How a student of Translational Medicine pursues her dream to improve future diagnostics

After witnessing the disastrous consequences of a wrong diagnosis, Ronja Hotakainen decided she wants to develop better diagnostics and treatments with the help of genetic testing. Now she is studying in the Master’s Programme in Translational Medicine at the University of Helsinki pursuing her dream and enjoying the multicultural and fast-paced study environment.

Hotakainen had just graduated from the Bachelor’s programme in Molecular Biosciences at the University of Helsinki when she decided to apply for the international Master’s programme in Translational Medicine (TRANSMED). It was her only application – Hotakainen did not have a plan B. Her plan A, however, was supposed to bring her closer to her dream: To work in the field of personalised medicine and develop diagnostics for different diseases based on individual genetics.

“A lot of people get a wrong diagnosis or, in the worst case, no diagnosis at all”

The story behind her dream is maybe not a happy one, but Hotakainen likes to give an example of how to turn negative experiences into a source of motivation.

“I witnessed how a wrong diagnosis can prolong the start of correct treatments until it's too late. It is sad to know that an earlier and correct diagnosis might have given the person a few more years of valuable time. This is why I want to work with personalised medicine, to develop genetic tests to make it easier to discover risks and choose the right treatment for people. Genes can show which medication works best for you so that you could be provided with the most suitable one right from the beginning and avoid negative side effects. Having this concrete goal motivates me.”

The Master’s programme TRANSMED was a real fit for Hotakainen because in the programme students learn how to implement research findings in patient care to facilitate new therapies and medical procedures.

“There are not many similar programmes elsewhere. I feel that it is kind of unique,” Hotakainen says. “I just thought it would suit me well, it is so diverse.”

In the early summer Hotakainen got an email from the Admission Services: She was offered a study place. After having studied TRANSMED for three months, Hotakainen has not regretted her decision.

Practical, fast-paced and multi-cultural

“The study environment at the Faculty of Medicine is amazing. It is relaxed but at the same time very fast-paced. We have a lot of interesting courses, for example, at an anatomy course we attended a real brain dissection. It was a stunning experience because often you just read anatomy from textbooks. The whole programme is very practical. We also interact and discuss with researchers instead of only having lectures. On top of that, there is lots of discussion and group work amongst us students.”

Even though the student from the bilingual city of Porvoo grew up with two languages, Finnish and Swedish, she thought studying in English would prepare her best for her career. But recently, she has begun to see more benefits of studying in a multi-cultural environment.

“Of course it is good to study in English because nowadays everyone expects you to be good in it, but it is equally cool that we are all people with very different backgrounds knowing different things. When we do group work, we can combine our knowledge and learn so much from each other. The best thing though is that everyone is very motivated. I get more motivated by the people I am studying with.”

Many employment opportunities

Hotakainen is convinced that the programme was the right choice to gain the skills that she will need in working-life – especially after meeting some of the earlier graduates in her Career Skills course, which aims to help students to identify their competences and improve their job-seeking skills.

“The alumni have shown me that there are so many employment opportunities in research or in the private sector. That is because we have many relevant courses for the industry I want to work in. And the courses are really contemporary: they are teaching us which methods are developed and used in companies and what is happening in the field right now.”

Hotakainen’s chances to be able to work in her dream job after graduation are indeed good. In times of ageing populations and constantly rising therapy costs, the health and health technology sectors are rapidly emerging fields and the demand for well-trained specialists in the field of translational medicine is likely to increase. According to the statistics, around 40% of TRANSMED graduates have been employed directly by bio, pharma or other health sector industries all around the world and more than 50% are continuing their studies in doctoral programmes. As a TRANSMED graduate, you are eligible to apply to several doctoral programmes at the University of Helsinki, and of course to other universities, both in Finland and abroad.

Hotakainen is delighted when she hears these figures.

“The field is important because it allows new discoveries in therapeutics and diagnostics that can be used in the health sector to help people with different diseases. I hope that the field will continue to grow and there will be more companies and jobs.”

“You can do so many things with this degree”

Hotakainen is in her first year and still has some study time left before entering the working-life. For now, she plans to focus on her courses and enjoy her activities in the event planning committee of a student organisation. Although the committee is close to her heart, it will probably be her last year as an active board member. Next year, she wants to join a research group where she can write her Master thesis and hopes to find a group dealing with diabetes or metabolism. Looking at the busy times ahead, her new international friends give her comfort.

“We often meet in groups and study in the library together. We also meet outside of school: for example, once we organised a pizza night and it was really fun!”

What does Hotakainen recommend to anyone interested in studying translational medicine at the University of Helsinki?

“Just apply! You will meet lots of interesting and motivated people here. And there are so many things you can do with this degree – it is really up to you!”