Portrait: A matter of life and Science

He pauses for, what seem like, a long time after my casual first question; “so, what are you working on now?” and I am about to rephrase and narrow it down when the answer comes. Long, well articulated and calmly pedagogical. Fredrik Höök, professor in Biological Physics at Chalmers University of Technology, talks about the complexity of life as something he can physically feel.
“In the beginning of my career I gradually got a strong sensation of actually being a molecule. It was an intuition for how it all works that was so deep it became physical and that has been important for me as a scientist.”

Fredrik Höök’s research division at the Department of Applied Physics is trying to understand and develop methods for studying the intricate interactions of biomolecules and how they can create different functions in organisms. The team is especially interested in how a virus interacts with the cell membrane before it penetrates the cell, produces new viruses and causes disease. This knowledge can enable diagnostic instruments that can detect viruses in a body or pharmaceuticals that prevent the interaction in the first place.

When the Ebola outbreak in West Africa peaked in 2014 for example, the team intensified its work to invent a sensor that could detect the virus at airports and other places to stop the spreading.

“It is very hard to succeed, but we have to try. If ten [research groups] try, one might succeed and that is enough to stop it. But if only one would try, the likelihood of success is very little. So we contribute towards a common goal, and if we do it enough times eventually we will break through.”

Worth millions by thirty
And Fredrik Höök is not lacking breakthroughs in his career. Discoveries in his doctoral thesis led to the start-up of the company Q-sense that has sold around one thousand instruments at one million Swedish Kronors a piece.

“I was visiting a university in Japan and at a tour of the laboratory I saw one of the instruments I had built. I told the person guiding me that and for the first and only time in my life I was asked to sign an autograph. That was quite a special moment in my career,” Fredrik Höök laughs.

At the age of thirty his share of 20 per cent in Q-sense was valued to 20 million Swedish Kronor. As an assignment, the students in a class of entrepreneurship that he teaches gets to take a guess at how rich he is today, only to get the answer at the end of the course. Risking a spoiler, he implies that there is no big fortune left after selling his shares to a considerably lower market value at a time when the company was in dire financial straits.

“If you are going to get rich based on innovations and patents, getting rich has to be the reason for doing it, and it was not for me. As a scientist, money is not my driving force. It is rather a desire to spread my knowledge. Having said that, I would probably do some things differently if I were to start a company a second time. ”

Despite not making him a millionaire, Q-sense did lay the ground for a remarkable scientific career making Fredrik Höök one of the most cited researchers in his field. Now, almost twenty years later, he takes great pleasure in working with his younger colleagues and recognizes in them his own enthusiasm for the process of research and problem solving.

“Curiosity can come as such a strong force. You cannot expect it to be there all the time, but you have to catch it when it comes. I have experienced it a few times myself and I have seen it awake in others and it is wonderful, very close to pure happiness.”

Choosing between art and science
Hearing him talk about this almost artistic inspiration, it does not come as a big surprise that he once considered becoming an artist. He was actually accepted into an art-school but, though he still enjoys drawing in his spare time, the choice of studying physics was not a hard one to make.

“Math and physics were the only subjects I was good at. I thought High School was extremely hard and I felt that all the books were so thick. So when I started my studies at Chalmers I really thought school got much easier.”

Born and raised in Uddevalla, the son of a military officer and a pre-school teacher, with two brothers that chose different paths, Fredrik Höök was alone in his family with an interest in science. This did not seem like a problem at the time, but now, as a father of two girls aged 10 and 17, he realises that it makes a big difference for children to have someone at home that they can solve math problems with. But if the daughters will follow in his footsteps is not yet clear.

“My oldest daughter, who is in high school, is talented in many areas so she can really choose anything she wants. My wife is a journalist so she has other influences as well.”

With his kids getting older and more independent he now finds himself with more time for his own hobbies, running and cross-country skiing. And they are not hobbies practiced casually, but ones where he trains for serious races such as Vasaloppet and Marcialonga.

“Instead of spending my money on my house, which I probably should, I spend them on travelling to skiing competitions around Europe. I don’t do it to win but as a way of enjoying nature.”

When it comes to professional travels however, he is at a point when he wants to stay close to his group of researchers at Chalmers who are now in the process of finishing years of work and ready to publish results of which he takes great pride. The field in which they are working - studying the cell membrane - is one where the competence in Gothenburg is particularly strong and Fredrik Höök’s ambition for the future is to create a centre where scientists from Chalmers, Gothenburg University and Sahlgrenska could work together with the industry to solve major issues.

“That is what I dream of, much more than I dream of the big breakthrough, because such an environment would definitely generate many, probably quite unexpected, breakthroughs.”

The mystery of life
Working in a field with so much yet to be discovered I ask if he worries that he will not live to know the answers to certain questions.

“No. Of course there are many things I will not know. But it would be fantastic to know the answer, or a possible answer, to how life on earth emerged. It is one of the fundamental questions that we do not fully understand. There are many other questions, like dark matter and black holes, but the question of life is one where I understand in what way we do not understand it and that makes it of particular interest for me.”

Whether or not there is a God behind it all is not a question that Fredrik Höök ponders on. But the fact that he has a privileged position in a privileged part of the world is something that sometimes bothers him. The feeling of responsibility becomes particularly strong when his children ask him why he does not do more to help those less fortunate. I ask if knowing that his research might contribute to making the world a better place is not enough.

“To some extent yes. I do believe in science and I believe very much in knowledge. I can’t say that what I do is more important than what anyone else is doing, but to contribute to developing knowledge, and to live in a society that encourages it, is something I find extremely meaningful.”

Text: Karin Weijdegård
Photo: Henrik Sandsjö

Page manager Published: Fri 29 Jan 2016.