Working for FinPharma: Professor Mikko Airavaara

The expertise of Mikko Airavaara, who graduated with a doctoral degree from the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Pharmacy in 2006, is centred on a fascinating and as yet unmapped field of science: neuropharmacology.

Mikko Airavaara will begin working as a professor at the national research and cooperation network FinPharma at the beginning of January 2021.

After defending his doctoral thesis in pharmacy in 2006, Airavaara assumed the position of a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States. In 2011 he began working as an Academy of Finland research fellow and established a research group focused on cerebral infarction and Parkinson's disease at the Institute of Biotechnology, currently part of the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE) at the University of Helsinki. In 2019 he was appointed research group director at HiLIFE’s Neuroscience Centre. On University of Helsinki's Meilahti Campus, he just managed to get his seven-strong laboratory going before the coronavirus pandemic hit. No more than six months later, he was appointed to the professorship in Viikki.

Pharmacology is like decathlon

As the appointee to the professorship in pharmacology and drug development, Airavaara draws a comparison between his discipline and decathlon.

“In pharmacology, you have to be good at each individual discipline, and have broad knowledge of, for example, biology, physiology, anatomy, cellular and molecular biology and chemistry. Versatility is absolutely crucial for successful research.”

In his research, Mikko Airavaara is currently focused on neuropharmacology, or how pharmacological agents affect the nervous system. He is also contributing a hefty helping of expertise in neurobiology to these efforts.

“Research on the nervous system has previously concentrated primarily on neurons, leaving the study of other cells on the sidelines. At the moment, my research group is actively investigating other cells, such as astrocytes and microglial cells. We have a lot of expertise in proteostasis, or protein folding, and stem-cell-based neuronal cultures. This has enabled us to take part in projects focused on stem cells as well,” he explains.

Researcher identity must be established early

Airavaara thinks that students should be supported to express their interest in research as early as possible.

“Students should be encouraged to contribute to research from their first year of studies. It would be good to have them conduct research in a handful of groups, which could help them identify their personal research interests.”

Airavaara emphasises the importance of self-reflection when choosing your career path.

“The researcher’s personal motivation has to be high. Broad-based interest and being active in deploying new methods are other helpful qualities for a researcher, as that way entirely new topics and techniques can be discovered which can be used to ask new questions.”

Airavaara has been putting his ideas into practice with his students. Already for the past three years, he has organised courses in drug development where a student-oriented approach has been applied to learning the use of gene scissors in the development of new techniques. The lack of suitable biomarkers is a problem often associated with developing new pharmaceutical agents as well.

FinPharma increases research collaboration in the field of pharmacy

Mikko Airavaara feels that the FinPharma research and cooperation network offers significant opportunities for the development of the field as a whole.

“FinPharma is a project ahead of its time. Particularly in the current coronavirus era, we need national projects that highlight research and expertise in the field. When I was a student, we had many joint projects with what was then the University of Kuopio, and the pharmaceutical industry. This collaboration was aimed at boosting research. Now that many international conferences have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, national cooperation is in demand. Today, partnerships are a prerequisite for acquiring academic funding. And we have already set up research education collaboration, ready for the national drug research centre currently being planned,” Airavaara notes.

Mikko Airavaara will start working at FinPharma as professor of pharmacology and drug development at the beginning of January 2021. The position is located at the Division of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapy, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Helsinki.


Research group Neuroprotection and neurorepair