Life changing year for MoRE fellow Dr. Petronella Kettunen
As Region Västra Götaland prepares to launch its second call for proposals of the MoRE2020 programme, Dr. Kettunen looks back on her year of research at the University of Oxford, co-funded by a MoRE grant, and what the opportunity has meant for her both personally and professionally.
Research mobility to strengthen international collaboration and cluster development
MoRE2020 and MoRE were developed by Region Västra Götland to increase international mobility among West Swedish research and innovation milieus, attract excellent researchers to the region, promote collaboration across borders and strengthen research and cluster development in thirteen prioritized areas. Through a combination of EU financing and regional development funds, fellows are offered the opportunity to spend 12 months working and researching at a new milieu, and creating contacts which will lead to long-term collaboration even after the end of the project.
Dr. Kettunen has a PhD in Neuroscience from the Karolinska Institute and currently works in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurochemistry at GU, where she is a group leader at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, as well as Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine. Her MoRE project, “The role of neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease”, was a collaboration between GU and the University of Oxford. Dr. Kettunen spent one year at one of the leading labs for Alzheimer’s research working with colleagues to better understand the role of neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease through pre-clinical and clinical research on zebrafish and human materials. The project focused on the study of microglia, what Dr. Kettunen describes as the immune system for the brain, and how they work to protect the brain from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. The project finished in June 2016 and Dr. Kettunen returned to GU, where she is still benefiting from what she describes as a “life changing” experience.
"I wanted to do something that was new and unique”
The MoRE programme was a chance to challenge herself, both professionally and personally, explains Dr. Kettunen: “I wanted to do something that I couldn’t do normally”. Early on in the application process, she decided that her project should focus on developing new skills and techniques which would benefit her lab, colleagues, and most importantly, herself. During the MoRE project, she became a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford, working in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience and at the John Radcliffe Hospital, where she gained valuable insights into clinical research, and collaboration with private sector actors. “I wanted to do something that was new and unique,” she says, adding that without the opportunities afforded by the MoRE grant, she’s unsure if she would have worked in this specific field with these specific stakeholders.
Dr. Kettunen describes her time at Oxford as a learning year. Learning new research methods and working with new materials was at times difficult, but ultimately led to the development of skills, tools and techniques that she could bring back to GU. Leaving her group at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology was also a challenge, as she was responsible for several postdocs and PhD candidates, three of whom graduated during the year. She admits it was exhausting but necessary, as she could not give up her responsibilities at GU while abroad. Even logistical challenges, such as dealing with supplies and ordering materials, provided her with valuable experience. She advises future MoRE2020 fellows to plan ahead and not to expect things to go quite as smoothly as at home.
Moving to the United Kingdom was an easy transition, explains Dr. Kettunen, especially with the support of her fiancé who moved with her. Additionally, all MoRE and MoRE2020 fellows receive a supplementary allowance each month during the project, a so-called mobility allowance, used to balance out some of the added costs of moving to a new country. Dr. Kettunen asserts that this was also a help in making the move to an expensive region like Oxford. She also notes that the change in environment led to an excellent work-life balance during the project period, and aside from the rewarding research she was doing in the lab, she was able to enjoy and explore the English countryside.
Dr. Kettunen took her career development seriously during the project, enrolling in courses in drug development and business management, among others. These experiences have benefitted her current industry collaborations, and have may even sparked a few business ideas of her own. Career development is especially important for female researchers, remarks Dr. Kettunen. In Oxford, she enrolled in the Women Transforming Leadership course at the Saïd Business School which made quite an impact on her. “It was eye-opening,” she says, and is now proud to be a part of an extensive network of ambitious female leaders, not just in academia but also in the public and private sectors.
A neuroscientist with a gender perspective
Gender equality is a key feature of the MoRE2020 programme, which seeks to award grants to an equal number of female and male researchers, despite the fact that women are less likely to apply for such mobility schemes. This imbalance in the scientific community is something Dr. Kettunen is well aware of, as one of the the only female group leaders in her department. One aspect which drew her to the Oxford lab was the chance to work with a well-renowned emeritus professor of neuropathology, Margaret Esiri, which was particularly important for Dr. Kettunen, as she herself experienced a lack of female role models during her academic career. As a senior member of staff at GU, Dr. Kettunen is also aware of the duty to she has to support and encourage her female colleagues. She wonders if the lack of female applicants for mobility grants has to do with the amount of institutional support they receive, and mentions that the feedback she received from Region Västra Götaland during the application process helped her to feel more secure and confident in her application.
She has even explored the role of women in science outside of the lab, having written a book about the female scientists who worked with Carl von Linnaeus in the 18th century (Kvinnorna kring Linné). Even though these female botanists had no formal education or positions, explains Dr. Kettunen, they were undeniably passionate about their research, which is something that can be lost these days, with so much focus on the non-scientific and administrative aspects of being a researcher.
“I don’t see how we will ever stop collaborating now”
Dr. Kettunen is enthusiastic about international researcher mobility – “It’s good to go away,” she says, with distance comes a chance to think clearly, be productive and maybe even be a bit egoistic and focus on just yourself. Though many associate research mobility with postdocs and more junior researchers, Dr. Kettunen makes it clear that it’s never too late to apply for a grant like MoRE2020. The grant’s flexible 12 month project period which can be divided up over 24 months allows researchers to tailor the project in order to suit their professional or personal needs. According to Dr. Kettunen, as long as applicants plan their projects carefully, anyone can make it work, regardless of gender or career stage.
When asked if she would recommend the MoRE2020 programme to other researchers, her answer is immediate: “yes, and I would do it again!” The grant resulted in a myriad of opportunities and networking for Dr. Kettunen, including continued work within the field of brain inflammation and frequent trips back to Oxford. Aside from new positions and responsibilities in and outside of the lab, Dr. Kettunen has a new Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships postdoc from the UK and is currently waiting to find out if another colleague from Oxford will receive the same funding. Additionally, she has two ongoing projects financed by Vinnova, focused on creating stronger ties with the private sector businesses she began to collaborate with during the MoRE project, both in Gothenburg and Oxford.
And as for her collaboration with the Department of Clinical Neuroscience and John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford? Dr. Kettunen is quite confident: “I don’t see how we will ever stop collaborating now”.