The results were the first of their kind, and they made front pages around the world.

Professor Willerslev, together with forensic geneticist Anders J. Hansen, developed the “dirt” DNA method.

“Our ‘dirt’ DNA method has been used to find remnants of DNA from prehistoric animals such as mammoths in Siberia and moas in New Zealand. The results have allowed us to get a more complete picture of extinct animals. We’re now trying to apply the method to living plant and animal species as a way to drastically reduce the amount of time and cost of programmes monitoring biodiversity in a limited area,” Professor Willerslev says.

Lene Hansen – expert in the threats of the future

Professor Hansen studies security policy and is currently focusing her efforts on three primary areas. First, she’s interested in finding out what effect pictures such as the Mohammed drawings, have on security policy, and on the ability of images to influence security policy. Her second area of focus is gender and security policy, including issues such as honour killings, gang rape and human trafficking.

Professor Hansen’s third, and her newest, research area is cyber threats. The threat of attacks on computer systems has become a major political focus, particularly after Estonia in 2007 was paralysed after a series of website crashes in what has commonly been described as the first instance of cyber warfare. Most recently, in January the Wikileaks website was attacked, which was followed by attacks on companies that broke off their relationship with Wikileaks.

“A cyber attack can paralyse essential services by doing things like bringing down key websites operated by public authorities. Politicians and the media like to focus on apocalyptic scenarios in which entire countries – or the entire world even – just stops functioning, but we have yet to see anything even resembling that,” Professor Hansen says.

She points out that much of cyber security deals with protecting individuals.

“Regular people need to be protected against hackers, viruses and dishonest business practices. But, people are also threats. If they don’t protect their computers from outside attack, they can be used as part of a cyber attack. Cyber threats normally aren’t just limited to one country, or the jurisdiction of a single political entity, and that really requires us to think differently.”


Professor Lene Hansen
Department of Political Science
Email: lha@ifs.ku.dk
Phone: +45 35 32 34 32

Professor and Head of Centre Eske Willerslev
Basic research centre for GeoGenetics
Faculty of Science
Email: ewillerslev@bio.ku.dk 
Mobile: +45 28 75 13 09

News editor Anna Høxbro Bak
KU Communication
Email: bak@adm.ku.dk
Mobile: +45 22 64 03 55