Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

In closing

It’s officially time to put this blog to rest, methinks. I haven’t been around that many gorges lately (except the local Kanjoni) and nowadays I mostly just eat food rather than study it. The way I see it, eating right is easy if eating is a response to physical hunger instead of an emotional one (and given that one can afford the food, of course). Food is fuel that our bodies need, simply put.

Before turning off the lights on this blog, I thought to write a bit about emotional hunger. It comes in many different colours. One that I’ve known intimately stems from loneliness – the need to belong, to hold someone close, to love and be loved, to be able to show insecurities and painful memories without being judged. The hunger for acceptance. It took me many years to learn that to be accepted by others, we must first learn to accept ourselves. Maybe it’s hard to understand for you who have never felt alone and isolated, wrapped tight in your own self-loathing and feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with you. Feeling you don’t have anything valuable to give to the world, although you fervently wish you could be strong and brave and noble.

That kind of emotional hunger didn’t really lead me into overeating, I escaped into fictional worlds instead. I could be brave and strong in stories even if I couldn’t do it in real life. My younger self was avoiding social situations, and every occasion that I skipped made going into the next one more difficult. Fearing that I’d say something stupid (or worse: nothing at all) and that I’d start trembling or blushing or sweating. To give some perspective on the timeframe, I think this started on the sixth grade and lasted at least ten years, although the strength of the symptoms varied over the years.

It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint exactly when things started to change. I guess the need to belong was persistent enough that I slowly started exposing myself to situations where I would meet more people. I was also fortunate enough to have a younger sister who I could always rely on, although I shut away the most painful experiences even from her. Studying psychology helped me to finally realize some basic stuff: I didn’t need to blame myself for everything (they call this “attributional style”) and I wasn’t the only one in the world with these symptoms. I finally forgave myself and let go of my past mistakes. I also met a person who saw straight into my soul, embraced what he saw and wanted no pretence in any aspects of life.

Why am I writing about this now and why should anyone care, you may ask? One of the reasons is that I think – no, I know – that many of us are somehow wounded inside. We try not to show our insecurities and fears to others, and develop different sorts of coping strategies to plod through our daily existence. I’ve wasted a lot of time wallowing in my own anxiety, trying to hide from the world instead of welcoming what it has to offer. So I’m writing this in hopes that others wouldn’t need to struggle as much (and yes, I know that my struggles have been quite tiny in comparison to real problems). Traditionally, we Finns are quiet and restrained people, only opening up while intoxicated. I want to help to change that. If I’ve learned, anyone can.

So. The current hypothesis is that we can reach a lot of people through web and mobile who otherwise can’t find help early enough. For those who speak Finnish and are interested in mental wellbeing, we recently released an app for that. It’s called Oiva ( and it’s a neat package of brief exercises based on acceptance and commitment therapy. I wish I would have had something like this ten or fifteen years ago, but better late than never.

Bye-bye, blog. It was a good time with good people, but it’s time to move on. And for you who had the stamina to read this far, thanks. Hoping to stay in touch.


Halfway through the Annual Meeting of the International Society for Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA 2013), jotting down some impressions and ideas from the conference so far. A more thorough report later on.

  • Individual behaviour change should never be the only goal. It’s not enough. We need to change the environment in order to have lasting effects. It’s a long process, but meanwhile, we can help people cope with the environment.
  • Translational part in experience sampling and photography studies that examine environment-health relationships is missing. Most of the world doesn’t live in environments like this.
  • Theory-based instead of theory-inspired: systematic process of linking theoretical basis to the actual implementation and evaluation. Too many intervention studies don’t use theory properly.
  • Program adoption and maintenance is also an intervention: adopters and maintainers need to change their behaviour and be sufficiently motivated to do it.
  • We’re all hypocrites in terms of sustainability. How can you advise anyone to eat fish? If all seven billion people on this planet eat sustainably caught fish, it will all be eaten within a year.
  • As European consumers, food is the single biggest impact on ecosystem that we are responsible of. Need to think about the entire production chain.
  • Autonomy-supporting approach is not a bag of tricks to make a person motivated. It’s a sincere interest and curiosity in the person, a sincere desire to help and support.
  • Many say “we don’t want a nanny state, we don’t want government controlling food prices”. But right now we are controlled by big corporations and retailer chains. Is this better?
  • We can change the system. And we can change the world.

There is a clear message that environmental changes should be the main focus and the food system needs to change. Climate change is a driver for a more sustainable lifestyle – which also means healthy AND sustainable diet.

This is also the most health-promoting conference I’ve been to. Encouragement to stand up for applauses, standing lunches, small portion sizes, 5-minute walking distance between two conference sites (and two such walks scheduled in the program every day), stair-climbing, fruit for dessert and at coffee breaks. Best attempt in “practice what you preach” so far in academia, although strawberries hardly are the most sustainable thing to eat in May.

Flipped academics

I believe the world is changing for better. Even though globalization and digitalization brings about lots of problems (hello, mother nature, sorry about your losses), the instant access to knowledge and the decentralized nature of communication enabled by the Internet is making people come up with good ideas and getting their voices heard by others who feel the need to make the world a better place.

The movement of “flipped academics” is the most recent example I just came across. In a nutshell, it refers to researchers who act and inform first and publish later, who are driven by desire to do good for the community at large. They do not succumb to the “publish or perish” mindset.

Others say it better than me:

High cost of living

Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Loss of a person, especially sudden and unexpected, is a strange thing. When you first hear the news, it feels unreal. How can someone cease existing? A few days ago they were still there, laughing and getting stuff done, making plans for tomorrow and next year, striving to fulfill their dreams, touching others and weaving their own unique thread in the intricate web of life.

The next day they’re gone. All that remain are memories, sorrow, confusion and emptiness. A dark aching hole where there once was a person full of life. Picking up the threads and trying to cope with practicalities that need to be taken care of despite wanting to curl up into a ball and cry.

Different belief systems see death in very different ways. In many Eastern beliefs, death is a natural part in the cycle of life. The deceased become a part of the world and their energy continues living in some other form. In contrast, many Western beliefs have the concept of an afterlife – heaven or hell – and some think that this life is all we get, like it or not.

I decided several years ago that I want to believe in reincarnation in some form. I figured it would be the best way to maintain inner peace. This might actually be a healthier way of looking at the world than believing that this life is all we have. Karmic justice means, in a way, that we can take it easier; it’s not just one shot at life, but numerous tries at good life. Our own actions dictate where we end up in the next life.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. After all, beliefs are not about facts. It hurts to lose someone but it would be much, much worse if it didn’t hurt at all. Every person is valuable and unique and should have someone who cares and mourns them when they’re gone. People are alive for as long as someone remembers them.

We are all made of stars.

How to Become a Doer?

Just read an article which contains good points especially to anyone who does abstract work. “Why can’t we get anything done?” It’s from 2000 but seems to hold true still. Some excerpts:

Measurement has become a tyranny that ensures that nothing gets done.

Studies about the way that meetings actually work demonstrate that negative people are perceived as being smarter than positive people — that is, being critical is interpreted as a sign of intelligence. You see this attitude in business all the time: The fastest way for me to seem smart is to cut you down. So you come up with an idea, and I come up with a thousand different reasons why that idea won’t work. Now everyone sees you as dumb and me as smart — and we’ve created an environment where no one wants to come up with ideas.

Learning from mistakes (and successes) of the past is useful, but there are so many mistakes that have been made that it’s impossible to learn everything. Besides, knowledge is not useful if you don’t do anything with it. (We know that from health education, for instance.)

Many people, myself included, are often paralysed with fear of failing. Doing things in the real world is scary because it inevitably means making mistakes at some point. It’s easier to just think and talk. In research, this equates to countless literature reviews and perhaps small-scale lab experiments. Going into real world means that there are lots of confounding factors, gaps in data, and things won’t always happen as expected. Lots of learning.

But the real world is where the real impact lies. That should be a motivation enough to step out of one’s comfort zone and become a doer.

Mixed feelings

Goodbyes are hard. Leaving home ain’t easy, even if it means going back home at the same time.

I cleaned my desk this afternoon. I had been piling paper all year and while I was going through the stacks to see what to throw into recycling bin and what to lug back to Finland with me, I got flashbacks about everything that’s happened in eleven months.

Five papers that I’ve authored or co-authored have been submitted this year and a few more are work in progress. One has already been accepted and should come out any day now. I’ve presented posters at SNEB and ACR conferences, learning about different research and practice perspectives from nutritionists and consumer researchers. We are also developing an application for small, concrete habit changes which aim to change the triggers and cues in the environment. All in all, it’s been a fairly productive year, although many things that were being planned or even started never came to fruition. Perhaps that is a good thing: survival of the fittest ideas. And my resolve to strive to do meaningful and practically useful research has strengthened.

Nevertheless, papers and posters weren’t the things that I was reminiscing. Instead, I formed a mental collage of things that made it possible for me to enjoy working – and living – here. It all comes down to good people and small daily things, interaction and collaboration.

I’ll take with me Adam’s constant encouragement and uplifting quips, Sandra’s infinite patience, Kate’s bubbly energy, Julia’s laughter, Sudy’s smart decisiveness, Aner’s kindness that manifests in so many ways, Drew’s unwavering enthusiasm, and Brian’s radiant warmth and generosity. I’ll also remember those who left before me: Margaret’s resilience, Will’s hands-on attitude, Alyssa’s good-heartedness, our summer interns. Not to mention people I met at Maplewood, improv, Ithaca Health Alliance, Amnesty, Toastmasters, conferences, AIDS Ride, and just generally everywhere at Cornell and Ithaca. Memories of them will stay with me.

To name a few… Charlie, Annie (“yes, and”), Marjaneh, Gulzhan, Javad (richness and beauty of Persian and Kazak culture), Daniela, Kris, Simone, Alice (the four kindred spirits who I hope to see again in Europe), John (“I’m always good”), Lijin, Yun, Yi, Xiyue, Joanne (great housemates), Jason, Lorraine (newcomers to Cornell, unite), Andrea, Amy, Claire, Rob (healthcare for all), Wayles, Andy, Ute (human rights), Taz, Ron, Cheryl, Ishbel (building confidence), Erin and David (delightfully wacky), two Daniels. Brian and Adam’s families, so lively and accepting. This incredible diversity.

Mindless golf tournament with Adam, Kate and Rex, when I managed sometimes to swing the club fairly well, but only if one of them reminded me about the correct stance. Adam piggybacking me up the stairs after the Dragon Day parade, when I was still on crutches. Road trips, late night talks, and great dinners with Brian. Reading a bedtime story to his daughter. AIDS Ride in perfect weather. Birthday surprise arranged by Kris. Aner’s improv classes and movie nights. Lunch break banter. Hugs and laughs…

I will miss you, guys. Eleven months is just enough time to realize that I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like.

Yet at the same time, I am happy about going home. Being seven hours and over six thousand kilometers away from the person I otherwise share my life with has been tough, and I also long to see my family and friends again (including those who visited this year). What’s more, our group of people at work is equally nice and good-hearted. I could make a similar catalogue of memories about the years I’ve been working at VTT. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually.

Coming a full circle – the mix of sad and happy feelings is kind of similar to the ones I had when I came here. I’m happy that I care about people so much that I feel sad about having to leave them. And even if I won’t see some of them again, the connections have been real and left a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impact. I wish I can help others to connect as well.

Revive creativity

It’s a tough world for teachers and kids nowadays. Bombarded with information from all sorts of channels and media all the time, yet standardized testing is even more common than before, at least in the US.

What does that lead to? Well, my friend told that he watched her daughter gradually become more and more stupid during high school. It wasn’t until college that she started thinking with her own brains again. Thankfully, she was able to resist the dumbing-down attempt enough to recover from their effects.

I was a good kid at school. The kind of a kid who sits quietly, learns everything that she’s supposed to learn and remembers the right answers in exams. Too bad that I forgot most of the stuff after the exam, having just crammed everything into short-term memory the night before and puking it all out on the exam day. I knew how to conform to expectations. Still, I never really liked history or geography classes that much – I was more of a fan of math and languages. In retrospect, I guess I was too focused on trying to memorize the exact years for peace treaties between Sweden and Russia and the main export products of Bolivia, so I couldn’t see the bigger picture. As in, what was actually causing those wars between the countries, or what kind of a life Bolivians led. Nowadays I regret that my knowledge of world history is so sketchy, and that I missed the chances to devote time in immersing myself into those stories. Had they been taught in the form of stories, perhaps my understanding would be a tad more complete.

Then, entering the real world, I was afraid. There was no teacher to tell if my answer was right or not. Suddenly, I was expected to form my own opinions and express them, be daring enough to fail, drop that perfectionism. In the real world, nothing is perfect. And nothing is more effective killer of creativity than thinking there’s just one right answer. That’s even worse in research, where the goal is to figure out new answers.


It kind of makes sense that the goal of the education system is conformity. Obedient citizens don’t cause trouble and work well as cogs in the machine. Then again, finding the proper balance is hard. People should still have the basic skills in math, languages, workings of the universe, in order to comprehend and navigate the world around them. What’s more, people should get the taste of enjoyable physical activity, high-quality home-cooked food, and the appreciation of nature, culture and arts. Perhaps the most important thing would be to understand, appreciate and respect the diversity of people and the world.

As an aside, these animated talks are really excellent. Great way to grab attention.

Somewhere that’s green

This and next week are finals weeks at Cornell and it shows. I went to Mann Library on Tuesday to work (because weather was really warm outside, 18 degrees Celsius, but the basement office heaters didn’t get the memo) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so crowded. My student friends are also cramming for their exams and working day and night to finish their projects and papers. I’m not completely on the same boat, but I’m sailing on the side… trying to finish as much as I can and living in the present moment.

The environment isn’t entirely stressful, though. I was delighted to see this on Monday – fresh, green grass at the library lobby!

Indoor lawn

Later on I saw people lying on the grass, taking a break to relax. Similar green spot was also in the lobby of Olin Library. Picture might not tell, but it really changes the atmosphere in a small but meaningful way. The deed was done by students from the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

Perhaps the impact is big because there aren’t very many potted plants around usually. Outside it’s green (it still is, although now it’s finally snowed a little, the kind of snow that melts almost as soon as it hits the ground), but indoors it’s a bit bleak. Green, living, growing things (and I don’t mean slime mold) would lift moods and help people to feel more relaxed. Need more plants, and more skills to keep them alive.

On city level, vertical gardens and vertical forests are also splendid ideas. City planners, ahoy! Cooling the urban heat and absorbing air pollution will be neat benefits in addition to stress relief and provision of food.

Translational research

Less than two weeks and then I’ll be back in Finland. Wasn’t it just a blink of an eye ago when it was still summer? Time flies like an arrow. Aikakärpäset pitävät nuolesta.

Translation from English to Finnish doesn’t always work very well, as any Finn who’s used Google Translate might know. Similarly, translation from research to real world is challenging. Findings of laboratory experiments or pilot studies with a friendly crowd may not be applicable in real life situations, unless researchers also understand how communities, organizations, and policies work.

At Cornell, there is Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research that helps researchers and communities connect. (Incidentally, Urie Bronfenbrenner was the creator of the social ecological model, which categorizes the multiple levels of influence on behaviour.) People working at the center offer training, connections and small grants to investigators who wish to foray into real world and make a difference. They also synthesize research findings and translate them into understandable and usable format to communities. That means not using language like “There is a large body of experimental evidence which clearly indicates that members of the genus Mus tend to engage in recreational activity while the feline is remote from the locale”.

Social Ecological Model

Image from Boston University School of Public Health

Another related program is the Cooperative Extension, although it’s even more of a hands-on program that aims to engage the public and transfer research-based knowledge to them. As far as I’ve understood, all land-grant universities provide Cooperative Extension programs.

In Finland, we have the Centre for Health and Technology in Oulu, which seems to have a somewhat similar goal – connect universities with other organizations and companies, bring together providers and users of technologies. Should we have something similar in Tampere and other cities/regions (or do we already have and I just don’t know about it)?

I’ve become a firm believer in translational research – now I have a name for what I want to do. I’m also nowadays constantly reminding myself to always, always think about public health improvement as the ultimate outcome. In dissemination, M-PACE is a potentially useful method to tailor evidence-based interventions to new audiences.

Despite all this, I didn’t really do any translational research during this year. That’s going to be one of my new year’s resolutions: always strive to make a difference.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Publish or Perish?

As a researcher, I often have to stop and ask myself: what kind of research do I want to do? Research that would get cited a lot versus research that would make an impact in people’s lives? In general I think that the answer should be obvious, but sometimes I find myself getting caught in the “publish or perish” mindset that seems to encompass all the scientific world nowadays.

Last year a Dutch professor in social psychology, Diederik Stapel, became widely famous because of a decade of research that was, unfortunately, all fabricated. He was caught because three of his PhD students started suspecting study results that were simply too good. In the consequent investigations, it was found that he had been falsifying data for a long long time, perhaps as early as his dissertation research.

The New York Times article about initial suspicions of Stapel’s long line of fabrication quotes Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found. It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

In a way, this was the message I got from October’s ACR conference as well. On one hand, ethics and integrity were called for; on the other hand, it was emphasized that writing a good paper is like telling a nice story. I’m not saying that these things are contradictory, but sometimes I wonder whether honesty and marketing can ever cohabit without at least some bickering.

Stress and haste can make people vulnerable to losing their integrity and prone to cutting corners. If it happens in professions where results of the work are concrete and immediate, it is certain to happen in research as well.

Dear readers, please remind me frequently that the main purpose of the research and work we do is not fame and fortune, but to make the world a better place. No one’s perfect and we need each other to keep our integrity. It’s not a race, it’s a journey towards a common goal.