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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Niklas Engström

Written by Vivien Horvath

Niklas Engström, laboratory engineer in the Molecular Physiology and Molecular Evolution research groups at Lund Stem Cell Center, shares his journey through science and what sparked his interest in biotechnology. In this interview, Niklas tells us about his experiences in academia and offers some food for thought when working within an international laboratory environment.

 Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what initially sparked your interest in science? 

A: Niklas Engström, born and raised in Gothenburg, 38 years old. I have a MSc in engineering/biotechnology, a BSc in business administration and a PhD in food science. Three kids, fiancé and house in Vinslöv, Skåne.  

I have always been interested in how things work and learning new things. Biotechnology seemed like an intriguing field with a lot of progress taking place, and where the science could have benefits for a wide range of fields such as medicine, food and health, fuels and sustainability etc. I like the notion that I’m part of advancing the knowledge and contributing to make the world a little bit better, I wouldn’t be as fulfilled if I worked for a company or a field where making money is the main driving force. 

Q: How did you end up at Lund Stem Cell Center? 

A: After my PhD, I worked in different projects at the same division, while looking for a permanent job. I wanted to find a permanent position, so that I wouldn’t have to move my kids more than once. I found an ad for a position at Lund University, working with two research groups, that are part of the Center, as a laboratory engineer. The position was for two years, but with the chance of continuing as a permanent position. The two research group leaders, Emma Hammarlund and Sofie Mohlin, and I each felt that it was a really good fit, so I moved down to Skåne with my family. 

Q: In a few sentences, can you tell us about the research groups you work with and describe what it is you're working on now? 

A: We are two groups, in two different departments, that works closely together, sharing labs and offices, which I believe is quite unusual. This opens up for collaborations and an array of different views, experiences, and backgrounds, which I believe is beneficial. At the very least, this makes my work more interesting since I get to be involved in many different projects. Of course, we also have an international group of people, I think we have around 15 different nationalities at the time, but that might be more common in the academic setting, I believe.  

A big part of my work within these two groups is in the role of a lab manager, taking care of inventory, ordering, equipment, chemicals, introductions to the lab etc. I’m also involved in some of the research projects, doing experiments or parts of experiments, analysing data and take part in planning.  

Q: Working in an international environment, what is your approach to understanding and working with colleagues with diverse backgrounds? 

A: I try to listen and be attentive, ask questions if there is any doubts. Trying to be open and not to take certain cultural behaviours for granted. Your own cultural behaviours are so ingrained that they are sometimes hard to identify. I think, by keeping that in mind and perhaps remembering to be a little forgiving if someone “breaks” the unwritten cultural rules can reduce irritation and conflicts. 

Before issues arise, I think it’s beneficial to talk and discuss about diversity, equity and inclusion in the group (and other work environment aspects), because I believe the threshold to recognize and start dealing with issues is then lowered. I think it is important to address these types of issues because, as with any work environment issues, they tend to get worse and worse the longer they are not handled. 

Also, we have, here in Sweden, certain views that e.g. all are equal regardless of gender or sexual orientation, that all people have the right to go to work without being subjected to e.g. sexual harassment, and those are pretty fundamental. I think it’s useful for each research group to have a “lab manual” or “code of conduct” that specifies these kinds of things, that all lab members read and agree to before starting. 

Q: Lastly, what do you think are some effective approaches or practices that academic institutions or research organizations can adopt to promote diversity, equity, inclusion in the life sciences?  

A: I believe popular science presentations and field trips for school kids are effective ways of showing kids what academic institutions or research organizations do. It makes the science more visible. Since all kids go to school, they all get at least a small insight into what academia and science is, which otherwise is more restricted to kids with parents/relatives that work in that setting.  

About Niklas Engström

Photo of Niklas Engström

Niklas Engström, born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, is a laboratory engineer for the two research groups at the Lund Stem Cell Center: Molecular Physiology, led by Sofie Mohlin and Molecular Evolution, led by Emma Hammarlund. Together with his fiancé and three kids, he lives in a house in Vinslöv, Skåne. 

Professional Background: BSc in business administration, MSc in engineering/biotechnology, and a PhD in food science

Niklas Engström’s Profile in the LU Research Portal