Hanna Renvall, Aalto University
"It's worth making the effort to explore the wide range of options available: there may be a more unusual study path or subject around the corner that's just right for you".
What are you researching and why?
I study healthy and diseased brains using functional brain imaging to better understand the diseased brain from the healthy and the healthy brain from the diseased. I am particularly interested in the language processing functions of the brain: for example, in stroke patients, language impairments significantly reduce their quality of life.
I also aim to combine practical brain imaging with methodological development to make measurements more accurate and useful. Computational methods help in interpreting the results, especially when collecting measurement data is challenging. For example, in collaboration with Professor Riitta Salmelin and Professor Sami Kaski, we have been able to identify an individual from brain magnetic curves (magnetoencephalography, MEG) that last only a few seconds, using artificial intelligence. We call this brain fingerprinting, and we are currently extending this research to various patient data.
In collaboration with Nina Forss, associate professor of neurology, we are developing brain injury diagnostics, using brain MEG to identify which brain injury patients need further follow-up.
How did you become a professor or researcher?
When I was in high school, I saw a programme about brain research at the TKK's Cold Laboratory and I was very excited about the subject. I applied and was accepted to study both medicine and medical technology, and after a year of study I applied for a summer job from Professor Riitta Hari.
Throughout my studies, it was clear to me that I wanted to be a researcher. The job of a researcher involves both responsibility and freedom. I can work like crazy one week and then do something else the next. I didn't want to do just clinical work.
I did my dissertation with Riitta Hari on dyslexia. We created a new theory about the background of dyslexia and I wrote my dissertation in 2004. Our work on dyslexia theory went dormant for a long time, but then it started to come back after a break. It is now one of the strongest theories behind dyslexia, which has been inspiring.
The right people and the right things have come my way. I've been able to get involved in projects at the right time, when there has been an opportunity to make a difference and make a difference to the discipline. It has also helped me to get a professorship.
What are the highlights of your career?
My professorship is a HUS and Aalto joint professortship, and it is significant for the whole field, because it combines one of the largest hospitals in Europe with Aalto's exceptional technical expertise. As part of my current job description, I also continue to manage the BioMag laboratory at HUS, which provides MEG diagnostics nationwide.
I am still frequently on call at Haartman Hospital on Friday evenings. It's a world of its own and a really interesting place. During my shift I try to find out what's important in patient care and what questions our research should try to answer.
I'm actively involved in the choral world, practising singing and choir conducting with a passion. I have founded the choir at the Department of Neuroscience and Medical Engineering at Aalto University, and through this I have found connections that are appropriate on a scientific level. Many people in our department have found each other there. I am also the deputy director of the Philomela Choir.
What is the most important quality of a researcher?
I think the most important thing is the ability to be inspired by my own research and the research of others, over and over again. A career as a researcher is not the easiest choice because funding is hard to come by and publishing is not easy. Even when you take some punches mentally, it's good to keep going and keep being inspired. I can still let out a cheer chuckle when I see a great MEG curve!
What are your expectations for the future?
I hope that the greatest scientific achievements are still ahead. It is important to be able to transfer know-how between HUS and Aalto. Aalto has exceptional technical expertise and HUS, on the other hand, can test the equipment in patient use. Close cooperation can enable major innovations.
In terms of funding, I hope for continuity; I now have one post-doctoral researcher and two PhD students in my research group.
What message would you like to send to a young person considering a career?
It's worth making the effort to explore the wide range of options available: there may be a more unusual study path or subject around the corner that's just right for you. When considering a career, it's also worth being kind to yourself: it's often only when you're studying that you realise what you're really interested in and what your strengths are. In many ways, engineering and science is a safe choice. It offers a huge range of interesting areas, from marine engineering to brain research, and provides an excellent basic education that can be applied to other areas of society.