Samuela – The European Glia Meeting

Hello everyone,

I’m Samuela, a Master’s student in the University of Helsinki Neuroscience program expecting to graduate soon. Today I will bring you back with me to the European Glia Meeting I attended last July in Berlin supported by the HiLIFE Conference Grant!

Choose a conference and apply!

I simply love the brain, and I always have been fascinated by how imperceptible processes allow us to think and behave. Throughout my Master’s studies, I got passionate about glial cells, which are the “supporting cells” of the brain very different from the well-known neurons. These cells are microglia, the brain’s immune cells, astrocytes contributing to the blood-brain barrier, and oligodendrocytes wrapping neuronal axons to ensure fast communication.

Lately, research in my field greatly shifted to glial cells due to their involvement during development and disease etiology. Therefore, I decided to attend this internationally recognised conference hosting the best researchers working on glia and coming from all around the world.

The application process for the HiLife Conference grant is really straightforward and pushes you to think about why you want to attend that specific conference and the impact it may have on your future career.  The process is fast and simple, so try to individuate the conference that aligns better with your interests and apply!

A conference helps you and your career goals in many ways!

I won’t lie, participating in long conferences is exhausting, but extremely rewarding! You get to know fellow students and researchers potentially establishing the ground for lifelong friendships and collaborations. Additionally, you get exposed to the most recent and exciting research on what passionates you.

I chose a conference with a very wide program, spanning from technical innovations for glial engineering to neutron-glia and glia-glia communication. I got to listen to recently published/unpublished data and gradually understood the logic behind experiments. Attending these talks gave me an overview of scientific thinking and the long process that leads from an idea to a discovery, exciting!

I chose to attend a voluntary Introductory course, prior to the start of the conference. It was a one-day course covering the basics of glial cell function in healthy and diseased brains both in the central and peripheral nervous systems. We also explored methods to study glia from stem cells to different animal models including Drosophila (common fruit fly).

The four-day program of the official conference was dense and included workshops on techniques used to investigate microglia and on scientific publishing. The lectures were of different types: plenary lectures by big names such as Freda Miller, Shane Liddelow, and Michelle Monje, and symposia featuring 4 speakers with a common focus (e.g., heterogeneity of microglia in brain stem cell niches).

I also got to listen to a symposium organized by my Master’s thesis supervisor and HiLIFE director Jari Koistinaho, focused on the study of neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration employing induced pluripotent stem cells. Helsinki and HiLIFE were greatly represented at the conference!

A  highlight of conferences is certainly poster sessions. Posters are usually presented by young scientists (PhD and postdocs) and are a peerless opportunity to exercise your social and presentation skills!

I decided to be brave and present my own poster based on the research on microglia and Alzheimer’s disease conducted at the HiLIFE Neuroscience Center!

Initially, I was scared of not being able to answer questions and successfully deliver the main points of my research to the audience. But it was fun, engaging, and extremely rewarding. Don’t hesitate and challenge yourself!

Beyond the conference

Conferences are not only an educational opportunity, but also a way to visit new places and countries. The Glia Conference was held in Berlin, which I never visited before. Accompanied by students I met at the conference and also alone, I visited some of Berlin’s highlights!

The last night everyone I met was gone, and I enjoyed a solo dinner in a traditional German restaurant! These experiences make you certainly more independent.

Some advice for embarking on your conference adventure

Overall, I would highly recommend to participate in a conference. Here are some useful tips:

  • HiLIFE Conference Grant most likely does not cover all your expenses (the max amount in the 2023 call was 300 euros). However, most conferences offer stipends for those students who present posters. I would suggest presenting a poster for additional funding and for enhancing your presentation skills.
  • Plan in advance! I suggest you look for a conference you would like to attend as soon as possible since all costs rise with time. Conferences usually offer early-bird and student discounts with advantageous prices.
  • Look for partnerships and agreements between conference organisers and airlines and hotels. Sometimes they might be more convenient than other options, but sometimes you will need to find cheaper solutions (like Airbnb, which I opted for my stay).
  • Do some homework before the conference. It is important you arrive there prepared and organised, with a schedule of what you want to attend and who you want to meet, if possible. For instance, I took the opportunity to talk to some researchers from universities I’m applying to for the PhD.

Final remarks

Thanks, everyone for following my journey! I hope I have inspired you to join a conference you like.

If you are interested in the next European Glia Meeting, it will be held in Marseille in 2025 (it is a bi-annual meeting).

Feel free to contact me with any further questions you may have about the conference!

Following the swallows

Ecology field course in Kenya

At the hottest hour, we stop at a cliff for a lunch break. It’s January in Ngangao, one of the few protected montane forests remaining in Eastern Kenya. Everyone finds a rocky seat and starts digging their backbacks for lunchboxes. I have brought fresh avocados, passion fruits and mangos from the market place. This time we found both sweet and sour varieties of passion fruit. Someone asks a half-question about nature and our Professor, Jouko Rikkinen, seizes the moment and starts lecturing about lichens and lichen symbionts. I listen, but mostly for the beauty of it all. View behind him stretches hundreds of kilometers to the lowlands. Wind is soft and Ken, Darius and Mwadime are asleep and snore slowly. Swallows, such as barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), greet us with their spectacular airshow. I wonder if they are the same to which I bid farewell a couple of months back in Finland.

Taita Hills and a happy bunch of biologists

Jambo! I’m Maria Reiman, a Master’s student at the Master’s Programme in Integrative Plant Sciences. With the help of HiLIFE Trainee Conference Grant I was able to participate in Flora and vegetation of East Africa –field course (IPS-175) in Kenya in January 2023. In this blogpost, I’m going to share some of my key learnings as well as plant treasures of Taita Hills.

The course was organized by the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, and our teachers on the field were Prof. Jouko Rikkinen, Mr. Mwadime Mjomba and Mr. Darius Kimuzi. The aim of the course is to learn about plant biodiversity in the area as well as climatic and environmental factors determining it. The Taita Research Station, established by the University of Helsinki in 2011, served as a base to our field course. It is located at Taita Hills in southeastern Kenya, in the village of Wundanyi. The area has attracted many scientists from different fields but especially biologists and geographers as it is a very unique area biogeographically. Taita Hills are like a miniature of East-Africa with an elevation range from 500 to 2200 meters and ecosystems including dry grasslands to moist montane rainforests.

Learning in the field

Nature was our classroom for the week. Every day, we would go to a different mountain, walk up the slopes and wonder at everything around us. Picture a group of students and teachers walking very slowly, taking pictures, squatting and pointing at something. Our guide and driver Ken was always sighing like “I just can’t with these botanists…”.

Mountains are an exception to Africa’s very flat general landscape. This goes back to 100 million years ago when the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana, broke up. South America, Antarctica, Madagascar, Australia and India separated but the remaining middle part – Africa – didn’t go through massive mountain formations unlike the other continents. However, these movements formed Eastern Arc –mountain chain of Kenya and Tanzania. Taita Hills are the northernmost mountain range of Eastern Arc.

Map of Eastern Arc -mountains on the left (EAMCEF 2014) and map of Taita Hills on the right (Kaasalainen n.d.).

Taita Hills are one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of Africa. They are known for their moist forests and unique flora and fauna. The moist rainforests support high diversity of life. One explanation to this is that because water and temperature are not limiting factors, species can focus on competition with other species, leading to speciation and evolution. For example, in dry and only seasonally warm Finnish forests, there are usually only a few dominant tree species but Kenyan rainforests host tens or even close to a hundred tree species. During the field course, I learned at least 176 new species (or if not learned then at least took notes and pictures).

Rainforest’s canopy is multi-storey as plants compete for light. Taita Hills used to be a vast rainforest area but due to changing climate and its consequence, anthropogenic pressure, there are only a dozen forest patches left. Most are the size of a few hectares and some are 70-190 hectares. Many species have evolved in Taita Hills and are thus so called endemic species. The mountain peaks have acted like islands and some species have their own subspecies for every mountain peak due to diversification.

Plants of East Africa. The strangler fig (Ficus thonningii) uses other plant’s truncks to climb up since the competition for light in the rainforests is though and investing into one’s own truck is very energy-consuming. Impatiens teitensis and the Taita African violet (Saintpaulia teitensis) are endemic to Taita. As visually beautiful species, they are area’s flagship species that are used to spread awereness of area’s biodiversity. African violets are endemic to Eastern Arc –mountains that Taita Hills also belong to. They are popular houseplants as well as Zamioculcas zamiifolia that grows in dry lowlands of Africa and is thus a good houseplant in dry households. Coffea fadenii is also endemic to Taita and is commercial coffee’s wild relative. Crop wild relatives (CWRs) are important for food security.

People’s livelihoods, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are interdependent

Taita Hills, like all mountains, provide many vital ecosystem services for humans. One of the most important is water. Water’s journey to Taita begins 200 km eastwards from The Indian Ocean. Moist trade winds flow towards Taita and condense to water when they hit the eastern forested slopes of Taita. In this sense, the mountains act as water towers. Montane forests capture and provide water for vast areas and households far below in the lowlands.

Deforestation of montane forests and climate change have led to decreased water security in the area. Clear-cutted forest land doesn’t catch water as well as montane forests and their vegetation would and ‘water tower effect’ is lost. Rains have become unpredictable and sparse. This has devastating consequences for humans and wildlife. When humans struggle, questionable methods are used to meet the living costs. Even more forest is cut to get livelihood from selling timber and firewood. This leads to a vicious circle where water is even scarcer. However, local authorities are taking action to stop the deforestation of remaining forests. These include e.g. guidance of agroforestry methods and reforestation with native tree species.

In Taita Hills, there are some reference areas like Mount Kasigau (1000 m up to 1600m), previously inhabited higher at the hills but people moved downhill when the issue with water arose. Currently, only the lower hills of Mount Kasigau are inhabited and there are no plantations. Mount Vuria (500 m up to 2200m) however, is largely under human pressure and deforestation is ongoing. Optimally, Mount Vuria would look like Mount Kasigau. On our hike at Mount Vuria we witnessed forest cutting and many invasive tree species. Invasive tree species and their plantations are a huge problem in East Africa. For example, Eucalyptus-plantations cause many wildfires because their bark is very fire-prone while the tree itself is very fire-resistant.

Mount Vuria (left) is largely under human pressure and covered with invasive species (pic by Maiju Kupiainen). Mount Kasigau (right) is not and it is covered with native afro-alpine vegetation.

Native and biodiverse montane forests maintain functioning ecosystems which in turn mean secured water supply and livelihoods for people. Nowadays, people are moving downhill to the lowlands which is good in terms of water security. However, this has increased the number of human-wildlife -conflicts when residential areas and wildlife territories overlap. Elephants and baboons can destroy crops but they are undeniably vital for lowland ecosystems and their ecosystem services. As always, the co-existence of humans and the rest of the natural world is complicated but the search for compromise is a necessity.

The joy and anger of finding things out

As botanists, we were of course very interested in individual plant species of Taita Hills. In addition, we gained a lot of insight about ecosystem dynamics and societies of the tropics that could never be learned from the books. We discovered new species, ecosystems and phenomena every day. The more we learned and understood, the wider our view of the natural world got. Access to this type of knowledge is a privilege that correspondingly means responsibility.

Developed countries such as Finland, produce most of the greenhouse gases yet the consequences are currently mostly suffered in the developing countries such as Kenya. Developed countries must learn to live within the planetary boundaries e.g. by carrying their responsibility, reducing emissions and stopping overconsumption. Actors of the developed countries – states, companies and inhabitants – have the resources for these actions and there aren’t any acceptable excuses for not acting. Liveable future for all lifeforms of the Earth is secured and determined only by actions done in this decade (IPCC 2023).

Getting a wider perspective of global change, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, meant anger caused by injustice, lack of actions and already unstoppable consequences such as deaths of people and endemic species. We are devastated by drought and deforestation in the area, which were largely caused by climate change or its consequential human pressure. Defending and fighting for the beautiful but threatened biodiversity and ecosystems of Taita Hills are also our duty. Our realities are linked and swallows migrating from their overwintering sites in Kenya to their breeding grounds in Finland are an evident symbol of that.


Big thanks to station staff, teachers, faculty, steering board and everybody who made this field course possible. We students really appreciate this as we know that field courses are constantly threatened with tightening budgets. Thank you for understanding that skilled biologists are made in the field, not classrooms!


  • Fellow students and dear friends of mine have also written HiLIFE-blogposts about Kenya. Gabriela Lemoine wrote a post about her experiences with more reflection e.g. about native and invasive species as well as our teacher’s, Mr. Darius Kimuzi’s, innovative agroforest farm. Lola Fernández Multigner took part in Human-Wildlife Conflicts in East Africa –field course (EEB-306) organized also by the University of Helsinki. She describes the complicated relationship between elephants and humans in this post.
  • Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden has many East African plants. For example, you can find Saintpaulia teitensis in the African Violet Room, Ficus thonningii in the Dry Forest Room and Coffea fadenii in the Rainforest House! Pictures of these are earlier in the text.
  • Water’s Journey, a documentary (2022) about Taita Hills can be found in Yle Areena. Beautiful nature, daily life and current topics are displayed magnificently. Watch Water’s Journey here.


EAMCEF. (12.8.2014). Eastern Arc Mountains. The Eastern Arc Mountains Conservation Endowment Fund (EAMCEF). [Webpage]. Available:

IPCC. (2023). Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, pp. 35-115, doi: 10.59327/IPCC/AR6-9789291691647

Kaasalainen, Ulla. (No date). Taita Hills and Mt. Kasigau. Lichens from East Africa and elsewhere. [Blog]. Available:

Laine, Toni. (2022). Water’s Journey. [Documentary Film]. Helsinki: Wild Heart Productions Oy. Available:

Niemelä, T. (2011). Vihreä Afrikka: kasveja ja kasvillisuutta. Norrlinia; Vol. 23. Luonnontieteellinen keskusmuseon kasvimuseo.

Field course in the tropical forests of Laos

Sabaidee! My name is Emmi Kaislasalmi, and I am a master´s student in forest ecology at the University of Helsinki. Earlier this year I got the HiLIFE Conference Grant to participate in a three-week intensive field course in Laos called “Tropical Forests and Agroforests”.

Here in this post, I am going to share my experience of the course. Please note that this course is conducted every second year (next time in January 2025), and you might have the chance to also get in if you want to learn more about tropical forests, the problems facing them, and the deep interconnection between forest well-being with societal and economic aspects.

Multicultural experience

The course was conducted by the University of Helsinki in partnership with a local university, Souphanouvong University from Luang Prabang. The course participants, students, and professors were from Finland, Laos, and Thailand.

We started from a UNESCO World Heritage City, Luang Prabang, where we got straight away immersed in the Lao culture as we arrived. Throughout the course, we learned about each other’s cultures and customs as we worked in groups of four, where the participants were at least from three different nationalities. Learning from one another was one of the greatest experiences for me.

On the second day, we headed to Nambak District, famous for its crispy river weed, “kaipen”, which is a delicacy we enjoyed throughout the course.

Pic. 1. Kaipen in making. The river weed is first harvested from the Nambak river floor, them processed, and left under the sun to dry. Usually, kaipen is topped with sesame seeds, tomatoes, and garlic, like in this picture, but other toppings can also be used. Finally, the kaipen is quickly deep fried before its ready to use. ©Field course: tropical forests and agroforests.

Hands-on approach and field research

After a short lecture and introduction on what we were about to do, we left to the field to conduct research. The research had two major parts, one was doing biodiversity research and forest inventory in the tropical forests and agroforests, and the other part was interviewing the locals and trying to understand their relationship with forest and forest products in terms of livelihood and food security in the Nambak District.

Pic. 2. Vieng Hinh Soung Village in Nambak District, one of the study villages in the field course. ©Dipjoy Chakma

In the forest, we learned to use different biodiversity and forest inventory methodologies, identify different tree and herbaceous species, find the indicators for forest disturbance, and how extremely diverse and beautiful the forests in Laos can be. We also learned that some trees make you itchy if you stand underneath them, some smell like cinnamon, and others bleed red sap, that looks like blood, if make a cut on the trunk.

By conducting the interviews, we learned about locals´ perceptions and needs when it comes to forests and forest products. Especially in the more remote villages, where access to stores and markets is not easy, people rely on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as bamboo, different wild vegetables and herbs, mushrooms, and bushmeat for sustenance and livelihoods. Firewood is also an everyday necessity for the locals, as cooking is done with using firewood. When building or renovating a house, the timber usually comes from the local community forests, which are cared and managed by the whole community.

What I left the course with

What I truly loved about the experience was that we did not only learn about the ecological and environmental aspects of tropical forests. Instead, the course had an interdisciplinary approach, and we learned about the social and economic realities that affect tropical forests, and how understanding and addressing these issues is key to sustainable forest and land-use management.

Looking ahead, I am convinced that we should have more courses and collaboration between disciplines and departments to address many of the current challenges regarding sustainable development and land-use. This approach is essential to bridge the divide between our current understanding of forests—focusing on their ecological and environmental dimensions—and the broader knowledge we should possess about societal, economic, governmental, and legislative aspects.

This interdisciplinary approach is needed to bring long-term solutions to the many problems facing tropical forests, including the loss of biodiversity, forest degradation, and deforestation. Moreover, it would also address the needs of the local communities and enhance their overall well-being.

Participating in this course was a truly enriching experience, and I am very grateful to HiLIFE for awarding me the HiLIFE Conference Grant since it made the experience accessible to me. My time in Laos was also very meaningful to me because I got insights about the direction in which I want to pursue my future career.

This field course in Laos was an unforgettable journey that deepened my appreciation for tropical forests and the critical importance of their preservation. The experiential learning, combined with theoretical insights and interactions with experts and local communities, enriched my understanding of ecology, research methodologies, and how the welfare of local communities plays a vital role in ensuring the health and prosperity of forests.

My first-ever academic conference experience in Tromsø, Norway

Hi all! My name is Aliisa Niemelä and I am a freshly graduated M.Sc. (Pharm), also known as proviisori, from the University of Helsinki. I was delighted to receive a HiLIFE Conference Grant to participate in my first-ever academic conference in June 2023. I am here to tell you about my experience!

Tromsø, located in the beautiful Northern Norway above the Arctic Circle, is a scenic and historical city surrounded by the sea, fells and mountains. The scenery was breath-taking and unlike anything I’d ever seen before! I was thrilled.

The scenic view outside Tromsø Airport.

Did you know that Tromsø is often referred to as “Paris of the North”? This nickname speaks for itself – the city has a lively, historical and sophisticated atmosphere. But more importantly for us, the city is home to the world’s northernmost university, University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway. UiT is the only university in Norway to offer both three-year bachelor and two-year master programmes in Pharmacy, which are compliant with the Bologna Process.

7th – 9th of June 2023 UiT and the Department of Pharmacy hosted the 10th Nordic Social Pharmacy Conference (NSPC), a three-day event focusing on “Pharmacist services of tomorrow”. The Nordic Social Pharmacy Conference 2023 brought together researchers and practitioners from Nordic countries and all around the world, even all the way from the US. We discussed and learned about key topics concerning social pharmacy, pharmacy practice and pharmacoepidemiology. In my studies I have focused specifically on social and clinical pharmacy, so NSPC 2023 was an excellent event to deepen my knowledge and to network internationally in my field. The conference included plenary sessions, workshops, poster sessions, oral presentations and pre-conference master classes and was all about sharing experiences and ideas and learning from each other.

The conference had the warmest atmosphere and I felt so welcome to my first-ever conference. And it wasn’t all about sitting in auditoriums – we also enjoyed the nature while climbing up Sherpatrappa (1200 stairs) to Storsteinen mountain 421 meters above sea level. This might have been the most challenging part of the trip! 😀

View from Strosteinen after hiking up Sherpatrappa.

The highlight of the conference for me was getting the opportunity to share the findings of our own research and present our poster entitled “Developing clinical pharmacy expertise with a postgraduate pharmacy programme: Individual interviews with specializing pharmacists and their line-managers” in one of the poster sessions of the conference. This was a great experience for me and I am grateful for all the discussions around this topic.

I will cherish this experience for years to come and look forward to my next scientific conference! I want to thank my dear colleague Raisa Laaksonen, University of Helsinki and HiLIFE for the experience and support received!

Where passion meets purpose

Hi fellow students!

My name is Aina Rossinyol Fernàndez, and I am a second-year master’s student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Programme here at the University of Helsinki. I am passionate about understanding and preserving the biodiversity of our planet, and I chose this master’s programme to deepen my knowledge of applied biodiversity conservation.

In March 2023, I attended the Student Conference in Conservation Science (SCCS) that took place in Cambridge, UK. SCCS is the only international series of conservation conferences entirely aimed at students. In case it is of your interest, SCCS is yearly conducted in Cambridge (UK), Brisbane (Australia), Beijing (China), Bangalore (India), New York (USA) and Budapest (Hungary).

The conference spanned three days and offered both in-person and online attendance options. Thanks to the HiLIFE Conference Grant, I had the great opportunity of participating in person. As the conference started early on the 28th of March, I decided to get to Cambridge on the 27th. I spent the whole morning exploring the city’s stunning architecture and streets as well as the river Cam. One of the things that surprised me the most was finding colleges all over around (Cambridge has a total of 31 colleges!). My favourite one was Christ’s College, as it is the one Charles Darwin stayed at. In the afternoon, I ended up joining a tour of 11 Indian people – including the guide – about the linkages in the history of Cambridge and India. Even though I was the only non-Indian participant and felt a bit lost in some of the explanations, it was such an interesting tour. This city has so much history to tell!

The conference days were very intense, but I was ready to absorb knowledge like a sponge! The conference included many interesting planetary talks, student oral presentations and poster presentations, as well as activities to facilitate networking and to introduce numerous both national and international institutions and organisations involved in conservation. I was truly admired by the wide range of incredible conservation work being done worldwide! Some of the vast array of topics covered included species distribution in the Anthropocene, human-wildlife conflict, ecosystem services in a changing world and people’s perceptions of nature.

The conference counted with an exciting programme of workshops. I wish I could have attended all of them, as they all seemed very interesting. However, we could just attend two of them. On the first conference day I attended the Collections-based research” workshop. After discussing the diverse ways that collections can be used in biological research, we had a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoological collections housed in the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge. The collections harbour over two million zoological specimens. Yes, over two million! The specimens are kept in storerooms at a constant temperature and humidity to avoid pests, such as beetles and moths, as well as to prevent mould formation. And now you may be wondering “Why do they put that much effort in store and catalogue this huge zoological collection?” The answer is easy. All these specimens collected over the past 200 years are a precious record of life on Earth and significantly contribute to scientific knowledge. For example, collections can provide essential data about animal distribution in an ever-changing world. Thousands of researchers from different disciplines from all over the world come along to study the collections to better understand and appreciate our natural world.

I especially enjoyed seeing specimens collected by Darwin. I would have literally spent days exploring these never-ending collections!

Fundraising is essential for conservation projects and thought that having the opportunity to meet face-to-face a donor would be a great opportunity to develop relevant skills on grant applications. That is why on the second day of the conference I attended the workshop entitled “Tips and tricks for writing grant applications: the view from a funder” held by Claire McNulty, the executive director of the National Geographic Society of Europe and the Middle East (Western Asia). For those who don’t know National Geographic Society, it awards grants to people working on conservation projects all over the world. Claire gave us practical and very useful tips, which can also be used in other funding sources, on how to develop a successful grant proposal.

As a young and aspiring conservationist, I believe that the best way to start my professional career is by learning from experienced tutors and experts in tropical conservation as well as from fellow like-minded students. Throughout the conference, I had the opportunity to interact with many enthusiastic students and renowned researchers and professors from all over the world. Speaking about projects, career paths and future plans, while exchanging ideas, was very inspiring to me, and I have no doubt that it will be valuable for my conservation journey. Additionally, getting to know conservation perspectives and practices from cultures all over the world allowed me to become more open-minded.

After those three very inspiring days, which combined learning, forging lifelong connections and overall unforgettable experiences, I can assure you that I left the conference with even more willingness to make a positive impact on tropical conservation.

In-person participants of SCCS 2023

The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man – Charles Darwin

Even though this time I just attended, I can’t wait to present my own work in future SCCS conferences… who knows where! I am very grateful to HiLIFE for awarding me the HiLIFE Trainee Conference Grant and to SCCS Cambridge for organizing such an inspiring conference.

Thanks for reading me!

Aina Rossinyol

European Society of Human Genetics conference 2023

Hi, we are Rafaela, Victoria, and Johanna, and we are all recipients of the HiLIFE conference grant. In June, we travelled to Glasgow, UK to attend the European Society of Human Genetics conference. 

From right to left: Johanna, Victoria, Rafaela, and Maria Francesca, a visiting scientist and medical doctor in our group.

We are all students of Marco Savarese’s lab (Folkhälsan Research Center) studying genotype-phenotype correlations in rare inherited muscle diseases. Thus, ESHG was a great opportunity for us to learn about the newest, most cutting-edge research in genetics, and to start building connections in the field. 

This was the first international scientific conference experience for all of us, and thus it was an extremely valuable opportunity to gain professional experience in networking, poster presenting, and scientific discussion, early on in our careers. 

The conference offered special opportunities for newer members of the human genetics community, including events organized by ESHG Young Geneticist Committee (ESHG-Y). As first-time attendees, their events and workshops felt extremely helpful and informative and provided excellent opportunities to connect with our peers.  

Overall, human genetics is a broad topic, which was reflected in the wide variety of research topics covered at the conference. Some of the reoccurring topics included AI-based solutions for variant interpretation, variant classification methods, and multiomics applications in genetics research. We wanted to highlight a few topics that we found most interesting and relevant in our work with rare genetic muscular diseases.  

Artificial intelligence-based solutions in human genetics 

Implementing AI based solutions is a hot topic in genetics, and many of the conference presentations reflected this excitement. Among the most interesting ones were a talk about the Eye2gene project and a poster about the Gestaltmatcher database.  

The Eye2gene project was inspired by clinicians diagnosing inherited retinal disease from eye scans. The disease causes specific patterns of damage to the eye. For the clinicians, it takes years of experience to be able to recognize these patterns. Thus, there are few doctors capable of reaching such diagnosis, causing delays in patient care. The Eye2gene method uses AI to interpret these eye scans, and the results show reliable performance. This method could not only speed up diagnosis but also reduce human error and variability of analysis from clinician to clinician, making the diagnosis more precise. 

In relation to our work with rare muscular diseases, the Eye2gene project is a great example of how improved understanding of the phenotype can aid with understanding the genetic background of the diseases as well. Although this approach would probably be much more difficult to implement in MRI imaging used in muscular diseases, it is an intriguing potential future application.   

The Gestaltmatcher is a similar AI-based approach to medical imaging analysis. This database allows an authorized user to upload medical images associated with rare diseases. The AI of the database groups similar images together to find groups of patients with common phenotypes. A major challenge in rare genetic diseases is often the small number of patients. Thus, it is extremely valuable to be able to share data and to gather a database as large as possible from the limited number of patients with a similar phenotype. Larger databases allow for better understanding of the disease phenotype and the genetic background of the disease, and ultimately, to develop treatments for even the rarest of genetic diseases. 

Gestaltmatcher showed that AI has an enormous potential in assisting clinicians and researchers in pattern detection in patient cohorts. This is an asset we should consider taking advantage of in our group’s muscle disease patient cohorts to better understand genotype-phenotype relationships in these diseases. 

Improved sequencing methods and multiomics approaches 

Multiomics approaches were a reoccurring topic at ESHG and it was featured in several presentations and posters throughout the event. In the context of genetics, the term multiomics generally refers to the practice of combining genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and sometimes epigenomics. Multiomics has many applications: it can be used for interpretation of variant pathogenicity or to uncover novel disease-causing variants, for example. A presentation at the conference revealed a method of combining genome sequencing with proteomics data to help uncover novel causative variants or reach a final classification for variants of uncertain significance. Epigenomic and transcriptomic approaches were also featured.   

The use of newer, more advanced sequencing approaches, such as long-read sequencing, is also growing rapidly, with regards to both DNA and RNA. In particular, targeted long-read sequencing is being used to diagnose specific diseases since it includes only genes that have a known association with a disease, making it cheaper than whole genome long-read sequencing, but more accurate and precise than traditional gene panels.  

The presentations at the conference clearly emphasized the advantages of multiomics approaches and new sequencing methods. Clearly, these are growing topics in human genetics, and thus, it was useful to hear stories of how these methods have been implemented in practice. This helps us to start developing an understanding of how these methods could be most effectively implemented in the context of muscular diseases.  

The conference venue, Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, Scotland.

This conference experience allowed us to learn about many new topics and to broaden our understanding of human genetics. It was inspiring to hear about the outstanding research and the future of genetics. This trip left us inspired and even more excited and motivated to continue working on our projects with newly developed skills, knowledge, and connections. On top of that, we had a wonderful time together in sunny Glasgow. 

We would like to thank HiLIFE for making this trip possible! 

Practicing networking at the Lake Conference

My name is Reetta Ojala, and I am finishing my Master´s studies in neuroscience at the University of Helsinki. I am interested in decision making and I was very fortunate to be able to write my thesis in Nelson Totah’s lab. My thesis was about beta oscillations’ role in stopping a movement. Nelson suggested that me and my colleagues working on the same topic would go to the ‘Lake Conference: Sensation and action’ in Switzerland to present our results in poster form. We applied and got accepted and then as a cherry on top, I also got the HiLIFE Trainee conference grant to support my journey. I was very excited to hear interesting talks about this topic, but at the same time, I was very nervous about the mixing and mingling part of the conference. I would want to make connections, but I am very shy to start conversations. I was also terrified of presenting my poster. I decided to take this trip as a  practice to improve my social and presentation skills.

The location by the Lake Thun was beautiful.

We arrived in Thun a day before the scientific program started, so we had some time to adjust and to see the surroundings a bit. This turned out to be a good decision, as the conference days were long and tiring, because there were so many interesting topics; transformation of sensory evidence into action, what role do emotions have between sensation and action, large-scale neuronal computations and much more.

At first, I felt overwhelmed in the middle of all the socializing action. Luckily, I was not there alone, and my colleague dragged me to meet other people. We are both starting our PhD projects in the same lab soon and we got to know other PhD students that are a little further in their studies. I ended up having very vivid conversation with one young woman about animal research ethics, which is very close to my heart. In the end I exchanged contact information with quite a few other students too.

Me and my colleague Joana Doutel Figueira

In the last evening, it was time to face my biggest fear, the poster presentation. It started in the worst possible way. A big name in the field came to hear me. I felt my cheeks turn red and I started to stammer. I took a deep breath, gathered myself and started talking more slowly. A little voice in the back of my brain was shouting that this person knows so much more than me; how should I present all this? But I remembered my PI’s words. This is my work, and I am the expert on it. So, I just explained everything, some parts of the analysis more briefly. I think the professor saw my struggle. He was very friendly and made some very good questions and gave constructive feedback. We talked for a while and after he left, I wrote down the comments to go through them later. After that it was much easier to present to the other students.

I am very happy that I had this opportunity. And I am proud of myself for overcoming my fears and talking to people. I got new ideas for my project and new perspectives on this area of research. The scientific talks and the conversations with others made me feel that I am on the right path in my life. I want to encourage all the students to apply to conferences! The information load will be heavy, but the point is not to take every talk as a lecture. It is more about getting inspiration and making connections, meeting other people who are interested in the same things that you are. I surprised myself positively, but there is still much to learn. Maybe next time I dare to go to talk to the PI whose talk I found totally fascinating.

Reetta Ojala

Climate resilient, biodiversity-based agriculture for sustainable development


Hello! My name is Letizia, and I am a first-year master’s student in Environmental Change and Global Sustainability at the University of Helsinki. Through the HiLIFE Trainee Conference Grant, I had the opportunity to participate in a one-week Seasonal School on agricultural development in Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa (Italy).

Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies

The course was built with an interdisciplinary structure, and I had the opportunity to listen to experts ranging from climate science, to agronomy, genetics, and economics. This enabled me to have a better grasp of the complexity of the agricultural sector and of how essential cooperation between different fields is in order to reach agricultural development goals related to food security, sustainability, and climate change adaptation. In this blog post, I will share my experience throughout the week.

But first, why agricultural development?

Food is an essential element in a person’s everyday life. It lies at the base of one’s ordinary activities, as it provides the necessary nutritional requirements for survival. Since the beginning of humankind, the provision of food has stood at the foundation of human existence. Today, things have somewhat remained unchanged, whilst increasing in magnitude and complexity. A global agri-food system has developed, interlinking a wide range of actors and sectors, expanding on different scales and spatial dimensions. The issue of hunger, however, still remains very much relevant.

Agricultural field in southern Finland

An expansion of cultivated land, coupled with technical progress, has brought about a huge increase in agricultural productivity in the last century. Today, the quantity of food available can meet the nutritional needs of a population of more than seven billion people. This would have been an astonishing success, except for the fact that it has been accompanied by a very uneven access to resources and distribution of benefits. The world finds itself in front of a paradox, as there should be enough food for all, but almost a billion people are chronically undernourished and more than two billion face various forms of malnutrition. What is more, production intensification practices have caused enormous damage to the planet’s ecosystems, hindering its capacity to feed people sustainably in the future.

How to tackle a complex issue?

The agricultural sector and cropping systems, their structure, and dynamics are key in tackling these complex issues. Agricultural development has a fundamental impact on the reality of food and agricultural production, and it entails an interdisciplinary and intersectoral approach. This was exactly the goal of the course, as the week was structured in such a way that allowed students to have an encompassing and multifaceted vision of agricultural development and its challenges.

The course was structured in modules, and each day we would tackle agricultural development from a different discipline perspective. The first module was about climate science, and the nexus between climate and agriculture. The second module dealt with agrobiodiversity and the potential of agroecological practices and ecosystem services for sustainable agriculture. The third module focused on genetics and breeding methods, including alternative participatory ways to foster varietal development and adoption. The fourth module tackled the social elements in agricultural production, innovation implementation challenges, as well as and the role of inequality. Finally, the last day we tried to connect all the modules through a holistic view and cooperative approaches.

Interdisciplinarity is hard, but fun…

Overall, during the week the atmosphere was very friendly, inclusive, and
stimulating. I got to meet excellent professors, researchers, PhD students, and fellow students from all different fields. We had both traditional lectures, as well as group works, and a lot of interesting discussions! I would say that, if you want to know what it means to do research in an interdisciplinary group in a small university, this is a great way to do it. The location also played its role, as during the evenings we could enjoy the lovely city of Pisa and some great Italian food!

City of Pisa

Pisa tower

All in all, this opportunity has taught me even more the importance of interdisciplinary research and the value of committed individuals from different backgrounds working together to reach a common goal. I was very inspired from this week, and it helped me to understand a bit better what I would like to do in my future career. I thank Sant’Anna School and HiLIFE for this opportunity!

Gabi goes exploring… Kenya!

Jambo! I’m Gabi. Currently a second year masters’ student of the Integrative Plant Science programme. In January I went on a three week expedition to Kenya, far from the Finnish winter, to participate in two field courses. Together with my fellow students we followed various experts around to learn about the natural world in Kenya. In my first week I went with aspiring botanists to the Taita Hills research station in South East Kenya. Where the collaboration between the University of Helsinki is most apparent when you stand in front of the small but expertly built sauna, which seems oddly out of place in the mountainous region of Kenya. In the second and third week I went traipsing through the Kenyan savannah learning about human-wildlife conflicts under the guidance of three seasoned conservationists.


Week 1 – The secret life of botanists

What do botanists do? They look at plants. And that is exactly what we did. Adorned with a hat and lathered in sunscreen, we hiked up various hills and mountains stopping every 2 to 3 metres to admire any photosynthesizers, both big and small. The forests hold a wide range of unique plants, from the small Commelina benghalensis with its blue petals to the tall Newtonia buchananii tree with its sturdy buttress roots that support an impressive trunk reaching far above our heads. 

Taita Hills is an important water catchment area. Water captured here supplies large areas of the country. Therefore, changes that occur in this area have far reaching consequences beyond the local towns. Due to the persisting drought people are forced to seek resources from the forest. Human disturbances include collecting firewood and harvesting plants for livestock fodder. On Mount Vuria, one such harvested species is Dracaena afromontana. Few individuals remain in areas that used to foster an abundance of the narrow stemmed shrub with its long and slender leaves. Besides this, the spread of introduced species such as Lantana camara presents a real nuisance. They will sprout back when they are cut down and are fire resistant.

There was a clear distinction between forests that had a high human disturbance compared to relatively intact forests. In disturbed forests we encountered more non-native plants, such as Eucalyptus spp. and Grevillea robusta, both from Australia. They are important sources of timber. Yet, in these arid regions, Eucalyptus trees are considered problematic for forest diversity. As part of its ecology, a Eucalyptus tree sheds its bark, which increases the risk of wildfires and their spread. Moreover, its leaf litter changes the soil pH to become more acidic, which favours its own propagation, but disadvantages local species. 

Aside from visiting the forests, we were invited to Darius’ farm, one of our field guides. His sloping plot of land left us in awe. He implements different intercropping strategies and combines improved and traditional crop varieties; the former for the yields and the latter to maintain a diverse gene pool. His approach is in stark contrast with the large monoculture plantations of sisal (Agave sisalana). Originally from Mexico, this fibre crop has been planted in rows as far as the eye can see. We drove past kilometres of saw-edged rosettes that have replaced native trees, shrubs and herbs.

After a week of vigorous hiking and plant inspecting, we ended the course with a feast and a bonfire. We said farewell to our field guides, the station staff and Taita Hills. With the first week behind me and the second week about to start the focus of my expedition shifted from flora to fauna.

“What I see vs. what the plant sees”


Week 2 – Putting the wild in wildlife

All facts are fun but some are more fun than others. Did you know that cheetahs have non-retractable claws? They are so fast that they need maximum grip when chasing prey. Did you know that the aardvark is closely related to the elephant? After spending two weeks with animal enthusiasts I’ve stocked up on some of these fun facts. The one I want to share most of all is the propeller tail of Africa’s most dangerous herbivore, the hippopotamus.

While defecating hippos will swing their tails energetically. In the water this results in an even distribution of nutrients, which is appreciated by fish and other aquatic organisms. By bringing nutrients from terrestrial to aquatic systems hippos fulfil an important ecological role, one that fishermen value in particular. On land, this Jackson Pollock technique is used to mark their territories and, unintentionally, to entertain the two jeeps packed with ecology students. They are very territorial and males will fight savagely to defend their patches of land and water. I don’t recommend getting caught between one of these grim neighbour disputes. Conflicts between humans and hippos arise when humans unknowingly cross paths with hippos. Hippos will not shy away from confrontation and running away won’t do you much good as they have no trouble keeping up. 

You may already know that vultures are excellent scavengers. But did you know that vultures have great vision too? While gliding in the air they will keep an eye on their peers. If one swoops down, having spotted a recently deceased or dying animal, others will follow suit. So where there is one vulture there will soon be dozens. Due to a very acidic stomach (pH ≈ 1), they are resistant to various diseases, even anthrax. Sadly, they are experiencing drastic population declines, in large part because of secondary poisoning. This happens when people poison livestock carcasses in retaliation against carnivores such as lions, leopards and cheetahs. As vultures have a slow reproduction rate, individuals that die are not readily replaced. 

Continuing with this more sombre side of these ‘fun’ facts. When giraffe calves are born they drop from a height of 2 metres. In rare cases, calves die from that impact. Last one. Spotted hyenas have a very curious social hierarchy. Mothers can raise up to two cubs which are born with their eyes open and their pointy teeth already poking out. Soon after birth they fight for the position of dominant cub. The outcome of these first contests determines their social standing and impacts many aspects of their life.


Week 3 – Caught in the middle

In addition to learning about animal ecology, we set out to shed some light on the issues that arise when animals and humans meet. We wanted to learn from the locals how certain species cause conflict and what is being done to mitigate these issues. The communities we visited live in close proximity to wildlife. While most locals appreciate the animals and understand their role as a high-profit tourist attraction, large carnivores endanger livelihoods by killing goats and cattle. In contrast to Europe, where we have food security, in these parts anything that threatens people’s livestock poses a serious risk for survival. Therefore, it is not surprising that these attacks lead to retaliatory killing of carnivores. Indubitably, as conservationists we would prefer the animals to be spared, but it is rather arrogant to tell the locals that they should not defend their livelihoods. Frequently, farmers and pastoralists lack resources and know-how. Hence, conservation efforts often focus on showing locals how to better protect their livestock by fortifying their enclosures. Efforts also include informing them on the ecological consequences of poisoning carcasses and retaliatory killings. More controversial methods include building electric fences to keep animals in or out of certain areas. 

However, conservation is not as straightforward as a conflict between farmers and animals. There are many different stakeholders with their own interests that do not always align with the preservation of wildlife. Besides local subsistence farmers or pastoralists, you have landowners that determine who has access to the land and usually cater to the tourism industry. Not to mention the governmental bodies that make land use policies and add a layer of bureaucracy. On the other side, the integral part of this web is wildlife itself. They require space, which is encroached by the growing population and changes in land use. In the middle you will find the conservationist that is trying to consider the stakeholders while safeguarding the needs of wildlife. In many cases, rather than being a human-wildlife conflict it turns out to be a human-human conflict.

“I spy with my little eye…”


All in all

It has been an invaluable experience, both culturally and academically. I’ve been enriched by the colourful welcome from the Maasai and Turkana tribes in Leikiji, the banter of the field guides in Taita Hills and the remarkable endemic flora and fauna of the African savannahs. Many thanks to both the IPS and EEB master programmes for offering these precious field courses IPS-175 and EEB-306. Thanks to the HiLIFE Trainee Conference Grant that has eased the financial burden of this three week venture. And thank you reader for reaching the end of this condensed retelling of my African adventures!

Gabriela Lemoine

The elephant in the room: Human-Wildlife Conflicts

There are things you cannot truly learn by just reading about them. You can get acquainted with the concept, but if you want an in-depth understanding of it, you need to get rid of the distance and the intermediate messengers and go observe directly with your own eyes. As a biologist, I’ve acquired most of my scientific knowledge by studying. Now I’m studying a MSc degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Helsinki, where I’m doing very variated courses that allow me to learn both about the underlying ecological and evolutionary processes that shape nature as we know it, as well as the current climate and biodiversity crisis and what can we do to stop it. I’m now getting more and more interested in the branch of conservation and applied science, which involves a human and social dimension. The required degree of empathy and comprehension in this area is hard to get if you are distanced from the environment and situation.

I recently had one of the most insightful experiences of my life. With the help of the HiLIFE conference grant, I went to Kenya for two weeks to take part in a course about human-wildlife conflict (HWC) in East Africa, which is part of my MSc programme and was organized by one of my teachers, Mar Cabeza. Before leaving, I had to prepare a brief presentation about one of the most conflictive species in the area: the African elephant. I talked to my mom about this presentation, and she was honestly surprised: “How can such a kind, smart and nice grass-eating animal be the source of conflict?”. My mom loves elephants, it would be a dream for her to see one in the wild. I love them too, of course, and I know they are essential for their ecosystem, aside from being beautiful. I could observe them in Kenya and it was a magical moment that I will never forget. But what I will also never forget is what we heard when we asked local people about them. “I like all animals, but I’m terrified of elephants”, a girl said.

The views from our campsite. On the other side of the fence, we could see giraffes and elephants


As a key part of the course, we organised focus groups and interviews with local people to hear about the HWC first-hand. This girl had some scary experiences with aggressive elephants that she couldn’t just forget about. Even though we had seen electric fences targeted at elephants all over the region, they are strong and smart animals, and they keep finding ways to trespass them. The risk of having a face-to-face with an elephant is high enough to have the population concerned. And this is not even the major source of conflict with elephants. These animals cause huge losses by crop raiding and infrastructure destruction, especially water structures like dwells. Droughts like the current one in Laikipia force animals to search for water and food in human settlements, so these incidents become more frequent. In communities with a subsistence economy, this is a serious threat to the population. Situations like this one increase tensions between the people and the wildlife and are counterproductive for conservation.

Some colleagues (and me, bottom-left) and local people participating in one of the activities during the focus group


At the same time, elephants might not be very happy about some human activities, I thought. Elephants migrate long distances, so when they find an obstacle impeding this movement, it’s logical to think they will try to overcome it. They can’t just decide to stop a behaviour shaped by evolution over thousands of years just because lately humans are building and expanding more than before. In Laikipia, several landowners have built elephant fences around their huge properties, often the elephants being more of an excuse than the actual reasons. Conflicts between different stakeholders (including farmers, nomad shepherds, ranch owners and private conservancies, among others) over the uses of and rights over the territory play a big role in determining the placement and extension of the fences. Consequently, the design of this alleged solution to HWC attends very little to what is actually needed, and, predictably, it fails to prevent any conflict. This doesn’t mean that elephant fences are useless. Maybe the small village we visited would be a safer place if it was surrounded by an elephant fence. Unfortunately, effective solutions are not usually that easy to implement.

The landscape at the community we visited in Laikipia


It is very easy, from a distance, to oversimplify conflicts like this one, where we search for “good” and “bad” characters among the stakeholders. There will always be interests with which we empathize more or less and that can lead us to mistakenly think that some perspectives or opinions are less relevant or not worth taking into consideration. As biologists, we have a tendency to talk about the relevance of conservation from an ecological point of view. It is a truth that elephants are ecosystem engineers and that they play a huge ecological role. Without them, the savanna wouldn’t look like it does, and all surrounding species would be affected in an unpredictable but guaranteed chain effect. We know we need to conserve elephants, that is our position as scientists, and we see this as such a big truth that we sometimes forget to consider other needs. But conservation is an essentially human discipline: we decide to conserve, what to conserve, when, where and, maybe most importantly, how to do it. It attends to our needs, it comes from us, and ignoring how people are affected by it would be a mistake.

The elephants we saw in front of our campsite, seen through my binoculars


“The people that are less to blame for global change are the ones that are suffering the worst consequences”

This is something one of our teachers said, and in this course, it stopped being just an idea that I heard. It became a reality that I could see with my own eyes. I got to see the dry landscape, observe the wildlife, hear about the conflicts from the locals and discuss and put together all the information we were receiving. Altogether, this course has reshaped my way of seeing conservation and completely changed my perspective. And I think this new point of view will make me a better scientist and conservationist in the future.

This has been, in a nutshell, and leaving many things out, my experience in this amazing course. Thanks for reading me! And thank you to HiLIFE for helping me join this course.

Lola Fernández Multigner