Parasite and rat connoisseur Tuomas Aivelo awarded for popularising science
Evolutionary biologist Tuomas Aivelo has written a celebrated book on parasites, researches rat populations with schoolchildren in Helsinki, and writes a popular online science blog. Now he has received an award for his merits in bringing science to new audiences.

Sometimes a reward comes in an unexpected form. For Tuomas Aivelo it arrived while he was reading the transcribed interviews of schoolchildren conducted by his master’s thesis supervisee.

At the time Aivelo had been conducting research on the number of rats in Helsinki, Finland. He had recruited hundreds of schoolchildren to help him with his work. The students took  plates used to trace rats to their neighborhoods, checked on the plates regularly, and reported the results back to Aivelo. During the interviews, the students had been asked what participation in the research project had meant to them.

One of the pupils put it like this:

Maybe I kinda even started to appreciate a little how much work goes into doing research.

Aivelo stopped to stare at the comment.

Maybe I kinda even started to appreciate a little,” Aivelo repeats.

“Not only had one of our participants understood that research entails a lot of work, and not only had they understood that there might problems that you have to solve, but they had maybe kinda even started to appreciate it. I’d say we’ve come a long way there already. It’s a great situation if you think of it from the perspective of appreciation of science.”

Now Aivelo, a postdoctoral researcher, has also received a somewhat more official award for popularising science from his employer, the University of Helsinki.

Book award nomination, a blog, and social media

 The J. V. Snellman Award is granted annually to a member of the university community as a recognition of their outstanding efforts to communicate scientific research to people outside the academia. Special emphasis is given to activities that have significantly contributed to raising public awareness of the scholarly work conducted at the university as well as of the objectives of strategic importance for the university.

Aivelo works in the Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme in the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences of the University of Helsinki. His research interests include parasites, ticks, and rats.

Aivelo’s merits in popularising science are numerous. In 2018, he was nominated for the prestigious Finlandia award for nonfiction for his book Loputtomat loiset (‘Endless parasites’). For the last five years, he has been writing a much-read blog Kaiken takana on loinen (‘Behind everything is a parasite’) for the popular science magazine Tiede.

In addition, he contributes to biology textbooks, tweets enthusiastically about all things science, and appears frequently in the media and at public events. Not to mention his work in bringing science to new audiences through his ‘citizen science’ projects, such as the schoolchildren’s rat study.

In recent years, there has been much debate on the value, credibility, and status of science around the world. In Finland, funding for higher education has been cut, and researchers have often been referred to derisively in public. Even so, Aivelo doesn’t see the current state and status of science as particularly problematic. Quite the opposite.

“There’s more science in the world than ever before, and the world is increasingly dependent on science. People are interested in science. The starting position is very positive,” Aivelo says.

But what about, for example, climate change deniers, who don’t believe that humans are accelerating climate change, despite the scientific community unanimously agreeing on it?

“It’s a twisted situation in that even those whose opinions oppose the scientific consensus still justify their views with science. So it’s not a case of a crisis of science, it’s a crisis of who is allowed to be an expert. Whose voice is heard and believed.”

“People don’t understand what scientists do”

Aivelo, who turns 35 this year, represents the younger generation of scientists for whom communicating through social media and the internet comes naturally and easily. He likes the simple form of blogs and uses social media to keep in touch with the academic community, biology teachers, and other audiences.

His main goal as a communicator is to clarify to people outside the scientific community what it is that scientists actually do. This is why the student’s comment on Aivelo’s rat study felt especially important.

“People don’t often really understand what researchers do. For people to really appreciate and value scientists’ work and science itself, it would be important for them to really understand what is involved in it," Aivelo says.

“I’d like scientists to communicate more and be more visible in public discussions. In didactics, or the theory of teaching, it’s thought that the most important lesson a science teacher should convey to their students is the nature of science: how data is collected and evaluated. Understanding that is essential. So researchers shouldn’t talk only about the results of their research but also about how they get there.”

What is the most important thing Aivelo would like the people outside the scientific community to understand about science?

“That there are a lot of things we don’t know anything about. And then there are things we know a great deal about. And then there are many things in between. The amount of uncertainty varies a lot. I think that it’s a part of the role of an expert to also talk about this uncertainty.”

Read more:

Tuomas Aivelo’s remarks at the award ceremony