From the piano to the pipette

Professor Pentti Tienari studies the causes of multiple sclerosis and plays the piano to unwind. Laura Leisma has sung the main role in more than twenty operas, and works as a dentist. Together with 60 other musician doctors, they are fundraising for medical research in a concert organised on 10 November.

The hallway of Meilahti's Haartman Institute floods with intricate classical music played on a grand piano.

“I started with the piano when I was seven, and I stopped when I was ten,” jokes Pentti Tienari, professor of neuroimmunology, as he contemplates Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma in the second-floor lounge.

A few years after quitting the piano, Tienari heard his music teacher play Rachmaninov, and became interested again, returning to his music studies at the Espoo Music Institute and graduating while he was a young medical student.

“At that point I started working on my dissertation and swapped my piano for a pipette,” Tienari says, not quite accurately. Over the years, he has continued to study music at master classes and under the tutelage of his pianist friends. He also performs regularly, for example, at the concerts organised at the Surgical Hospital during the annual Finnish Medical Convention.

In his scientific career, Tienari has focused on severe neurological illnesses. He is currently participating in determining the genetic background to ALS and helped model the mutation in the C9orf72 gene, which commonly leads to the disease, from stem cells produced from Finnish patients.

Tienari's most long-term research interest is still multiple sclerosis, and he intends to dedicate the rest of his career to discovering its cause.

“I believe the cause will be found in white blood cells."

Music refreshes the brain and the body

Tienari explains that music provides a necessary counterpoint to his work and helps him recharge. He has also seen the power of music in his work as a neurologist.

“There are a great many associations encoded in music. This is why a person with a memory disorder may be able to remember song lyrics or play pieces of music from memory. Sometimes while playing, one is able to remember things that one previously struggled to recall unsuccessfully."

Listening to and performing music may also provide a physical boost. This is the experience of Laura Leisma, dentist and soprano.

“Singing is a very physical pursuit, but also in my work as a dentist, my back and shoulder muscles take a beating. At one point, I didn’t sing for six months, and I started to have back pain at work."

At the Musician Doctors on Stage concert in November, Leisma will perform the aria Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma.

“I have a unique opportunity to perform at the University's Great Hall, so I want to sing a piece that is as difficult as I can manage," Leisma laughs.

She has a degree from both the Faculty of Medicine and the Sibelius Academy, and has performed in the main roles of more than twenty operas, even performing as a visitor at the Finnish National Opera. In her day job, Leisma works at a private dental clinic in central Helsinki.

From a fundraising experiment to an annual tradition

This autumn marks the second Musician Doctors on Stage concert.

“In autumn 2014, we were trying to think of new fundraising methods at the Faculty of Medicine alumni group, and the idea for the concert came from the realisation that many doctors are also musicians," Leisma explains.

The concert organised at the Savoy Theatre in autumn 2015 tended towards more popular music, jazz and swing. Vice-Dean Caj Haglund was so pleased with the concert that he suggested there was the potential to build it into an annual tradition.

This year, the programme focuses on classical music.

“We’ve tried to make the programme as varied as possible. The concert will feature a range of different instruments, and the pieces will be everything from the Viennese classics to opera and from renaissance music to more contemporary pieces,” says Leisma.

The proceeds from the concert will go to support the Faculty of Medicine’s medical research, the development of personalised treatments, and new learning environments and technologies.

“Even though the amount of money we raise is not massive, the event increases awareness of the significance of individual donations to medical research. This is work that cannot be fully funded by public resources,” Leisma states.

To this, Tienari adds, “Right now, we have the potential to revolutionise research but at the same time there have been cuts from the funding for the University and the Academy of Finland. Therefore we must find alternative sources of funding.”

Musician Doctors on Stage

The Musician Doctors on Stage concert will be held on 10 November 2016 between 19.00 and 21.30 at the University of Helsinki’s Great Hall (Unioninkatu 34, entrance from Aleksanterinkatu).

Proceeds will go to support medical research at the University of Helsinki. The concert is organised by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Helsinki and the Alumni Association.