Scientifically courageous researcher

Academy Research Fellow, evolutionary biologist Anna-Liisa Laine has of late been showered with awards. A year ago, she received a €1.5 million ERC Starting Grant for up-and-coming researchers, and in spring 2012 the For Women in Science Award. On Friday 9 November 2012, Laine was presented with the Academy of Finland Award for Scientific Courage.

Anna-Liisa Laine

Anna-Liisa Laine, an evolutionary biologist and Academy of Finland Research Fellow, is doing what she always wanted to. Best of all, it has proved to be rewarding in scientific terms and in the eyes of external funders.

The €1.5 million grant awarded by the European Research Council in autumn 2011 is enabling Laine to freely fulfil her aspirations in science until the end of 2016. What she intends to do is dig into the underlying causes of plant diseases and the fluctuations in their pathogenic abilities.

Perseverance and good fortune

Anna-Liisa Laine, who works at the Department of Biosciences, reveals that her research career did not develop along a carefully designed path.

“It’s true that I always wanted to be a researcher: at first I thought it would be in cell biology, but then ecology came and swept me away,” she says. “Many fortunate events and lucky incidents, which I simply could not have planned or counted on, also occurred along the way.”

Fortunate events there may have been, but perseverance and an open mind have played an important role in Laine’s career development. For her doctoral studies, Laine landed a place with a highly prestigious team after a determined bid, and when looking for base material for her research in interspecific relationships, came up with the idea of using a particular database created as a by-product of extensive butterfly studies. It contained data collected from four thousand meadows in the Åland Islands.

Laine ultimately chose to study the ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and its fungal pathogen Podosphaera plantaginis. Their coexistence sheds light on why plant diseases occur where they do and why the harm they inflict on their hosts shows so much variation. Basic research conducted on wild plants can be clearly linked to agriculture and diseases in crop plants.

Importance of versatile contacts

Since Anna-Liisa Laine had no previous experience in plant diseases when she embarked on her doctoral dissertation she decided to take part in an intensive summer course in the USA. The trip turned out to be a turning point in her research career and provided her with many important contacts.

“Networking is particularly important in a field such as this, which hardly anyone else studies,” says Laine. “I believe in true cooperation and that foundations are more solid if the parties involved excel in different areas. When you move in international circles it’s worthwhile talking to people and not just fraternise with your own Finnish crowd.”

From the field to the computer

In the early days of her research career, Anna-Liisa Laine spent long spells in the Åland Islands. These days she visits them mainly at the beginning of field tests. However, her family of four usually spends part of the summer months on the islands. Says Laine: “Åland is a great place, and when you carry out research related to nature, it is important to stay in touch with the natural environment. It fills your mind with so many ideas!”

Laine rarely works in the laboratory these days. She spends most of her working hours at her office in Viikki and tries to telework one day a week. “Telework is very efficient in small amounts,” she points out.

Great advocate of science

In addition to the ERC Grant, Laine also received the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award in spring 2012. Ever since, women’s and family magazines have shown a keen interest in the young female scientist.

“I think it’s wonderful if I can raise the profile of researchers by my own example,” says Laine. “People often have strange notions of what researchers and professors are like, but the truth is, they are multi-talented employees with well-honed project skills. The modern university world is anything but a sheltered workplace.”

Academy of FinlandAnna-Liisa Laine and Mari Sandell receive 2012 Academy of Finland Awards »»

Research Database TUHAT: Anna-Liisa Laine »»

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Text: Elina Raukko
Photo: Ari Aalto
12.11.2012
Translation: Language Services, University of Helsinki
University of Helsinki, digital communications


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