The Academy of Finland has selected two distinguished early-career researchers to receive the 2022 Academy of Finland Awards. The winners are Riikka Puhakka, an Academy Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences (Lahti University Campus), for her outstanding research on the interactions between the environment and health, and Ville Vuorinen, Associate Professor of Energy Technology at Aalto University,
Both winners have demonstrated their ability to produce high-quality and high-impact research. Puhakka’s and Vuorinen’s research topics and findings have also received extensive international media attention, for example by The Guardian, the BBC and CNN.
Positive experiences of nature increase wellbeing and the desire to take care of the environment
Riikka Puhakka’s research adopts an exceptionally broad approach to the interaction between humans and nature, analysing the interactions especially from the perspective of outdoor recreation and tourism. She has experience of multidisciplinary research collaboration in the fields of environmental social science and geography. Through her societally relevant research topics, Puhakka has successfully highlighted the link between the living environment and human health.
“Combining approaches and methods from different disciplines in a new and creative way is, in my opinion, scientific courage. Despite the uncertainties involved, it may give rise to significant research results that couldn’t be achieved by relying on just one discipline. I’m particularly motivated by qualitative research methods and data. I get to hear young people’s own opinions about what nature means to them and how it affects their wellbeing,” Puhakka says.
According to Puhakka, childhood and adolescence can be seen as particularly important ages for getting out and about in nature and forming a connection with the environment. Children and young people’s connection to nature and their responsible attitude towards the environment are also key issues for the global sustainability crisis and the future of our planet.
“It’s very important to think about how to support and encourage different families to spend time outdoors and how to ensure that young people have equal access to nature and its benefits. It’s also essential that policymakers, professionals and citizens have easy access to the latest research on the interactions between the environment and people.”
In her research, Puhakka has noted that the talk of young people’s alienation from nature only applies to a small proportion of young people. For the majority of young people, nature is an important part of everyday life.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, young people in particular became more active in nature and found new outdoor activities. This shows the potential of the recreational use of nature. But there is much more that could be done to use nature to improve the wellbeing of young people,” Puhakka says.
Riikka Puhakka is Academy Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences on the Lahti University Campus. She took her doctorate at the University of Joensuu in 2007. After her PhD, Puhakka did three years of postdoctoral research at the University of Oulu and then moved to the University of Helsinki. In 2018, the University of Helsinki awarded Puhakka the title of docent in environmental science. Puhakka currently heads the multidisciplinary NATUREWELL project (2019–2024), funded by the Academy of Finland. The project studies the effects of outdoor activities on the health and wellbeing of young people in Finland.