“My studies in Cell and System Physiology made me understand the mechanisms of life and reasons behind diseases”

Modern teaching, a supportive network of experts from a wide range of fields, studies connected with working life and a relaxed environment with motivated people. We talked to Feven Tigistu-Sahle and Lauri Äikäs about studying Cell and Systems Physiology in the Master’s Programme in Neuroscience at the University of Helsinki and the opportunities it offers.

FevenTigistu-Sahle is an alumna of the University of Helsinki. After completing her Master’s degree, she continued with doctoral studies in the field of Cell and Systems Physiology achieving a PhD degree. Tigistu-Sahle is currently working in her home country, Ethiopia, promoting health biotechnology. Simultaneously, she takes part in international research projects keeping contacts to research teams in Helsinki. 

Lauri Äikäs studies in the Master’s Programme of Neuroscience following the Cell and Systems Physiology study track. He has already started his PhD project in Wihuri Research Institute.

Tigistu-Sahle and Äikäs have collaborated in same research projects, and Feven has supervised Lauri’s first steps in the field of mass spectrometric lipidomics in laboratory. Together, they have already co-authored two research articles. 

What is it like to study in the programme? 

Tigistu-Sahle: Starting my master’s studies at the University of Helsinki opened a whole new world since it was my first international experience. The orientation programme helped me to get familiar with the Viikki campus. The flexibility in designing my own study plan and the guidance from the student advisors had a crucial role in making my initial experience positive. 

During my studies, I applied and got accepted for a training position in a lipidomics research group collaborating with Finnish Red Cross Blood Service (FRCBS). I was introduced to the world of lipids, mass spectrometry, molecular biology techniques and their relevance to public health programmes. The training later transformed into my PhD studies focusing on the lipidology of bone marrow-derived stem cells and various blood cells used for therapies. I became confident user of cutting-edge analytical techniques, aware of safety procedures, capable for equipment maintenance and able to solve problems. 

The active researcher network gave me fundamental academic skills needed for research work and opportunities to collaborate with institutes outside the university. This later on established a decade long scientific research experience and laid a strong foundation for future collaborations with Helsinki area biomedical research groups. 

Äikäs: In my experience, new innovative courses are constantly being developed, even during the pandemic, as the recently reformed and thus modern Cell and Systems Physiology study track is establishing its footholds. Studying in the programme has been challenging as I felt that the subjects were investigated into the ultimate detail, making it also very rewarding and giving me the feeling of becoming a proper expert one day. 

In addition to lecture courses, the study programme offers practical courses as well as seminars in variety of topics where researchers come and share their visions and expertise, and students give presentations as well. As Finland is known for high-quality teaching, lecturers apply modern teaching methods challenging the students instead of boring them endlessly with monologues. I highly appreciate our loving and caring teachers, who give their time and effort to support our learning and the progress of our studies. 

What kind of career opportunities does the programme open? 

Tigistu-Sahle: Planning my future in the field of Biosciences (in my case biomedically oriented physiology) was not straightforward due to the interdisciplinary and contemporary nature of the field. The most obvious choice is staying in academia as department staff. I would say this is the best choice if you are passionate about teaching and conducting research in parallel. Another alternative is to look for opportunities in the private sector, for example, in pharmaceuticals with R&D focus and biotechnology companies employing young talents across a stream of different bioscience specialisations. Industries that are involved in vaccine development, diagnostics or therapeutics are excellent possibilities to start your career as a research scientist, R&D chemist or consultant. 

I joined the Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (EBTi) based in my home city Addis Ababa. It develops biotechnology-based solutions for national health. At the same time, I am able to carry out collaborative academic research with international research groups and maintain my valuable connections in Helsinki. 

Äikäs: I have been very pleased with the opportunities presented to me due to the close relationship between the study programme and the surrounding research community. It has enabled me to work in the Wihuri Research Institute (WRI) while studying. My work and both MSc and PhD theses are related to prevention of cardiovascular disease by dietary supplements, especially n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. 

At the courses, you meet experts from different institutes providing you opportunities to apply for a master’s thesis project. Most of my fellow students have gotten a paid master’s thesis project. For me and several others, the work opportunities have opened doors for PhD student positions and ledto getting authorships in scientific publications and, participating in international seminars. 

How does the programme support international networking? 

Tigistu-Sahle: The research group network where I conducted research for my Master’s and PhD theses had several national and international collaborators outside the university. I was part of these collaborative works by analysing samples, training students and producing important data that later became part of scientific publications. In my case, the FRCBS was the first collaborator giving me the chance to develop my molecular biology skills and granting a second supervisor to my PhD journey. 

The networking opportunities grew after I graduated as I secured a job in Ethiopia as a researcher in Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (EBTi). Through the efforts of my previous supervisor at the University of Helsinki, a Principal Investigator of WRI and my current employer EBTi, I was able to conduct a research visit to participate in projects focusing on prevention of cardiovascular diseases. This has laid the foundations for future collaborations since we also published the findings of the studies in acknowledged journals. 

Currently, additional collaborative study is underway between the University of Helsinki, EBTi and an institute in Italy. All these joint works were made possible by the study and research environment created at the campus. The Cell and Systems Physiology study track of the Master’s Programme in Neuroscience turned out to be highly conducive for networking. The atmosphere is continuously supporting and provides advanced technologies, both necessary for conducting innovative research work. 

Äikäs: Helsinki is one of the biomedical hot spots of Europe. The research community is very international with good connections, and attracts researchers world-wide to visit or join the staff. The faculties and institutes arrange symposiums and seminars allowing students to participate and listen to excellent speakers. Students also present posters and participate in other meeting activities in exchange for credits. 

What is it like to study and live in Helsinki? 

Tigistu-Sahle: Coming from the second most populated country in Africa, my first impression of Helsinki was of a deserted town. It was so quiet; few people were seen roaming the streets and traffic was sparse. This was very different from my crowded and loud home city, Addis Ababa. However, through time I adapted to these scenes and started to enjoy the solitude and privacy Helsinki grants its residents. I like Helsinki’s beautiful natural lakes and forests, clean roads and adherence to rules and regulations. The quietness might occasionally feel hard though especially during the winter seasons. I invested a fair share of my time to build friendships that kept me busy during these times. 

My stay at the University of Helsinki was beyond accommodating: the spacious library with its flexible opening hours meant that I could do my reference reading at any time. The modern laboratory infrastructures and my supervisors’ ability to guide and advice were remarkable. The sport and restaurant services available to the students were impressive.  The university’s sport facilities (UniSport) are located in the various campuses and provide affordable sport’s activities with flexible opening hours, which encouraged me to exercise to maintain healthy physique. Another service I took full advantage of during my stay at UH was university cafeteria (UniCafe). I deeply appreciated the varied, healthy lunch menu, especially the vegan entries. I especially liked the attention given to environmentally friendly adaptationssuch as increasing awareness on food wastage and serving food with sustainable, fair-trade components. 

Äikäs: Staying and studying in Helsinki is very calm and relaxing. The atmosphere is welcoming and there is no rush or crowds like in many other capital cities. People give you privacy. The public transport is safe and clean providing a solid choice for commuting with student discounts. The local student housing foundation (HOAS) offers studios or dorms for 2-3 people with affordable prices. In previous years, we have had plenty of international students. Almost everyone in Finland speaks good English and students are happy to converse in English. Our active student association offers a variety of social activities and tutorships welcoming everyone.