A peek behind the scenes: Experience PhD Cup 2024

On Thursday, April 25, the Festival Auditorium at Frederiksberg Campus hosted a very special event. Inside Health was present at PhD Cup 2024, where five outstanding researchers presented their Ph.D. projects to all of Denmark.

Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall from the Department of Clinical Medicine is in makeup before the dress rehearsal for the PhD Cup 2024.
Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall from the Department of Clinical Medicine is in makeup before the dress rehearsal for the PhD Cup 2024. Photo: Sebastian Skousgaard, AU Health.

Under the bright lights of the makeup room, Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall sits in a black chair, his gaze fixed on the mirror in front of him. The makeup artist, wearing a DR logo on her back, works quickly and expertly with brushes and hairspray, while the young researcher tries to make small talk.

"Honestly, the last time I wore makeup was when I had to play a tree in a school play in primary school," he laughs.

Around them, the production room buzzes with anticipation towards the recording of “Forskningsfesten” 2024 — a major TV show that will be broadcast on Saturday on DR1 during prime time. Here, Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall will present several years of research on fecal transplants in just three minutes.

"It's a strange feeling to stand in front of a full auditorium and all of Denmark to talk about my research. I'm used to sitting behind a screen, not being on it or standing in front of cameras," he admits with a wry smile, as the makeup artist adjusts the final details of his hairstyle.

A Capsule with Life-Saving Feces

The Ph.D. Cup 2024, or as it's called on DR — 'Forskningsfesten', focuses on new, Danish research and awards the Danish Ph.D. student who is best at communicating their research in just three minutes.

Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall is a medical doctor and Ph.D. from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital. Over the past six years, he has juggled research, patient treatment, and a waste product that may prove to be a real goldmine.

"It might sound a bit disgusting, but we've found that patients with a dangerous gut bacterium, Clostridioides difficile also called Clostridia, have long been treated only with antibiotics, which was what gave them the bacterium in the first place. If patients instead consume healthy people's feces in capsules, it can actually cure nine out of ten patients with this condition," the young researcher explains passionately.

In short, Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall's research involves transferring feces and bacteria from a healthy to a sick gut. Clostridia affects 4,000 Danes annually and causes potentially life-threatening diarrhea. Therefore, Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall and the research team he's a part of have developed a new method in the form of small capsules containing dehydrated feces collected from thoroughly tested blood donors.

"After developing the capsules, the plan was to conduct a test trial on the sickest patients with Clostridia. One group received the standard treatment with antibiotics, while another group received antibiotics along with the new fecal capsules. But the new treatment worked so well that we simply had to stop the trial. Nine out of ten became healthy, and it would have been unethical if we did not offer the new treatment to all patients," the researcher proudly explains.

The work with the capsules turned into a Ph.D. project with a clear conclusion: all patients with Clostridia should be offered a fecal transplant. And that is the message Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall brings to the final of the PhD Cup 2024.

PhD Cup 2024 - 'Forskerfesten'

The Ph.D. Cup and ‘Forskerfesten’ are a collaboration between DR, Information, and the Lundbeck Foundation.

The program was broadcast on DR1 Saturday evening from 7-8 PM and can be rewatched on DRTV.

To read more about Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall's research, you can delve into Information's portrait of the young researcher here: (in Danish).

Participants in this year's research festival were:

  • Nathalie Eiris Henriksen, Technical University of Denmark
  • Kristina Tornbjerg Eriksen, Aalborg University
  • Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall, Aarhus University
  • Nicolaj Malle, University of Southern Denmark
  • Karen Ruben Husby, University of Copenhagen

The Final Preparations

In front of a colorful neon screen, the young researcher stands focused, with a petri dish of fecal pills lying in front of him. Again and again, he goes through his steps, speaking loudly and gesturing clearly.

"Can we try again, where you pronounce 'Clostridia' a bit more clearly?" a stage coach asks from the large auditorium. Simon repeats his line, this time emphasizing each syllable more, while he moves across to a new area on the stage.

A technician cautiously approaches and adjusts a microphone that seems to rub against his shirt. "Sorry, just a second, we just need to get this sitting perfectly," the technician explains while meticulously adjusting it.

The production staff is still buzzing around, putting the final touches on the lighting and checking the sound one more time, as the clock ticks down to the final recording.

In 2023, Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall and his research group's treatment was produced in 1,900 portions, but it is still far from all patients being offered a fecal transplant. Therefore, the researcher saw a clear opportunity to highlight the topic by participating in the PhD Cup 2024.

"Fecal transplants are a relatively new field of research, which I believe many people had no knowledge of just a few years ago. We still don't fully understand how it works—only that it does. More aspects and questions are constantly emerging, and it has gone from zero to a hundred just in the time I've been involved in the field," says Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall, continuing:

"But one can write as many scientific articles as possible, without ordinary Danes necessarily knowing that this treatment exists. We have the system and our arguments in place, now we just need to spread the treatment. To stand in DR's prime time and be able to tell that this little capsule saves lives is an absolutely crazy opportunity, and it was a 'no-brainer' when I was asked if I wanted to participate in the competition," explains Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall.

An Intensive Communication Course

Although Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall knew what he was getting into, it was still quite a change for the young researcher to be part of a communication competition, where the body and voice carry the most of the work.

"I don't think you're ever quite prepared for how big a task it is to go from being well-articulated in writing to suddenly standing in front of cameras in the spotlight and reducing a 188-page Ph.D. to just three minutes. We've been through an intensive course over the past few weeks, and an enormous amount of preparation and practice goes into refining such a presentation. I haven't exactly slept excellently last night, as I am both excited and a bit overwhelmed that it's me who will be standing there on stage on DR1 in front of all those people," says Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall.

Participants in the Research Festival are not left to fend for themselves. From the start, they were connected with a producer from DR, who read and provided feedback on their texts. Additionally, participants sparred with journalists from Information and learned about presentation techniques from a professional performance coach.

"And the winner is…"

The spotlight dances over host Ulla Essendrop's colorful top, while applause from the filled auditorium bursts out in the hall. The PhD Cup is now truly underway, and one by one, the researchers shine with exciting presentations. Simon steps forward with a calm and professional demeanor, clearly well-versed and confident on stage.

The audience listens intently as Simon communicates, flanked by colorful illustrations of bacteria tumbling around on a large screen. A strong applause follows, after which this year's judges - climate correspondent Thøger Kirk, senior researcher Flemming Splidsboel, and Minister of Education and Research Christina Egelund - have their say.

Christina Egelund praises: "This is precisely the type of communication we hope for when we talk about the PhD Cup’s purpose of bringing research closer to the people."

After five outstanding presentations, Nathalie Eiris Henriksen from DTU is announced as this year's winner of the competition and the recipient of a check for 50,000 kr. Simon Mark Dahl Baumwall is in no way disappointed with the evening's proceedings.

"It was completely surreal to stand up there on stage and to be able to share my passion for research with so many people. It's a dream come true, and all the others were incredibly skilled. I could never have picked a winner myself," he says.

The Research Festival is over for this time, and as participants receive bouquets of flowers from the production team and hugs from Ulla Essendrop, people trickle out of the large auditorium and into the room next door, where a reception with jazz music and some treats caps off the evening.

"If you've done some research that you really believe in and think can make a difference, then I would definitely encourage other Ph.D. students to sign up for the PhD Cup. It's a unique opportunity to break through with your message in front of a broad audience, and I've taken home tools that I will undoubtedly draw on for many years to come," concludes Simon Mark Dahl Baunwell.


Doctor and ph.d. Simon Mark Dahl Baunwall
Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicine
Aarhus University Hospital, Department for Liver, Stomach, and Intestinal Diseases
Phone: 22 31 80 17
Email: simonjorgensen@clin.au.dk