Aarno Palotie named Docent of the Year in 2024

Aarno Palotie, Research Director, Docent of Cell Biology, Doctor of Medicial Science and Surgery, has been named Docent of the Year in 2024 at the University of Helsinki. The recipient of the distinction is chosen by the Docents’ Association of the University of Helsinki.

Aarno Palotie has undertaken a lengthy and highly successful career in genetic research. His decades-long career encompasses genetic discoveries pertaining to rare and common diseases, the development of diagnostic techniques, the launch and management of major research consortia as well as the establishment and use of extensive data collections for investigating disease genetics.

Groundbreaking genetic research

Palotie has played a key role in the success of research in human genetics in the Nordic countries and as a pioneer in extensive genome studies that utilise unique Nordic health registry data in research on the genetic background of common diseases. The most significant and largest of these projects is FinnGen, which has collected and analysed health and genomic data on 520,000 Finns, or roughly 10% of the population. This makes it one of the few projects of such scope worldwide. 

FinnGen is based on the health registers used in the Nordic countries. Personal identity codes enable the combination of diagnostic codes, hospital records, prescriptions and other data from different registers, which, in turn, makes it possible to study both common and rare hereditary diseases.

The second pillar bolstering the project is Finland’s unique population structure, in which many gene variants, or alleles, rare in other European populations have been enriched so that they can be identified and tested for their effects on health and diseases. The project has produced a number of discoveries and more than 950 scholarly publications.

Shedding light on the heritability of mental diseases 

Recently, Palotie has focused on the genetics of mental diseases, particularly in the case of schizophrenia and developmental diseases of the nervous system. This interest led to another major study entitled SUPER, which recruited more than 10,000 patients diagnosed with psychosis in Finland. The study was carried out in collaboration with the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research of the Broad Institute. 

As both schizophrenia and intellectual disability are somewhat more common in northern Finland, the data available provides an opportunity to investigate pathogenic mechanisms associated with both rare and common neuropsychiatric diseases and developmental diseases of the nervous system.

Aarno Palotie currently works as Research Director at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), which is part of the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE) at the University of Helsinki. Since 2013, he has served as a group leader at Massachusetts General Hospital and is an associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. 

Until 1998, Palotie worked as a professor (two years of a five-year term) and laboratory physician at the University of Helsinki and the Helsinki University Hospital. From 1998 to 2004, he was a professor at the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, UCLA; from 2004 to 2014 a visiting professor at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; and from 2007 to 2013 a senior group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. 

The board of the Docents’ Association of the University of Helsinki selects the Docent of the Year

The board of the Docents’ Association of the University of Helsinki selects the Docent of the Year on the basis of proposals by faculties and independent institutes. The primary Docent of the Year selection criteria are distinguished activities, and the significant promotion thereof, in research and teaching duties at the University of Helsinki. 

Particular consideration is given to candidates who have promoted public awareness of their discipline, distinguished themselves in various sectors of society, or in an exemplary manner served as representatives of scholarly research and teaching as well as enhancing international recognition of their discipline at the University of Helsinki.

Docent is an academic title

Finland is home to roughly 10,000 docents, of whom 4,400 have received their title from the University of Helsinki. 

Every year, approximately 180 new docents are appointed at the University. 

The title of docent testifies to its holder’s distinguished position in the academic community, as both an excellent researcher and teacher in their field.