Academy Professors

This page introduces the Academy Professors working at the University of Helsinki. In 2024 there are 20 Academy Professors in total. 12 of them work at the University of Helsinki.
What is an Academy Professor?

Academy Professors are internationally recognised leaders in their fields who carry out research plans of their own, direct the work of their own research group, supervise junior researchers and provide teaching related to research.

Academy Professors are expected to produce significant research results and advance research in their field. Their duties include the development of a creative research environment.

The position of Academy Professor is the most distinguished of the research posts funded by the Academy of Finland. The Academy of Finland appoints new Academy Professors each year for a fixed term of five years.

Lauri Aaltonen: Cancer genetics

Lauri Aaltonen, professor of tumour genomics, investigates people’s predisposition to tumours, and somatic cancer genetics.

Cancer is a disease always associated with genes as their functioning is disrupted in all cancers. Key to cancer genomics is how the patient’s genome affects the tumour’s features. A particular focus of Aaltonen’s research group is hereditary colorectal cancer.

During his third term as an Academy Professor, Aaltonen aims to advance the treatment and prevention of cancers. Among other things, Aaltonen’s research group has already succeeded in discovering a common mechanism that predisposes people to cancer. The find was a breakthrough in understanding predisposition to cancer on the population level.

Aaltonen heads the Applied Tumor Genomics research programme and the Centre of Excellence in Tumour Genetics Research at the Faculty of Medicine.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2023.

Yrjö Helariutta: tree growth and phloem development

Yrjö Helariutta is a professor of evolutionary biology. Together with his research group, Helariutta studies how trees and their phloem develop.

Helariutta combines tree research, especially on birch, with forest tree improvement and wood materials science.

Helariutta’s research helps us better understand how trees and other plants grow. This has practical implications e.g. when developing plant improvement or forest care.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2026.

Jukka Jernvall: development of teeth

Jukka Jernvall is a professor of quantitative evolutionary phenomics. Jernvall studies the development and formation of teeth.

Jernvall’s research focuses on how the cusps of teeth are formed. Cusps are the parts of teeth that grind of cut food.

Although we know quite well in general how teeth are formed, we don’t yet know how the shape of the cusps is regulated. Jernvall and his group develops a new computational model to identify what aspects of tooth development are critical for proper contact between the teeth.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2026. Jernvall also had an Academy Professorship in 2010–2019.

Pekka Lappalainen: Quantitative cell biology

Pekka Lappalainen, professor of quantitative cell biology, studies a protein called actin, which is necessary for cell motility.

Thanks to actin, many cells are able to quickly change shape and actively move about in tissues. The healing of wounds and the immune system, among others, are dependent on cell motility. At the same time, uncontrollably moving cancer cells are central to the formation of metastases.

Lappalainen’s group has made several significant discoveries related to actin. The researcher identified a protein that loads adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy source for chemical reactions in cells, into actin. The group has also discovered a molecular machinery that is responsible for the disassembly and recycling of actin filaments.

Research on cell motility and the other topics investigated by Lappalainen’s group increase our understanding of the functioning of the human body and may potentially help develop drugs and therapies, for example, for cancer.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2023.

Matti Lassas: Inverse problems in mathematics

Matti Lassas, professor of applied mathematics, investigates inverse problems in mathematics.

Inverse problems are simple questions asked backwards, which often makes them much more complex. The inverse problem of a question such as ‘If we know the composition of the Earth precisely, what kind of a gravitational field does it generate?’ would be ‘If the Earth produces a certain gravitational field, what is the Earth’s composition?’.

Lassas heads the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence of Inverse Modelling and Imaging, which is recognised as a leading unit globally in its field.

Its goal is to develop new and effective solutions to practical inverse problems. The Centre of Excellence headed by Lassas focuses particularly on medical imaging, geophysics and space research, as well as various needs of environmental research.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2023.

Johanna Mappes: Evolutionary ecology of animal communication

Mappes’s research investigates how communication evolves in the animal communities and how signaling between species affects the population dynamics of their communities.

From the simplest cells to the complex societies of bees or humans, life thrives on communication. Often, the fate of organisms hinges upon communicating with other species. For example, prey with defenses can evolve warning signals to prevent predators from attacking them. Animal communication is classically studied in simple, often laboratory settings but Mappes’s research aims to investigates how communication evolves in the rich communities we find in nature.

This is Mappes second term as a Academy Professor (2009-2013), and she has previously led Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in Biological Interactions (2012-2017).

The term of her Academy Professorship is from 1st of January 2019 to 31 December 2023.

Karri Muinonen: electromagnetic scattering

Karri Muinonen is a professor of astronomy. Muinonen studies electromagnetic scattering, which means how light changes direction when confronted by an obstacle or a change in matter density.

Light scatters and is absorbed in practically all systems of matter and electromagnetic radiation. Studying this interaction provides information about the different properties of the system, down to the length scales of a fraction of the wavelength.

Muinonen’s research can be used e.g. to spot planetary objects such as asteroids.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2026.

Heikki Pihlajamäki: early modern colonial legislation

Heikki Pihlajamäki is a professor of comparative legal history. Pihlajamäki studies, what kinds of legal solutions England, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, that is the most important early modern colonial powers, used in their overseas colonies.

Pihlajamäki studies the colonial legal systems both in contrast to the powers’ medieval laws and in the context of early modern continental European empires. The study also involves a systematic comparison of the early modern legal orders with each other.

Understanding the development of legal systems helps us better understand how European states and societies have developed into what they are today.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2026.

Anssi Peräkylä: Narcissism and social interaction

Anssi Peräkylä, professor of sociology, investigates social interaction in institutional and everyday environments.

Peräkylä’s research topics have included the way in which problems stemming from narcissism shape people’s social interaction. In the project, the researchers observe narcissism in informal conversations, psychiatric interviews, couples therapy and experimental circumstances.

Peräkylä’s group utilises discourse analysis, ethnography and psychophysiological measurements, which contribute to intensifying the project’s multidisciplinary approach.

The research increases our understanding of how experiences of the self and practices of interaction relate to each other. At the same time, it demonstrates how personality disorders and pathological narcissism are problems associated not only with individuals, but also with interaction. Peräkylä’s findings can help to develop better therapeutic methods.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2023.

Kari Rummukainen: Gravitational waves in the collisions of black holes

Kari Rummukainen, professor of theoretical physics, investigates gravitational waves born out of the collision of two black holes.

Gravitational waves cause oscillations in space, bending and compacting spacetime, causing wrinkles of a sort.

Rummukainen’s research also involves the requirement specification for the LISA telescope designed for detecting gravitational waves. The plan is to launch the telescope into space in 2034. The processes that generate gravitational waves are analysed theoretically and numerically, which is important for LISA’s observation strategy and interpreting the observations.

Rummukainen’s research and the observations made by LISA will help obtain an increasingly accurate understanding of the moments when the universe was born.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2023.

Katariina Salmela-Aro: how climate change and corona impact young people

Katariina Salmela-Aro is a doctor of psychology and a professor of educational sciences. Salmela-Aro studies the impact of climate change and the coronavirus on young people’s wellbeing both in Finland and internationally.

The aim of Salmela-Aro’s research is to find out what consequences climate change and the coronavirus situation have on the development of young people. Positive impacts could be e.g. empowerment and social cohesion, while negative impacts could be e.g. stress and anxiety.

The study takes into account, among other things, the effects of friends, digital networks, parents, teachers and communities.

Salmela-Aro’s research may provide society with means to facilitate the needs of young people and to assess what kinds of support services young people will need in the future.

The term of her Academy Professorship is from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2026.

Anu Wartiovaara: Mitochondrial diseases


Anu Wartiovaara is a professor of clinical medicine. Wartiovaara studies mitochondrial diseases.

Mitochondrial diseases, or disturbances of mitochondrial function, cause several hereditary diseases whose clinical picture varies considerably and is often severe. At the moment, only a few therapies are available for treating mitochondrial diseases.

Wartiovaara studies how the metabolism of mitochondria affects nervous system health and disease. The aim is to clarify how mitochondrial signalling modifies the whole-cellular metabolic environment and behaviour in different nervous system cell populations.

Wartiovaara’s sresearch provides new information on mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases, and it may provide opportunities for developing new targeted therapies.

Ultimately, Wartiovaara aims to develop functioning therapies for mitochondrial diseases. It is likely that many different forms of treatment are needed due to the extremely broad spectrum of mitochondrial diseases.

The term of her Academy Professorship is from 1 September 2021 to 31 August 2026. Wartiovaaralla also had an Academy Professorhip in 2017—2021.

Wartiovaara uses the surname Suomalainen in her publications.

Previous Academy Professors

Research director Kari Alitalo investigates cancer and develops new, increasingly effective and personalised cancer therapies.

In Western countries, every third adult receives a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. Currently available forms of treatment are often insufficient or not suited to everyone. Translational cancer research is aimed at the rapid application of results obtained through basic research in clinical research and therapies.

The research group led by Alitalo is focused specifically on the lymphatic system. Lymphatic vessels have a significant impact on the metastasis of many malignant tumours. In its experiments, the group has succeeded in reducing the development of metastases in lymph nodes.

Alitalo heads the iCAN Digital Precision Cancer Medicine Flagship and the Wihuri Research Institute. In addition, Alitalo serves as director of the Translational Cancer Medicine Program at the Faculty of Medicine.

Alitalo’s term as an Academy Professor is exceptional, as its duration is indefinite as of 1 August 2000.

Markku Kulmala, professor of aerosol and environmental physics, investigates the composition of the atmosphere and climate change.

In his atmospheric research, Kulmala looks into the impact of human activity and natural processes on the climate and air quality by studying the mechanisms of aerosol formation. He has made significant scientific breakthroughs in research on atmospheric nanoparticles

Kulmala’s research approach focused on aerosols has substantially advanced basic research related to climate change. During his term as Academy Professor, he aims to determine how air quality and the climate interact in Siberia, and also in large cities in China.

From 2011 Kulmala has been the most cited researcher in the field of geosciences globally. He has assembled a group of atmospheric scientists, many of whom are among the top percentile of the most cited researchers in geosciences and climate sciences.

Kulmala serves as director of the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR) and the Atmosphere and Climate Competence Center (ACCC), an Academy of Finland Flagship.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2021.

Kulmala also served as an Academy Professor in 2004–2009 and 2011–2015.

Professor Craig Primmer investigates evolution from the perspective of adaptation.

Different organisms modify themselves in order to survive in the middle of changing conditions. Understanding the mechanisms underlying the process requires increasingly versatile research methods.

Primmer and his research group delve into adaptation by using salmon as a model. Their research focuses on the relationship between phenotypes and genotypes on the molecular level, and the genetic architecture of the reproductive age, a factor relevant to adaptation. The genetic structure associated with sexual maturity in salmon is relatively simple, making it a model favourable for research.

In his prior research, Primmer has observed, for example, that a single gene accounts for 40% of the variation in sexual maturity in salmon. This was a surprising find, as life-history traits were previously thought to be regulated by a number of genes.

The goal is to predict the effects of climate change on the life-history traits of the salmon family. Primmer’s research findings can be utilised in managing fish stocks and fish production.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2021.

Primmer also served as an Academy Professor in 2011–2015.

Professor Eero Castrén investigates the molecular mechanisms of neuronal plasticity in the adult brain.

During his Academy Professorship, Castrén aims to increase the understanding of the molecular mechanisms of neuronal plasticity as well as develop novel techniques for observing and imaging the sculpting of the brain. Another aim for the research is to move the findings obtained from basic research closer to practical application.

In his prior research, Castrén has demonstrated, among other things, how a molecule used in an antidepressant increases the plasticity of the adult brain. Research-based knowledge enables the development of diagnostic methods used in restoring cerebral functions and the development of new treatment practices, for example, for patients suffering from psychiatric disorders, cerebral haemorrhages or chronic pain.

Castrén has been working on the same research area for more than two decades, in recent years with an Advanced Grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC). His latest research discoveries have steered the research in new, unforeseen directions.

The term of his Academy Professorship is from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2021.

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