Alumnus of the Year: “Humanities students also need a dose of life science”

6 September 2022

Portrait of Richard Bergström with a purple background

Coordinating and securing access to the COVID-19 vaccine is still more than a full-time job for Richard Bergström.

Under the original plan, the role of national vaccination coordinator would have already been completed. But with a virus that evades both immune system defences and vaccines, Richard Bergström's coordinating efforts are still needed. He is now being named Uppsala University's Alumnus of the Year for 2022.

A roll-up with the EU Commission's logo is still up in the living room of Richard Bergström's home in Switzerland, ready to serve as a backdrop during digital interviews and meetings. Coordinating and securing access to the COVID-19 vaccine is still more than a full-time job.

He brings to the role a degree in pharmacy from Uppsala University and a wealth of international experience from the pharmaceutical sector, both in government agencies and in major pharmaceutical companies and lobbying organisations.

Is there anything in your education that you thought was unnecessary during your studies but later turned out to be very useful?
– I never considered it unnecessary, but I remember that none of my classmates enjoyed what is now known as social pharmacy – except for me.

You have had a career in major international companies and a key role during the pandemic. What, apart from your university studies, has been important for your professional development?
– When I lectured to students at the Faculty of Pharmacy in Uppsala at the end of last year, I said: “If you think you are finished now, you are mistaken. This is where the learning begins”. I highlighted that working internationally is a very good experience, and I also took the opportunity to make a pitch for the pharmaceutical industry, where a lot of interesting things are happening. Working in a member organisation, with many different ambitions, has also been very complex and educational.

– As a person, I am curious and a big consumer of news and podcasts. I have a broad interest in society, and I think that has been important.

What advice can you give to a new student just starting university? How can they get the most out of their years at university?
– Mix and match. I would really urge everyone to not just follow the ready-made degree programmes, but to mix subjects. Knowledge of computer science, ethics, policy, history, and philosophies on the meaning of life will broaden your perspective. If you are studying science subjects – study social sciences as well. And vice versa. Humanities students also need a dose of life science.

– Curiosity is important and I really think you should see the world as your field of work. Take advantage of opportunities to study abroad, for example.

What was important to you when you were a student?
– I was determined and decided to focus all my efforts on my studies. I read a lot and I did things like take an extra course in molecular biology on the weekends. This was in 1986, so it was a very new field. We cloned bacteria, among other things. It was only after I graduated that I started going to student nations, thanks to the fact that my wife had a few years left on her studies.

What is the most challenging aspect of your professional life at the moment?
– It is acting in situations that are often unclear. Dealing with the constant uncertainty surrounding the virus and surrounding different types of data is an ongoing challenge. There are also some scattered and conflicting ambitions. But so far, so good. It has been a very interesting and tough year.  

Read more about the Alumnus of the Year award.

Citation for Bergström receiving the Alumnus of the Year award:

Over the last few years Richard Bergström has been one of the most visible and important people in connection to the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to this he had a notable career within the pharmaceutical industry. He has held influential positions in a number of government bodies at a national and international level, as well as within the pharmaceutical industry’s interest organisations. At the same time Richard Bergström has always kept close contact with Uppsala University. He is a true alumnus and a role model for our students.

Open lecture

Richard Bergström will be holding an open lecture on 23 November. Updated information about the lecture can be found in the university’s calendar. The Alumnus of the Year award is presented at Uppsala University's awards ceremony on 7 October.