Agnes Wold is used to debating

Svenska 2015-08-20

Agnes Wold is a researcher; her grandfather was a Nobel Prize winner and both her parents were academics. She thought it was uncool to be a professor, but she was fascinated by the human body and wanted to know more. Now she refuses to give up until she understands the mechanisms behind allergies.

Agnes Wold is professor of clinical bacteriology at the Department of Biomedicine, University of Gothenburg. She is renowned for proving the link between bacterial flora in infants’ intestines and the risk of them developing allergies. Agnes Wold has also researched into gender equality in academia and has shown how women are disadvantaged.

Already as a child, Agnes Wold was used to debating and thinking for herself. She grew up in an academic home in Uppsala, and was considerably younger than her two siblings. Her father, Herman Wold, was professor of statistics and her mother, Anna-Lisa Arrhenius, studied mathematics and physics, and was the fourth woman in Sweden to defend her thesis in mathematics.

“Everybody had opinions on everything and there were discussions all the time at home. I am still like that and I think we should be like that in academia, but not all other academics would agree. I am a little surprised about it,” says Agnes Wold.

She learned at an early age that those who are at the top of the hierarchy do not necessarily know best through stories about her grandfather, Nobel Prize winner and chemist, Svante Arrhenius.

“He was a researcher at Stockholm College at the time, but he was forced to defend his thesis at Uppsala University because Stockholm was not a university. In Uppsala they did not understand what he had done, and his thesis was not given the grade required for an academic career. I never met my grandfather as he died in 1927, but I believe this story had a lasting impact on me.”

Yearning to learn more about the body

At school Agnes Wold was good in all subjects, and she was interested in languages and social sciences. It was at upper secondary school that she decided to devote her professional life to science and medicine.

“During the third year we studied the human body and it was wonderful – really interesting! I felt that I must learn more at all costs! Then I studied chemistry and biology at university, but had no thoughts about becoming a researcher. It was the seventies, with the leftist movement going on, and it was uncool to be a professor,” says Agnes Wold.

Chance played its hand, she got jobs in different labs and in time her interest in research was aroused. Agnes started medical school, not because she wanted to be a doctor, but so that she would have a better chance of researching in medicine. She completed a PhD in immunology in 1989 and became a qualified medical doctor a few years later.

“I first did research into mucus membranes’ immune systems, such as tolerance to foodstuffs, immune response to bacteria and the intestinal flora. At that time the normal flora was completely out of fashion and very few people cared about this type of research. But intestinal flora is “in” now,” says Agnes Wold.

Perhaps it is partly thanks to her that interest in the area has increased. Agnes Wold and her research colleague, Ingegerd Adlerberth, saw that Swedish children had an impoverished intestinal flora and had the idea that this was possibly the reason for the increase in allergies.

“We started the Flora study in 1998 and thought that it would be quite easy to find which bacteria were missing and why this led to allergies. But it was not that damned easy! What we did find out, though, is that having many different bacteria in the intestinal flora gives protection.”

About to be dismissed

Like her grandfather, Svante Arrhenius, Agnes Wold has experienced what it feels like to be without a footing in the academic world. Twenty years ago she had a disagreement with the former Medical Research Council, MRC, and the event still gives rise to strong feelings.

Agnes Wold and her college Christine Wennerås had applied for research assistant positions with MRC, but neither of them was successful. After a lot of investigation, they were able to show that a woman applicant needed 2.6 times as many citations for articles in the international scientific press than a man to be judged equally competent.

The study was published in Nature and the Medical Research Council was forced to resign, but there was a high price. Wold and Wennerås were accused of destroying medical research, among other things.

“Autumn 1995 was a real low point. My job was going to be withdrawn, I had little hope and no one lifted a finger for me. Everything was in the balance, but fortunately I managed to hang on. I called the university equality coordinator and said that the journalists who wrote about my study would perhaps be interested in hearing about my own situation. The day after they came up with funds for a part-time position for me!”

Fight for equality

Agnes Wold has continued to be engaged in women’s prospects in academia. She was recently appointed to the government’s expert group on gender equality in higher education, which will submit proposals for the next research bill.

“I will really do my best for this group. It is difficult to understand the world of research from the outside. I want to explain to the politicians what happens when women are excluded and what politicians can do about it.”

Agnes Wold believes that taxpayers’ money is being wasted when those who are best suited to research are not given the opportunity. For example, she believes that her mother would have been an excellent researcher.

“She was a genius and would probably have done research if she had been a man. Instead she became a mathematics teacher, but it didn’t suit her at all. She was far too kind and abstract, too academic.”

Puppies and allergy vaccine

Before Agnes Wold retires she wants to demonstrate the mechanisms behind allergies and how the immune system goes wrong. In a recent study, she gave puppies a bacterial substance that activates the immune system, a so-called super-antigen, which is a kind of allergy vaccine. It has worked on mice, and soon it is time to follow up on the study on dogs.

“I am terrified about breaking the code, and I am not hoping at all. That’s my strategy. Certainly, it would be great if it was possible to develop a preventive treatment for people in the future, but that is in the far distance.”

Agnes Wold says that one of the upsides of being a researcher is that you don’t have a manager. Now and then she is heard in the public debate, such as when she questions advice to parents about breastfeeding, cleaning and pets. She has not always been appreciated by allergologists, nor by the Swedish Asthma and Allergy Association, but she has never regretted her choice of career.

“Certainly not! I am really cut out for this profession, but many others probably think that I should have a different job,” she says, laughing.

Text: Eva Annell
Photo: Anna von Brömssen