Category Archives: People

MSc thesis in Geography got the second prize in the Master’s award in development studies!

UniPID and the Finnish Society for Development Research awarded Noora Stenholm the second prize in the Master’s contest, last November 2015. Stenholm got the credit with her thesis “Gendered perspectives on rehabilitation after involuntary resettlement in urban Sri Lanka.” Stenholm’s thesis concern on resettlement project in Sri Lanka, and she did fieldwork in Colombo.

Sri Lanka/Noora Stenholm

Sri Lanka/Noora Stenholm

“I did a qualitative research in a slum in a development project where groups hit by floods and tsunami, were resettled” Stenholm explains. She interviewed women about various issues dealing with their physical environment, living standards, employment, social relations, safety nets and possibilities to take action. She also interviewed project workers and town planners. Information was compared to their situations before the resettlement.

“Results vary, but I found that the community has a great impact on adjustment. In Colombo there are many involuntary settlements; however the project that I observed, is considered to be a successful one”.

This year, 25 Master theses have been submitted to the competition. The ranking criteria include societal applicability, impact and innovativeness of the work

“The award feels good! I think one of the reasons why I got it, is that I did my research on a new theme and in a new environment”, Stenholm comments.

“My interest in urban space and involuntary displacement was awaken during a lecture in development studies in 2012. Then I happen to travel to Sri Lanka twice before my field research, first for vacation and then on a study trip organized by the geography department. I have read about the country’s history and during my staying in the country, I have better defined my research questions. Local researchers and other people we met during the geography field course assured me about their relevance”, Stenholm explains.

After the field research period, Stenholm started an internship at the Finland Futures Research Centre (FFRC), where she is still working as a researcher.

“I am in the team Sustainable Development Futures, doing research about renewable energy, sustainable development, climate change and capacity building in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean”, she writes from Vantaa airport, on her way to a conference in Yangon, Myanmar.

“I could say that my educational background has been great for my career in the field of environment and development. At the geography department I have received much support and encouragement for my professional life. My current job is extremely interesting, challenging and developing… and still I would like to go back to Sri Lanka, one day”, Stenholm plans.

The first award prize was granted to Tomi Launio, for his thesis “Population Dynamics and Livelihood Change on Ukara Island, Lake Victoria”; while the third place was awarded to Paula Pankakoski, for her thesis “Place and Belonging – an Ethnography of Rural Migrant Children in Beijing “.

You can read more about Stenholm thesis here: Noora Stenholm, Gendered perspectives on rehabilitation after involuntary resettlement in urban Sri Lanka

And about the award prize here!


Research with students is fun!

Paola Minoia and students on the field trip in Ecuador

Paola Minoia (left) and students on the field trip in Ecuador

I am Paola Minoia, docent and lecturer in development geography. I have done all my previous studies in Italy with research periods abroad and my PhD thesis was on “water and identities” in Northern Sudan. I started working in Finland in 2008. Before that, I was working at the University of Venice, and going back in time, for UNDP in Lesotho and Egypt, and in various projects: with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UE, NGOs, local administrations. I can say I got various hints on different working places and (govern)mentalities dealing with development!

In Finland I have continued doing research especially on water and environmental justice and politics, in the same time increasing my teaching experience applying experiential learning. Besides students’ activation in class, I have seen that it is possible and very fruitful to involve Master students in research. In my type of studies, field research is very important, and students have the opportunity to work at the Taita research station in Kenya for their theses. A few have been involved in various projects, for instance the Academy-funded TaitaWater (here is the project report). Our department has also organised field courses in the Global South. I have been personally involved in 3 trips: one in Morocco in 2011 (please have a look to the video  and to the report), one in Sri Lanka in 2013 (the report is here), and a recent one in Ecuador, in October 2015 (here is a news published by the Universidad Estatal Amazonica). Soon we will publish a report, stay tuned!

Migration research

Image by Coseac

Image by Coseac

Saija Niemi, migration researcher in geography, is carrying out research in the Department of Geoscience and Geography in the University of Helsinki.

Niemi’s current research is related to Sudanese conflict-induced forced migration. She is creating a new migration theory based on primary data, which she collected in Sudan, Uganda, Egypt and Finland. In her research, Niemi uses the classic grounded theory method, which was developed by doctors Glaser and Strauss in the 1960s. In the new theory, the main concern of people involved in migration is control.

Image by United to End Genocide-I became interested in Sudanese migration when I conducted a pilot cultural orientation project in the International Organization for Migration in Cairo in 2001. The project was targeted at Sudanese quota refugees accepted for resettlement in Finland. At that time there was not much knowledge about Sudan or Sudanese migration in Finland, tells Niemi.

Niemi studied her master’s degree in human geography and her interests can also be linked to development geography. She wrote her master’s thesis about Mexican migration and her thesis ”Mexicans on the move: migration perspectives on micro and macro levels, and identities” (2000) was based on primary data she collected in Mexico and the United States. As a student, she was also active in associations.

-When I was a student, I was active in the Association of Development Geography (now known as Kehmy ry) and Lawra development cooperation project. Later, I have also acted in different organizations like for example the Red Cross and the Society for the Study of Ethnic Relations and International Migration (ETMU).

After graduating Niemi worked in the International Oraganization for Migration (IOM) and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Afterwards she returned to the University of Helsinki to work in the discipline of development studies and to carry out her doctoral research in geography.

Forced migration has been a current topic in the media this year and Niemi thinks that also research can contribute to the discussion.

-Research creates new information that can support for instance political and practical decision-making.

Niemi sees the topic of migration interesting and considers it to offer various possibilities for research. Some current issues include climate or environmental change related migration, human smuggling and aspects of migration to Europe. She gives an advice to students who are interested in researching migration.

-Study what you are interested in and be open-minded. There are various issues, which can be researched in relation to migration.

From UK to Finland and now into “life quality” issues

Sara Haapanen

I’m going to give my age away here being the wrong side of 35, but along with the grey hair, wrinkles and lack of sleep kids bring I’ve learned a few things along the way. I graduated from a great university back in 2000 and loved it. Much like studying here, the department staff were very informative, helpful and very approachable. I was happy, learning and having fun.

For the second year, we were offered an exchange to Joensuu, Finland. This was the one and only chance to do an exchange as they weren’t very popular back then.  I had never flown before, never been outside of the UK and just decided I would do it. I was the only one out of the whole year to join up – I can sum my feelings up in one word – NERVOUS! I knew so little about Finland mostly that fish was popular and it was cold in the winter.

I think everyone was a bit shocked when I announced I was off for half a year, one friend’s stunned comeback was “but what about reindeer walking down the street?” But I got lots of support from friends and family, useful presents like hats and scarfs, lots of ‘good luck’ cards to decorate my new room with. Preparation wise, I worked over the summer to save some money, applied for all the loans and grants that were possible and made my budget. Bought a return ticket so that I knew even if I found it a struggle it would be time limited. Properly checked the weather and bought and packed suitable wear and then it was time to be off.

SCAN0241   And it turned out to be the best thing I ever did! The biggest shock was the white empty studio room I had, quickly corrected with blu-tac, a pile of photos and all my cards. But I made lots of friends, had lots of fun and some very new experiences.

My degree is in geography but because of arts/sciences definition I needed to study in the forestry department. It was a completely new topic to me, do you know the joke about taking a road trip in Finland? It goes like this “tree, tree, ABC, tree, tree ABC, tree, tree, ABC”. That was pretty much my tree knowledge summed up. Thankfully I can say I managed to improve on that.

I learned a lot about trees and Finnish nature and it was fascinating.  I learned about Finnish forestry processes and the livelihoods that were dependent on it. I learnt about wood biomass (the energy gained from wood), peat bogs, paper production and berries. The forests had gone from being somewhere peaceful and scenic to walk in to being a huge provider that so many people were dependent on.

I managed to learn about Finns outside of this course too. Through making Finnish friends and taking some trips. I learned about things they loved ice-hockey, sauna and Nordic walking to state the obvious things. But knowing the people and the important of the forest environment made me understand why nature is treasured so much in Finland. It means life. The provision of food, wood for heating, the resources generate income, the peace and tranquility to be in the middle of a scenic forest like no one else is around. Peace, relaxation and mindfulness.

Development geography was not something I had studied before I started at Helsinki (I did a combination of human and physical for my BSc Honours) but on reflection I can comment on it. Development geography is of course studying to look at the standard of living or quality of life. Comparing it to the UK I could see it was what we may call a “no brainer”.  Finns had and still do in my opinion have a very high standard of living. The economy has it ups and downs but in general thrives and I felt was doing well when I visited. The population was well looked after by a welfare state, which meant no one should really have to go without those things I consider to be a basic human right.  Work life was much more limited to those work hours and meant free time could actually be enjoyed with friends and family and I feel most importantly in the nature. Growing up I lived in a busy seaside resort and trips to the real countryside were cherished. Where I lived in Joensuu, I had a beautiful forest and lake five minutes’ walk from my apartment. To me it seemed Finland had it all, and it was not hard to see why it was such a beautiful country.

I’ve lived in Finland a while now (and yes I’m sorry my Finnish is terrible but I keep trying!). I’ve worked for more years than I care to count teaching daycare and having my own children in the middle. I wanted and needed a change and really felt that I wanted to study again. At university I had really developed a passion for human geography and wanted to follow that up. I applied to study geography here, never thought I would get in and still vividly remember getting the acceptance email and bursting into tears in the middle of serving lunch to my class. It was only when I went to talk to the study advisor that I found my area would be development geography. I had to go home and read up on it. And well, I was delighted. It was completely “me”. I couldn’t be happier to say I’m completely loving it. I think it’s fair to say we all like a little moan about the work load from time to time or some essay/topic we are struggling with, but I couldn’t be happier. I completely made the right choice.


When we study somewhere new and especially in a new country the whole process is learning. It’s adapting your lifestyle, manners and changing your comfort zones to fit in with other’s view’s and values. It’s changing yourself. I think it makes you value other people’s beliefs, cultures and living much more.

That exchange trip changed me as person for the better and I got some valuable experiences both personal and academically.  On an exchange you will learn so much, see things in a new light and develop new ways of thinking. If you are thinking about taking an exchange somewhere, just do it.