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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.


Guilt of a Consumer

I scribbled these paragraphs a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in a plane and looking down to the vast blue ocean, mostly covered with clouds. I remember wondering what kinds of living beings swam under the glimmering waves, and whether pollutants in their environment were making them sick. I could try to rationalize my travelling, but I couldn’t deny being part of the problem.

What can change the nature of a man? Love or guilt, perhaps. This is about both of them.

I’m flying across Atlantic once more. My soul, which has trouble with keeping up with the speed, is growing weary of it. But I felt that the ties, some of them bound by blood and others by friendship, compelled me to visit Finland in the summer. And oh, the light skies, the clear lakes, and the sweet flavor of berries. Goose berries, blueberries, a couple of swims, walks and talks.

Still, those are sort of selfish reasons. I know I’m not practising what I preach in every domain of life. What if Facebook’s “Places I’ve visited” map also included the amounts of CO2 emissions produced by the journey? What if people, while telling about their vacation trips, would also recite the number of trees that would need to be planted to offset the harm done to the environment, or the volume of the arctic ice that melted as a result?

Most estimates state that a single trans-Atlantic  flight produces roughly an equal amount of CO2 emissions as driving an average car – non-stop – for a year. I’m really sorry, polar bears.

I can certainly explain away and rationalize my travels, but still – my sister only visited Finland once during her exchange year in France. And she survived. Afterwards I learned that she certainly wasn’t happy all the time, but she grew a lot during that year.

The person who I will miss the most during the rest of this year gave me a book to read on the journey. It’s Alissa Quart’s book about brands among youth, published ten years ago. I’m afraid it’s still an accurate portrayal of the lifestyle of a major part of youth in USA (perhaps not as much in Ithaca). In summary, the picture that Quart paints depicts teenagers and kids as willing slaves to the companies that happily exploit them to market their products more effectively.

In one chapter, she talks about Breakfast Club, a youth movie made in 1985 (I’ve actually seen it too when I was a teenager, and I admit that I liked it). It is similar to other youth movies in the 70s and 80s: it’s about loneliness and not fitting in, and ultimately about strengthening own personal identity. Being your own unique person.

In contrast, youth movies nowadays seem to be only about fitting in into the mainstream. People need to brand themselves with clothes, makeup, shopping, and gigantic parties. These movies promote herd mentality. Not to mention that the expensive brands usually originate from sweatshops in Asia where workers need to work around the clock to be able to feed themselves.

Why do we consume instead of creating or enjoying? Why do we seek our self-worth through possessions and self-enhancement through dressing up and modifying our bodies?

Again, it’s the environment that we live in. Advertisements, television, magazines, shops, other people’s Facebook status updates and vacation photos. They all shout that we should strive to not look natural or casual, and that we must travel (and especially take photos!) around the world so that we’re not considered boring.

Travel can certainly broaden the mind, but we need to take the time to truly understand the local people and nature. Every place has a history and life of its own. It should be given the appreciation it deserves.

Publishing and Outreach

Ah. Apologies for the long hibernation on this blog. Been sick and travelling – had a stomach flu in the beginning of April, visited my beloved snowy, rainy Finland in mid-April, went to Washington DC last weekend and got struck down by a regular flu for the first part of this week. I think I’ve done more than enough sickness for this year, now it’s time to get on with more interesting things!

The trip to Washington DC was about presenting Mindless Eating research to the general public at the Science & Engineering Festival. Brian was invited there by NIH and he asked Alyssa and me to join him. (Alyssa’s interning at the lab, she’s incredibly smart, resourceful and good-hearted, and knows everything about psychology and nutrition already.) We set up a booth with half a dozen activities for people to try out to illustrate research findings in practice – for example, how plate color influences the amount we eat, how 1170-calorie Subway sandwich is perceived as having less calories than 540-calorie Big Mac because of Subway Health Halohow transparent containers and jars make us eat more than opaque ones, and how more variety (colors or types of food) makes us eat more.

Alyssa illustrating the Subway Health Halo with real sandwich specimens.

The booth was amazingly popular and I think that people, kids and adults alike, really left it with an increased understanding of mindless eating traps and how to avoid them. Alyssa’s lively and engaging way of presenting the research was the most important thing in making that happen. I did my best to support her and I had some interesting discussions with people as well. Overall, the experience was great, since it felt like we were managing to educate people in a way that felt interesting to them.

I also learned during the trip that there are only two major challenges that a researcher faces:

  • Get it written. I’m sure we’re all familiar with writer’s block. Nowadays, I’m trying to keep in mind what Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is crap.” Just get something on the paper and hone it afterwards.
  • Get it submitted. At some point the honing needs to stop. Getting over the fear of rejection is hard, but rejection is  a regular and expected thing on the academic playground. Just submit, get it back with comments, revise and resubmit or revise and submit somewhere else.

They actually have an excellent system here at Food & Brand Lab for keeping track of papers and journals. They maintain an Excel sheet with a list of all possibly relevant journals from various fields and a list of all papers with their statuses. For each paper, they work out a priority order for target journals (for instance, 1. Nature, 2. JAMA, 3. Preventive Medicine, … 10. Obscure Journal of Research Not Accepted Anywhere Else). That way, if/when a paper gets rejected, there’s no need to revisit the process of figuring out where to submit it. It can just be submitted to the next journal on the list.

That’s a good process to increase efficiency of the publication pipeline. But it’s not enough to just do research and publish in academic channels. If we want to have societal impact, the real challenge is explaining the research results to the real world so that normal people can understand and use them. That’s also something they do here really well: each published article gets its own outreach page, which explains the results in a not-too-academic manner and has links to all press about the research.

Making sure that the press doesn’t twist the findings into something totally unrecognisable is also good.


Got to Ithaca late on Wednesday evening safe and sound. The flights were pretty uneventful, save a couple of nice chats and some bumps while approaching Ithaca. The Newark-Ithaca plane was the smallest I’ve ever been in, the size of a small bus. I sat on the backrow reminiscing the old days of travelling to school by bus. The guy sitting next to me had the center seat and said he felt uncomfortably exposed.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the taxi from the airport was almost like public transportation, since the driver took four people in and dropped everyone off to their destinations. Saves time, money and environment. I was the last one to get off, so I got a nice tour of the dark and rainy city at the same time. Rain and green grass almost made me feel like I had gone backwards to Finnish autumn.

I live now on the East Hill’s Maplewood Park, university housing for graduate and professional students. My flatmates are three nice Chinese girls (or so they say – I have yet to meet the third one, apparently a super-busy PhD student). One of them calls me Cherry because my name was impossible to pronounce for her. Surprisingly, she’s the only one who’s had real trouble with it.

Caldwell Hall on 1/12/2012

Caldwell Hall

After settling in, unpacking and finishing off the last pieces of rye bread I had brought with me, I went to register to the university (that’s where the above picture is from). Luckily, the office people were on lunch break, so I had a chance to wander while waiting, and to discover the first waterfall. The only thing dampening the experience was the tall fence between onlookers and water. Judging by the sticker in the picture below, I guess someone else has been a bit irked by the fences which, as I later noticed, are abundant on bridges and cliffs.

Waterfall on campus

Then, had to take care of bodily needs. I felt I could find my way anywhere, since I was armed with the excellent information package I received when checking in to Maplewood. I strolled downtown, found by accident a small Greenstar Coop that sells organic foods and products, chatted with a salesperson there, and headed to a bigger Greenstar based on his advice. I’ll analyze the food options in more detail in a separate post, but suffice to say that I found something decent to eat.

Jet lag woke me up on 5 am on Friday morning (an hour later than on Thursday, slowly getting there!). Although it was raining when I came, it seems that the snow followed me from Finland. Many people cursed me because of that during the day. But anyway, now it looks like a proper winter.

Sunset at Maplewood

Sunset at Maplewood


Ithaca, New York. Named after the home island of Odysseus. Now my home for the next eleven months. I’ll be a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab, hopefully doing something worthwhile that will help people eat healthier, be satisfied with what they do and find some balance in their lives. The focus will be on eating behavior, but I’d love to approach it from mental and emotional viewpoints. And think of cost-effective ways to use technology to nudge and aid people to choose the healthier option.

I intend to blog about my activities and thoughts regularly. Presumably it’s not going to be just work, work, work all the time, since they say that “Ithaca is gorges”. During the ice age, glaciers carved numerous valleys and creeks in the Finger Lakes area, resulting in beautiful streams and waterfalls for us to admire in the present day. So, that means lots of time wandering outdoors and lots of pretty pictures!

Less than 24 hours to departure. I’m surely gonna miss Finland and all wonderful people here, but I hope the experience will be worth some homesickness.