Skolar Award judge Johanna Ivaska: “Eager young people are the best thing in science”

The creative and courageous cancer researcher sees the unknown as an opportunity. Sometimes the best things in science happen, when you abandon all prejudice, she says.

Johanna Ivaska

It often takes someone else to perfectly describe yourself. In Johanna Ivaska’s case, a student aptly summarised that “Johanna comes across something with a funny name and finds out what it does.”

The chase after phenomena with funny names has taken Ivaska to the top of her field. She’s a renowned cancer researcher, professor of biochemistry at the Turku Centre of Biotechnology and recent winner of the Minerva Foundation’s Medix Prize, a 20 000 euro grant awarded to her research group on its work on demonstrating the mechanisms of cell adhesion and cancer. In 2017, she received the A. I. Virtanen prize for internationally recognized high-quality research.

“I’m like Gyro Gearloose, the wacky inventor from Donald Duck. I want to go after unknowns and ask the questions nobody else is asking,” she explains.

Abandoning prejudice to create breakthroughs

This winter, Ivaska puts her skills to use as a Skolar Award judge. A competition for bold research ideas is an excellent place for a researcher whose work has been described as innovative and creative. Some people study a certain protein or gene their whole career and become undisputable experts on that specific subject. Ivaska doesn’t have the patience to spend all her time on one thing.

“I tend to abandon all prejudice and dive head first into anything unfamiliar. That way it’s possible to know something about many things and combine surprising subjects,” she explains.

An example of this mindset comes in the form of a scientific breakthrough. Ivaska’s research group has worked on a protein called SHANK that has been linked to autism. Recently the group realized the protein plays a role in cancer. The researchers figured out a previously unknown mechanism that explains how SHANK prevents cancer cells from spreading. The connection between SHANK and autism had been made before, but discovering a common mechanism linked to both cancer and autism was a significant contribution to future research.

Manning a new territory

From October onwards, Ivaska acts as the Head and Vice President of oncology at pharmaceutical company Orion while continuing her post at the University of Turku.

“Companies have the economic resources that universities lack. Combining business and academia can at its best give birth to groundbreaking findings and advance the development of medicine. It’s important to find ways for companies to bathe in academic stimuli and have all parties benefit from it,” she says.

For someone whose work consists of building bridges between research and business, Ivaska sees Slush as an interesting territory. The reason why she decided to join Skolar Award was consistent to her general mentality towards new things: sounds interesting, let’s see what it leads to. Besides, it’s both inspiring and educational to listen an excited researcher present their work, she says. But if there’s something she’s learned about communicating research it’s that too much information in too many slides can spectacularly drown even the most important findings.

“Droning on about a complex subject so fast and in so many details that no one can keep up is the besetting sin of an enthusiastic researcher.”

Longing for time to mull things over

Although many less experienced scientists would drool over her career, there are some things Ivaska misses from her early days as a budding researcher – mainly time and freedom.

“When you’re beginning your career, on one hand, you stress about research findings, because your future depends on them. But on the other hand, that phase is like a carefree childhood: you get to concentrate solely on the project at hand. You have time to mull things over,” she says.

Prizes, breakthroughs and academic merits aside, some of the most memorable moments in Ivaska’s career have had much to do with her students. For instance, she fondly recalls the time her first doctoral student received their PhD and concludes:

“I’ve always thought eager young researchers are the best thing in science.”

Johanna Ivaska is one of the six members of Skolar Award stage jury. They will choose the finalists and the winner of Skolar Award.