Tieteentekijöiden liitto on puolustanut tutkitun tiedon tuottajia, tieteentekijöitä 50 vuoden ajan. Merkkipaalun kunniaksi esittelemme vuoden aikana 50 tieteentekijää ja heidän näkemyksiään siitä, miksi tutkitun tiedon puolesta tulee toimia juuri tässä ajassa.
Kannamme huolta ja vastuuta tieteen ja tutkitun tiedon asemasta yhteiskunnassa. Tämä on tärkeää juuri nyt. Meillä on tietoa enemmän kuin koskaan aikaisemmin, mutta sen yltäminen päätöksenteon perusteeksi meitä kaikkia koskettavissa asioissa saisi toteutua nykyistä paremmin.
– I think it is curiosity that makes people scientists, says Helsinki University Transitional Cancer Research programme laboratory leader Michael Jeltsch.
– You just want to know how things are and make a career out of it.
Jeltsch himself is a good example of this curiosity, as his own group’s research has taken him in unexpected directions. For a long time, he was conducting research on how to improve existing cancer drugs. Avastin, one of the more successful cancer drugs in recent years always stops working at some point, and no one knows why. Jeltsch has a hypothesis on how to overcome at least one possible reason for this, and has been leading his own lab on the topic since 2013.
During this time, he discovered it was very difficult to generate the antibodies necessary for his experiments.
Helsinki University had discontinued its monoclonal antibody production services, so the only viable option was to start a joint project with Turku University, which still has functioning antibody facilities. But then things got complicated.
– Should our idea prove successful, it could be very valuable, Jeltsch explains. This led to a long negotiation between the two universities on how possible future profits would be shared.
This stalled the project for a year. However, during that year, Jeltsch and his team came up with another idea: a faster and cheaper way to make antibodies.
Instead of using mice to generate them, they would use bacteria. Ideally, this would cut the production time from many weeks to two days and reduce expenses by probably 90 per cent.
The Academy of Finland liked the idea, and Jeltsch received a large grant last year. Now, he is just starting with a new, bigger lab in the third floor of biomedicum.
– I hope we are still in time. A lot of people saw our idea when we applied for EU funding, and I’m a bit worried that they may execute it first.
Jeltsch was born in Germany. He came to Finland in 1995 as an exchange student at the end of his studies. The only thing he needed to do to complete them was to write his master’s thesis.
– In Germany, all university students have the possibility to participate in an exchange programme outside of Germany. For me, Finland was an obvious choice, as my mother is from Finland.
In Helsinki, he got to do his graduate work in Professor Kari Alitalo’s cancer research group, where he first completed his master’s thesis and later his PhD. The latter was particularly important, as it included one of Alitalo’s group’s most central papers on the growth of lymphatic vessels, published in 1997. Jeltsch also won the medix prize for the article.
After completing his dissertation in 2002, Jeltsch had plenty of opportunities: among other things, he was offered a postdoc position at Harvard. However, he decided to stay in Helsinki, as part of Alitalo’s group.
– Everyone assumes this is because I met a Finnish woman. But actually my wife, whom I met here, is Polish, Jeltsch laughs.
But the effect was the same. They both decided to stay in Finland – on neutral territory, as Jeltsch puts it – and raise a family here.
– Career-wise I’ve made all the wrong decisions, just staying here, Jeltsch sighs.
– But I don’t think travelling is as important as it was in times before the Internet. Nowadays, you can conduct global research from your own home.
More than twenty years in a Finnish university have shown Jeltsch many sides of the institution. He is the only Transitional Cancer Laboratory group leader from outside Finland, and the laboratory’s 9 staff members are of six different nationalities.
In his blog, Michael’s Domain, he often critiques and comments on how things at the university work – or don’t. Lately, he has been quite worried about how the so-called Big Wheel, i.e. rethinking the university degree structures, will affect foreign students.
– The university expects me to do four jobs at once: I need to be a researcher, a teacher, a manager and a fundraiser as well. It’s a challenging combo when you have small children.
Even here, however, Jeltsch’s curiosity got the best of him. When he found out that no one had the data on how long an average PhD student takes to earn his or her degree, he started yet a third research project in his group.
The Finnish PhD database project has been funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation and is expected to publish its report by the end of the summer. However, Jeltsch is not quite satisfied.
– We are still missing some data because the automated publication extraction is not working well enough yet. However, as the funding is over, I would need to conduct the rest of the research myself – when I have the time, which might not be soon.
Written by: Juha Merimaa
Photos: Milla Talassalo
’Not much as such, but I have always been willing to give comments and interviews when asked. Just recently, I was interviewed for a documentary on lipoedema. For me, the greatest popularisation would still be if my research led to new and better drugs for patients.’