Professor of Plastic Surgery Virve Koljonen, J.V. Snellman Award speech, 26 March 2024

"Madam Rector, dear guests, 

I am honoured to join the list of recipients of the J.V. Snellman Award. I was 12 years old in 1981, when the award was first given. Back then, Urho Kekkonen was President of Finland, Pelle Miljoona sang about the heat of the motorway and Pave Maijanen about the importance of not sending young people to war. We read print newspapers with inky fingers at the breakfast table and obtained our knowledge from the Mitä Missä Milloin illustrated annuals. I was about to step out of the family-oriented environment of my childhood and into adolescence, and go on to develop my own identity and interests. Here, television played a significant role. 

Many previous recipients of the J.V. Snellman Award are, in fact, familiar to me from television. I grew up watching them, learning about music, history, women’s studies, romantic love, the mental health of dictators – all sorts of things. Watching these fluent academic communicators fearlessly address even the most contentious of topics was formative for me. And surely I was not the only one. Gradually, my interest turned first to medicine and then to surgery, which meant I no longer had time to explore, for example, the undercurrents of European politics. But even today I enjoy listening to an expert talking about what is going on right now, intelligibly, neutrally and dispassionately. 

When I found out I would receive this award, I asked my family at dinner what the popularisation of research means. My son, who is in lower secondary school, thought for a while and then said, “It means research becomes general knowledge”. He meant the type of knowledge everyone needs to function and play an active role in our society. 

Here I would like to mention two groundbreaking medical studies that have had a major impact on public health: Unna’s Die Histopathologie der Hautkrankheiten from 1894 and Adler’s Primary Malignant Growths of the Lungs and Bronchi from 1912. You may be more familiar with the popularised content of these studies: sun exposure causes skin cancer, and smoking lung cancer. 

In music, literature and the dramatic arts, we may call someone in Finnish tunteiden tulkki, an ‘interpreter of emotions’. I understand it refers to the person’s interpretation of a text or piece of music in a way that resonates with the experiences of audience members and, ideally, shapes their thinking or behaviour. In contrast, the popularisation of research has been described as an explanatory activity. But explaining is not the same as interpreting. I don’t even like the word. To me, it smacks of a finger-wagging know-it-all who enjoys telling others how things actually are, whereas interpretation contributes new knowledge, makes you think and may even change the world. This is what I believe research popularisation at its best can be. Knowledge is placed in a context, a sphere familiar to the recipient. Although knowledge has intrinsic value for us researchers, without context it is meaningless to the rest of the world. Returning to Unna’s and Adler’s studies for a moment, I could interpret and place them in a fundamentally human context – the will to live – by describing them like this: to live long and not die prematurely from cancer, don’t smoke like a chimney or bake in the sun. 

I create video content for social media. It’s a good channel for me, as I’m a visual person and so is my field, plastic surgery. I started my Instagram account, plastiikkaope (‘plastic surgery teacher’), four years ago. The covid pandemic and social distancing increased the use of social media, particularly among older generations, as research has shown. So, with everyone else on social media, I thought, why not me too? I should mention I had never before been on social media. But I thought it can’t be that difficult as even children are able to use it; I have an academic degree, after all. 

The idea behind my account was to focus on diseases and ailments of major public health importance which are treated by plastic surgeons. These include skin cancer concerns, acute and chronic wounds, scars, lifestyle factors associated with surgical diseases, and minor operations . I explore the scientific research behind procedures, describe medical concepts, consider ethical problems, show how wounds are sutured and discuss what wound care means – all this in videos. Although my original idea had been to influence medical students and healthcare professionals, something happened and my account was discovered by non-professionals, the very people I had been concerned about. I have since come to understand that people want to obtain information and understand medical issues affecting themselves or their family and friends. 

Social media differs from traditional communication in that content must be easily understandable, and visuals make a lasting impression. The key difference between social and traditional media is speed and real-time delivery. Social media can reach millions of people in mere seconds. I’m not talking about myself here – my most popular videos have reached just over 20,000 people each, but to reach even that number of individuals in person, I would have to give hours and hours of lectures.   

For me, the benefit of communicating via video is that I can be just as subtle or forceful as I like. When I put on sterile surgical gloves to demonstrate suturing a wound with a silicone mould, or when a wound nurse and I wear gloves, protective aprons and face masks to clean a wound on a Seymour patient simulation model, it suggests to the viewer that they too should protect themselves to prevent the spread of infections. This is a subtle form of disseminating research knowledge. At the other end of the spectrum, in a video on the toxic ingredients of e-cigarettes, I listed chemicals and their uses, based on a literature search, in a format inspired by the rolling credits at the end of a film. Simple but effective: I reached over 30,000 people. 

When I gained my 5,000th Instagram follower, I joked that I was now a social media influencer. My spouse found it incredible that I of all people would achieve that status. So, if it’s possible for me, why not for you too? However, bear in mind that social media is a fickle lover. It will seduce and love-bomb you and touch the depths of your soul, playing on the fundamental human need to be liked. When my short video with the message that we’re all great went viral – or well, almost viral – and it was liked, shared and praised a great deal, I felt for a moment that people liked me, that I was popular.  Forget educating people! This is the content I should be creating. Fortunately, after two days of contemplation, I got my head together and understood that it was about the message of my video, not me. In the video, I’m just staring at the camera, behind a construction of Lego characters of all colours and a text in Finnish saying ‘We’re all great’. 

Finally, let’s turn to the present. Alexander Stubb is the new Finnish president, the most popular tracks on Spotify are disposable parody tunes, and sadly, young people have been drafted to fight new wars. Eating my breakfast, I spill overnight oats and smoothie on my smartphone screen. People get their information from social media: YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. The popularity of podcasts continues to rise. The internet has become a cesspool of opinions, adverts, ethically questionable pseudoscience and lies marketed as superior knowledge and science. They say everyone is an expert, a science communicator. Against this backdrop, it is fair to say we need science communication and popularisation even more than we did 43 years ago. It may feel overwhelming having to defend real knowledge against all the hogwash out there. But remember the butterfly effect: you only need to change the thinking of one person to make a big difference. This is why I believe scholarly communication should boldly go where people are – whether that is television, social media or, as research suggests is increasingly the case, podcasts. 

I humbly accept the J.V. Snellman Award and promise to continue my efforts in science communication. I would like to thank everyone who has worked with me on my Instagram videos: wound care and other nurses, physiotherapists, unit secretaries, domestic assistants, orderlies, my fellow plastic surgeons and colleagues in other fields. You have all shared your knowledge and expertise for the benefit of the wider community. Thank you!"