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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:


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.

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.

Research in Spotlight

NIH spotlight of Brian, shot at the Science & Engineering Festival that we were at in Washington DC in April. Good stuff.