Successful teamwork boosts researchers to most-cited lists

In a good research group, the members provide synergy to one another. The group’s success is a direct reflection of the success of its members.​

The lone genius researcher is an outdated trope, at least in the natural sciences. Current research phenomena are so complex and require such a wide variety of technical skills to study that it is virtually impossible to find a scientific article with a single author. Even publications with just two or three authors are few and far between.

These days, research means teamwork – and it is research groups that are getting the most acclaim. All of the University of Helsinki’s top researchers interviewed for the most-cited gallery are unanimous about this.

“The best football players know how to support their teammates. Successful teams will have several players in the lists of top goal scorers, while bad ones will have none," illustrates Markku Kulmala, professor of physics.

Kulmala is currently the most cited geoscientist in the world. He has not only studied the formation of small particles in the atmosphere and the interaction between forests and the climate, but has, together with his colleagues, established an extensive research infrastructure, whose flagship, the SMEAR II research station in Hyytiälä, is one of the best units of its kind in the world.

The measurement opportunities afforded by Hyytiälä have attracted another international top geoscientist, Douglas Worsnop, to the University of Helsinki.

Tuukka Petäjä, professor of physics, developed his first aerosol measuring device as a Master’s thesis project under Kulmala’s supervision. Today, Petäjä is a leader in developing aerosol observation equipment at the Division of Atmospheric Science and is a highly cited researcher, particularly for his work on measuring equipment and methods.

“The number of citations is also boosted by the open sharing of data. This way, other research communities can compare their results with ours, and that generates deeper understanding,” Petäjä explains.

“A senior researcher can benefit from smart students”

A similar chain reaction has occurred in the most-cited list for clinical pharmacology. Pertti Neuvonen, professor emeritus, has successfully studied drug interactions from the late 1960s onwards.

At first, his research was hampered by the lack of sensitive analysis methods, which meant that only few drugs could be measured. Clinical studies were conducted based on patient observations, involving the simultaneous administration of different drugs and measurements of the fluctuations in their amounts in the patients' blood.

As analysis methods became more sophisticated, Neuvonen gained access to the underlying mechanisms of drug interactions, particularly those hinging on CYP enzymes. Many drugs are metabolised in the liver with the help of these enzymes, but certain drugs interfere with their function.

Two dissertation writers supervised by Neuvonen, Janne Backman in the 1990s and Mikko Niemi in the 2000s, have taken this research ever deeper into cellular and genetic mechanisms.

“In terms of publications, a senior researcher can benefit from smart students. I cannot take personal credit for even close to everything," Neuvonen says.

Backman is professor of clinical pharmacology and personalised medicine, and his work has involved deepening the understanding of the mechanisms underlying drug­­–drug interactions as well as developing new research methods. Niemi, a professor of pharmacogenetics, specialises in protein drug delivery and the genetic differences of transport proteins. During the past decade, Niemi’s publications have been the most cited among medical publications produced by Finns.

“During Neuvonen’s heyday in the 1990s, the influence of the CYP enzymes was becoming understood in more detail, and many seminal publications were written in a short time. We are now reaching a similar situation with transport proteins,” Niemi says.

Neuvonen has some advice for doctoral students looking for a position in which to work on their dissertation:

“When you’re considering joining a research group, take a good look at what they’ve accomplished. In a good group, the members provide synergy to one another. The success of the group means success for its members,” Neuvonen states.