A true natural scientist wants to be out and about in the organisation
A chemistry set under the Christmas tree sparked an interest in science. Being nominated for the position of dean was not something that professor of molecular geochemistry Per Persson was actively aiming for. But, at the same time, he cannot think of a more exciting role now that it is time to write the last chapter of his working life.
Per Persson is in a good mood when we meet in the foyer of the faculty office at Sölvegatan. The capricious March sunshine lights up the corridors as we stroll around in search of a vacant room for the interview. All the meeting rooms except Universum, with seating for 25 people, are booked. We sit down at the short end of the gigantic table. The faculty office is a familiar environment for Per Persson, who has spent countless hours in meetings here in his role as director of the Centre for Environmental and Climate Science (CEC). And it could soon be his new workplace. But when the Limhamn-born professor of molecular geochemistry was asked if he wanted to be a candidate for the position of dean of the Faculty of Science, his spontaneous answer was: “perhaps”.
“It’s not as if I was going around thinking ‘I want to be the dean’. But it is, naturally, very flattering. A contributory factor for me to say yes is that people I trust very much have given their support by nominating me,” says Per Persson.
A love of science was awoken early in life. Besides the chemistry sets under the Christmas tree – there would be a total of seven, in increasing complexity – a secondary school teacher, who was also an amateur mineralogist, played an important role. And so did the work experience period Per Persson spent at the Department of Geology and Department of Chemistry. Going on to higher education was not a foregone conclusion. Per Persson grew up in a non-academic home, with a father who sold lorries and a mother who only later in life went on to read economics at university level, but where the importance of education and learning was always upheld.
“But I always had a strong and solid interest in science. After military service, I started a four-year chemistry programme and then began my doctoral studies in 1986. Sven Lidin, the faculty’s current dean, was among an older generation of chemistry doctoral students. He was a role model even then,” says a smiling Per Persson.
After completing his doctoral degree, Per Persson went to Stanford University where he took up a postdoc position. The period in California not only gave him friends for life but also a strong affection for the place. In 1992, he returned to Sweden and two years later was working as a post-doctoral research fellow in Umeå. They were eventful years. Per Persson was promoted to professor, deputy head of department and later deputy dean. It was also in Umeå that he met his future wife, Marie. In 2010, Per Persson became a visiting professor at Stanford where he worked on technology linked to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). However, it was not long before it was time to move again and in 2012 Per Persson took up a visiting professorship in Lund funded by the strategic research area Biodiversity and Ecosystem services in a Changing Climate (BECC). The following year he was appointed as a professor at the Department of Biology and Centre for Environmental and Climate Science and in 2020 he became the centre’s director. In parallel, he has also worked for the Swedish Research Council since 2001 and is currently the vice chair.
I believe and hope that as dean, if I am elected, I can utilise my experience in research policy and international work and that this can contribute to the development of the faculty. But it is, of course, a formidable task, towards which I feel very humble. There are major and very clear challenges, says Per Persson.
He mentions the faculty’s establishment of activities in Science Village and the planned merger of the Department of Geology, Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science and Centre for Environmental and Climate Science, as well as the prospective centre for computational science and the situation for what was until the start of this year known as the Department of Astronomy and Theoretical Physics.
“Here, I need to get a deeper insight in order to see the entire picture. But I always believe that feet are the best tools for the job. When I was deputy dean in Umeå, I spent a lot of time out in the organisation to solve problems when issues were lurking in the wings,” says Per Persson.
If Per Persson is elected as dean, he will devote considerable effort to improving conditions for researchers and teaching staff. Today, ancillary activities “have extended too far out into the capillaries” and it is important for researchers and teaching staff to have conditions that allow them to focus on their core duties.
“The group has grown in number, but the consequence has been that we are diluting the resources among more people. We are to set a high bar regarding recruitment, but we must take responsibility over a long period for those we employ and provide good conditions,” he says.
When Per Persson is not working, he spends time with family – his wife Marie and children Emma and Nils. The summer cottage in Kivik takes up a lot of time. In his leisure time, he likes to listen to music, with Dylan, Puccini, Thåström and the Eagles high on the playlist. He also likes to cook and socialise with friends.
“I have a group of friends who usually meet up in Falsterbo and play golf three times a year. Sometimes there can be slight schisms between golfers and ornithologists, of which we have many at CEC. So, I keep a low profile,” says Per Persson and smiles.
Text and photos: Johan Joelsson.