Medicinal Chemistry: an essential field in dire need of dedicated experts

Author Pankaj Kumar Singh

Pankaj Kumar Singh
TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher
Institute of Biomedicine
University of Turku

I was in Italy when the first case of COVID-19 appeared in China, but when things became more serious globally, I moved back to India. Suddenly Italy, the place that was like a second home to me, got wrecked by COVID, and slowly the whole world, including India, was taken over. So, the first thing everyone went looking for was a cure. COVID being a health-related problem, finding a cure meant discovering either a drug, a therapy, or something else able to stop the virus taking so many human lives. Everyone knows discovering a drug is a complicated and time-consuming process. What is not as widely known is that the central piece of any drug discovery puzzle is a medicinal chemist – a trained professional of medicinal chemistry. While discovering a drug requires hefty contributions from biologists (pharmacologists) and experts from other sciences, at the core are medicinal chemists, who provide the drug molecule on which everyone works.

Of the thousands of research papers published on COVID in the last 12-15 months, excepting a few papers reporting on the structures of different proteins of SARS-COV-2, the majority are on designing inhibitors for the reported proteins. The reason for this is, quite correctly, that the first step in a drug discovery process for any disease is the identification of lead molecules, which is usually the responsibility of a medicinal chemist. However, many of the authors were not medicinal chemist and probably did not have the training required to keep basic considerations in mind. As may be expected, most of these papers were published ‘for the sake of it’, or to benefit from a hot and current topic. In most of cases, the information provided is simply redundant and can never be utilized in a practical scenario. Only a handful of the published papers provide any significant outcome.

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Now is the time to stand in solidarity, not project blame on the ‘Other’

Olga Cielemęcka
TIAS Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Gender Studies

Novelist Arundhati Roy suggests that we might think about the current COVID-19 pandemic, a deadly global health crisis which has been disorganising planetary life and exacerbating social inequalities for over a year now, as a portal. She suggests we experiment with thinking about it as an opportunity to imagine the world otherwise; an opening through which peeks a future different – kinder – than the present we are living in: ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ (1).

According to Roy, this is a moment of reckoning – we can either choose to reorganize the surrounding social reality and the world of relationships that composes it, or we can choose hatred, bigotry, and old prejudice. Many are choosing the latter. The number of racist and xenophobic aggressions related to the COVID-19 outbreak, targeting particularly people of East and Southeast Asian descent, has been on the rise. Coronavirus hate crimes are now devastating communities, breaking the bonds between us, enlivening the zombies of the persistent narratives about the other, the foreigner, the stranger as disease-ridden, toxic, contagious – a carrier of a threat. Since at least the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, we understand that the inner workings of the process of stigmatization consist of discursively establishing an association between the groups presumably or factually affected by a plague with the plague itself. And it is deadly. Now this lethal rhetoric comes back in expressions such as the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Chinese virus’ (2), in microaggressions and attacks on people of Asian descent, as well as other racialized or immigrant members of our communities. I was devasted to hear about the mass shootings on March 16, 2021 in which eight people including six women of Asian descent were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, United States – a city where I once lived, and which I grew to love and care about. A city in the American South scarred by the Jim Crow laws but one which also has a long, proud history of standing up to racist hate, of Black organizing and resistance, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. If the pandemic were to serve as a portal leading to a different future, we must choose which histories and legacies to build it on and which ones to denounce and turn away from.

In Finland, residents and Finns of Asian descent have been reporting discrimination and racism prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic (3). In mid- March 2021, the University of Turku informed about a cluster of infections that broke out in the student village affecting primarily University of Turku ‘international students’ and ‘exchange students’. Media reporting further highlighted this particular piece of information (4). It implicitly blamed students and their alleged irresponsible behaviour, including partying, for the outbreak rather than explaining the practical impossibility to physically distance in student accommodation where facilities such as kitchens are shared. With tv cameras rolling and increased policing, the residents of the students’ village were made to feel like it is their fault. One student has shared with me that they are ashamed of having tested positive for COVID. It sends chills down my spine to think that anyone would be made to feel that way.

As a migrant and a member of an international academic community, I know the thrill and excitement of being in a new environment but also the loneliness that comes with it. That is why, as members of the University of Turku community we should pay particular attention to making sure that our colleagues and students who may not have family (however defined) and/or extensive social networks in the area are taken care of, safe, and comfortable.

The rhetoric which presents ‘international’, ‘exchange’ or otherwise foreign bodies as vectors of infection perpetuates racist, xenophobic, and anti-migrant sentiments. One recent news article, quoting the Mayor of Turku, advised on avoiding the areas of the student village and Varissuo. Varissuo, being an immigrant neighborhood of Turku with an estimated 32% of residents with non-Finnish background, is also one of the largest residential districts in Turku, which leaves me wondering who is the intended recipient and the imagined readership of such message? COVID-19 related racism and xenophobia affects not only East and Southeast Asian communities but also Black and Brown communities in Finland and non-white Finns. It operates through externalizing responsibility – blame – for the pandemic onto those imagined as ‘others’ (non-white and/or non-Finnish/Nordic). As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies feelings of fatigue and uncertainty, the worst possible response to this crisis is to mobilise the deadly, racist politics that break us apart through introducing a cut between a certain ‘us’ – the presumably healthy body of the population and the sick/ening ‘them’ (5).

Instead, we need careful words and caring solidarities as well as a clear and loud condemnation of racist and xenophobic language and violence. Now is the time for solidarity and mutual aid.

 

Notes

 

All blog posts represent the personal views of their authors and not that of TCSMT and TIAS.

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Universities and academic freedom during the Covid-19 pandemic: key challenges

Dr Seçkin Sertdemir Özdemir
Collegium Researcher at the Turku Institute
for Advanced Studies and the Department of Philosophy,
Contemporary History and Political Science
and Visiting Fellow in the European Institute at the LSE

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on every aspect of life. As the crisis has evolved, governments worldwide have taken multiple drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. However, regulations imposed at the national level have intensified already existing socio-political inequalities and have increased poverty and vulnerability.

One of the institutions most affected by the pandemic is higher education; specifically, academic freedom and institutional autonomy are at great risk across the world.

Universities have shifted to online or blended teaching and learning, and to virtual events. The remote learning environment has allowed students the flexibility of attending asynchronous classes, has reduced costs, and has promoted transnational participation in courses and events. However, the advantages of the current shift to online education are outweighed by the disadvantages. To better understand the universities’ ongoing transformation, it is crucial to examine the main challenges that higher education institutions face today and the global impact of the pandemic on academia. Financially powerful universities in wealthier countries have made a smooth transition to online education; on the other hand, in low- and middle-income countries, many scholars lack resources, tools and additional equipment for digital education. For example, 77 per cent of universities in Africa have had to put their activities on hold during the pandemic. Bert van der Zwaan, author of Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach (2017), emphasizes that as a result of the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, some universities might be closed as this is exactly what happened after major outbreaks and epidemics that brought about massive social changes, such as the Black Death.

Recent research by James Walker, Marina Della Giusta and Rita Fontinha at the University of Reading, UK, (December 2020) outlines three main challenges that academics face today because of the pandemic. First, there has been a ‘covidization’ of research in the form of fewer funding opportunities for studies that have not focused on pandemic-related topics. Second, the move to online learning has increased the time spent on teaching and assessment, with an increase in numbers of students despite the pandemic. In contrast, it has reduced the amount of time that academics dedicate to their research. The transition to online learning has also deepened gender inequality as female scholars are now devoting 50 per cent more time to childcare. Results from the preliminary findings of another study related to the pandemic’s impact on academic productivity demonstrate that the productivity of male scholars is steadily increasing at a faster rate than that of their female counterparts. Third, quantitative research has been reinforced at the expense of interdisciplinary studies because it is difficult to carry out ethnographic and archival research during the pandemic.

Another report by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) published in April 2020 stresses further risks for non-teaching staff: they have become most vulnerable members of the academic community during the pandemic because of notable job loss. In addition, student mobility to travel abroad for research activities has been at risk as opportunities for international research and short-term study periods have been largely suspended.

Moreover, a recent report, Free to Think, Report of Scholars at Risk (November 2020), offers another major problem faced by higher education institutions: the rise of monitoring and censorship.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy for higher education institutions has always been at risk, especially under authoritarian regimes. But today, repressive governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to suppress and silence dissident students and scholars. For instance, since January 2021, Turkish academics and students have been protesting against the top-down appointment of Melih Bulu as rector at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the Governor of Istanbul has used the spread of the virus as a pretext to ban all public demonstrations and meetings to block further protests. In India, students and activists protesting against the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) say that the government deliberately uses the coronavirus crisis to silence them.

However, the rise of control and monitoring over universities is not unique to repressive regimes. The Free to Think report highlights the fact that the online learning environment has also carried risks of monitoring and recording of Zoom lectures, and some scholars have expressed a fear of surveillance during their virtual seminars and events by state or non-state monitors. For instance, Charlie Kirk, the head of the United States right-wing group Turning Point, called upon students to record their university teachers’ Zoom lectures and expose them on social media. The report also refers to a rise in ‘Zoombombing’ in the form of hijacking and offensive attacks on online meetings by the insertion of racist, homophobic and pornographic materials. There are also concerns about the commercial use of university faculty members’ online teaching materials without their consent.

The Free to Think report emphasises how governments have targeted academics’ public statements related to the coronavirus crisis. The most dramatic and best-known example is the tragic case of Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. He was questioned by police and accused of ‘making false comments’ after he warned about the new deadly SARS virus through his social media account. He caught the virus and died on 6 February 2020 at 34 years old. The Chinese government has also targeted other scholars who have criticised the country’s strategy to tackle and suppress the virus and has put in place further control measures to crack down on the publication of scientific articles related to Covid-19 in China. Another example is from the US: Rebekah Jones, a data scientist at the Department of Health in Florida, was fired because she refused to manipulate the official data about the coronavirus. The report refers to many other examples around the world: students, scholars and activities have been arrested, investigated or suspended from their positions in other countries, such as Egypt, Bangladesh, Uganda and Turkey.

As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, the measures and regulations in place have increased inequality with regard to local and regional conditions, they have put many jobs at risk, and they have profoundly threatened academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Besides, some autocratic governments have used the health crisis as a pretext to increase their control over higher education institutions and knowledge production. There is an urgent need to address on a global level the significant problems that we face today, such as deplorable working conditions, job cuts, rising control and surveillance at universities. When it comes to the pandemic, we are not all in the same boat; however, we can be united when it comes to promoting academic freedom and institutional autonomy and increasing transnational solidarity in the academic community.

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Exploring unconventional ways to make physical systems compute

Profile picture of author Johannes Nokkala

Johannes Nokkala
TCSMT Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Physics and Astronomy

There are many tasks of practical interest that are not suited for conventional computer algorithms. Suppose for instance that we want to turn speech into text. Although it is easy for us to prepare examples of speech and the corresponding text, we don’t know how to translate what our brains do into, say, if-then statements. To tackle such problems, we need algorithms that can infer the unknown transformation from examples. This is known as supervised machine learning. The basic idea is to use an input-output system that can transform the input in a wide variety of ways depending on how we choose its parameters, and then adjust the parameters to make it mimic the examples. Provided that the true unknown transformation is within its reach, the hope is that with enough examples we can optimize the parameters in such a way that the system continues to perform well even when given new inputs that were not included as examples.

Since I’m a physicist it might be asked why I’m interested in something that sounds more like computer science than physics. My fascination is in fact related to harnessing the dynamics of physical systems for machine learning tasks. Continue reading

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Search for a Vanished River

Marko Lamberg is a Collegium Researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies and the Department of Scandinavian Languages

A couple of weeks ago, Mikel Calle Navarro discussed the concept of the river in his exciting entry in this same blog. I spontaneously commented it, because I had previously pondered the same problematic, albeit in a different context.

As someone who has been born in Jyväskylä, Central Finland, I, too, had learned that the first inhabitant of the region was a certain Heikki Ihannuksenpoika who lived along the Jyväsjoki river at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  However, not until I had started my project with pre-modern location descriptions, I realised that I did not know where Jyväsjoki was situated. Nowadays, almost no one uses that name, and one cannot find it on official maps either. Several rivers flow through the areas the town of Jyväskylä consists of, but they have completely different names. The Digital Name Archive (Nimiarkisto), maintained by the Institute for the Languages of Finland, knows Jyväsjoki, but its map locates it on a dry slope far away from Jyväskylä.

In the local historical literature, I found that the name Jyväsjoki, which probably originally meant ‘Grain River’, had evolved to a settlement name, Jyväskylä (‘Grain Village’). Historians and linguists had already stated that in several works, but no one had analysed this process in detail. Moreover, no one had asked why the present-day town of Jyväskylä is not called Jyväsjoki. And where does or did that river lie?

I found the name Jyväsjoki in court protocols and taxation lists from the sixteenth century when it had been used both as a name of a river and of a settlement. Apparently, the Jyväsjoki river was much longer than the area of the Jyväsjoki settlement. That posed problems for both the local inhabitants and for the early modern government as it was necessary to define exactly where taxpayers dwelled and where their lands were situated. Some inhabitants and administrators chose to use another, more precise name, Leppäkoski (‘Alder Rapid’) regarding the settlement in the area. The government used even a third toponym, Palokka (‘Burnt Land’), referring to slash-and-burn cultivation method practised by the early inhabitants, and decided that the two northernmost farmsteads should be treated as a separate village under that name. That is how the settlement of Jyväsjoki/Leppäkoski got a boundary in the north, but the name Jyväsjoki did not disappear. In fact, it outlasted the competing name Leppäkoski for reasons we can merely guess: perhaps Jyväsjoki was older and more established, perhaps many felt that Leppäkoski referred to a too limited area in the local space. However, Jyväsjoki changed as a settlement name: firstly, contemporaries began speaking of Jyväsjoen kylä (‘Grain River Village’), but long toponyms tend to shorten, so already during the late sixteenth century the official and most widely accepted name of the settlement was Jyväskylä. However, Jyväsjoki continued to exist as a river name.

But although I was able to clarify this process’s outlines, I still did not know where this river was situated. However, I managed to find four references to it in present-day contexts. Firstly, there is a hydrological measurement station along the Tourujoki river in the vicinity of the present-day town centre of Jyväskylä; secondly, the Luonetjoki river which flows through the community of Tikkakoski (‘Woodpecker Rapid’) approximately 17 kilometres northward from the Jyväskylä centre is occasionally spoken of as Jyväsjoki; thirdly, the former school building along the Luonetjoki river is still called Jyväsjoen koulu (‘Jyväsjoki School’); and finally, the bridge over the Köntysjoki river, approximately 23 kilometres northwestward from the Jyväskylä centre, is called Jyväsjoen silta (‘Jyväsjoki Bridge’). All the aforementioned rivers – Tourujoki, Luonetjoki/Jyväsjoki and Köntysjoki – seem to carry same waters (and sediments) from north to southward, to Päijänne, which is the longest lake in Finland. The name of Tourujoki seems to refer to a person name, apparently one of the early settlers, whereas köntys in modern Finnish means a clumsy person, although as a river name it probably just meant ‘slow’. What Luonetjoki meant originally is more difficult to say, but linguists analysing toponyms have suggested that it is somehow connected to water, perhaps to a term signifying flooding waters.

The Tourujoki river which flows mostly in a deep valley belonged once to the southernmost parts of the water route called Jyväsjoki. Picture: Juan Ramirez/Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily, I was able to find a description of the length and course of the Jyväsjoki river in a book published in 1863 and written by Claes Wilhelm Gyldén, the superior director of the Finnish Forestry and Geodesy Board. Gyldén also published a map depicting Finland, and his map contained even a visualisation of the course of Jyväsjoki. Apparently, the river was approximately 35 kilometres long, and it ran through several lakes before it reached Jyväskylä and Päijänne, the longest lake in Finland. The idea that a river runs through several lakes and keeps its name felt quite unfamiliar, so I checked several dictionaries and etymological dictionaries, and I even took a closer look upon the Finnish legislation and its definitions. It appeared that there is no universal definition regarding what actually a river is. For those early hunters, fishers and settlers who came to Central Finland in the Middle Ages, it was convenient to use just one name when they were, in fact, referring to a longer water route leading from Päijänne to the north. It did not matter them that they occasionally passed water bodies which also could be spoken of as lakes. Problems arose only when the permanent settlement which formed along the water route had to be separated from the water route itself as a concept of its own. For the descendants of the settlers as well as for later-day settlers, it was more natural to regard lakes as start and endpoints for individually named rivers. Consequently, the water route once spoken of as Jyväsjoki is nowadays spoken of as a series of several rivers and lakes, the above-mentioned Tourujoki, Luonetjoki and Köntysjoki being some of the names given to shorter sections of the route. Most likely, these alternative names were used already when Gyldén published his book and his map.

After a leakage from a sewer, a headline in the local newspaper Keskisuomalainen, published in Jyväskylä on 3 November 2013, stated that there was still oil in the Jyväsjoki River in Tikkakoski, a community approximately 17 kilometres northward from the Jyväskylä centre. This is a rare example of the use of the old name Jyväsjoki in modern contexts. It has not appeared in local newspapers during the last years, but at least birdwatchers use it occasionally when they report their observations in the Tikkakoski area.

Regarding the blurred memory of Jyväsjoki, I have suggested to the Museum of Central Finland that it could collect still existing oral history regarding the name. Perhaps there are still some chapters of the story of Jyväsjoki which have not been told yet.

I have treated the problem of Jyväsjoki more detailed in my article (in Finnish) in Lähde – historiatieteellinen aikakauskirja . There are not so many works written in English and dealing with the history or geography of the Jyväskylä region, but those who are interested in Finnish rivers or Finnish geography in general can utilise the Map Site of the National Land Survey of Finland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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River: an erroneous concept

Picture of author in front of a mountainous landscape

Mikel Calle Navarro, PhD
TSCMT Post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Geography

Before you keep reading, please think for a moment the scenery the word ‘river’ evokes to you… Does it include a flowing water line with green trees on sides, swimming fish or some other animal drinking water from it? Did your picture resemble the one in Collins’ dictionary? “A river is a large amount of fresh water flowing continuously in a long line across the land”.

Here you have two pictures (Figure 1), on the left a river covered by a thick ice and snow layers, on the right a river completely dry. Does your mental scenery for ‘a river’ -or the Collin’s- fit with some of these pictures? So, the question is, what do they have in common?

 

Figure with two pictures of rivers that differ from the dictionary definition of river mentioned in the text.

Figure 1: Pulmanki River, Finnish Lapland (left, photo by FCRG) and Rambla de la Viuda River, Valencia, Spain (right, photo by FloodsRG)

Ok. Let’s start.

Rivers are spread all over the world. They bring many services to the present society: drinkable water, food (and jobs-related), a recreational space for both sailing or swimming, an aesthetic landscape to put on Instagram, and many others. They also provide a source of energy (e.g. hydro-power), irrigation for our croplands, industry and farms. In a few words, we rely on rivers all over the world to bring such a precious treasure: WATER. Continue reading

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The same, only different – stress experiences during the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic

Saara Nolvi, Ph.D. The writer is a licensed psychologist and a post-doctoral researcher in Turku Institute for Advanced Studies, Department of Psychology, and the FinnBrain Birth Cohort Study, University of Turku.

We are about to reach the milestone of one year living under the exceptional conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Finland, the society has fared well in terms of the disease statistics compared to many other countries all over the world and even in Europe. Still, for many of us, everyday life has undergone a drastic change to normal.

In addition to the threat of disease transmission, preventive restrictions such as social distancing and bans of free time activities have been applied. Further, although many professionals (e.g. healthcare workers) need to be present at a workplace, most information workers continue a prolonged period of distance work.

For a psychology researcher, it is rare to study an exposure that affects so many populations simultaneously. And the situation has psychological consequences. In many countries, the prevalence rates of anxiety and depression have shown two- or three-fold increase to pre-pandemic rates (1). Further, most of the studies that were able to examine within-subject change from pre-pandemic to pandemic, observed a significant increase in stress symptoms (2).

This is not surprising from a stress regulation perspective. Firstly, the pandemic attacks the feelings of safety and continuity. Secondly, since humans are inherently social beings, restricting the access to the most central support resources – friends and family – will hamper the self-regulation utilized in retaining the psychological balance. Thirdly, taking care of the loved ones/own well-being and following the safety guidelines might be in a constant conflict with one another during the pandemic, which adds up to the stress levels.

Interestingly, Finns have fared relatively well also in this regard. A large international comparison study suggests that Finns experience one of the lowest stress levels of all countries (3). Just looking at the mean levels, however, hinder a large inter-individual variation in distress experiences. For example, many studies have identified women, young people and those with pre-existing psychiatric and socioeconomic difficulties, such as low income or unemployment, being at a significantly higher risk for mental health problems during COVID-19 (1,2,4).

Not all suffer either. One study conducted in the UK found that both distress and well-being rose over the lockdown in Spring 2020 (4). On the other hand, one study suggested that being able to work at the workplace increased anxiety, whereas working at home increased depressive symptoms (5). Parents of young children are also a notable risk group (2,3), since during a lockdown the parents have little flexibility in regulating the balance between the work and household duties. Findings from a Spanish study indicated that women and people with prior poorer psychological health may be experiencing even more pronounced work-family imbalance, which in turn increases distress (5).

Thus, individual and work characteristics, prior risk factors, family composition, and cultural expectations may place people in a very different position to fight – or flourish in – the restricted life during the pandemic. The pandemic is the same, consequences may only be different.

The means for dealing with the situation may also be different for the people who are overwhelmed by work and family duties, and for those who experience extreme isolation. Generally, the coping strategies that help in regulating the arousal and stress in long term will be of help. The coping strategies that promote the flexible acceptance of the situation may prove especially adaptive (6), because one has little control over the pandemic. Further, daily routines that promote social support (in a safe manner) or help in regulating the arousal level and stress will also be helpful. Some benefit from routines that by decrease the arousal (e.g. walks in nature, yoga, sauna) whereas some may require stimulation (exercise, home projects) (see a good summary in Finnish by psychologist and psychotherapist Hanna Markuksela).

Finally, supporting the well-being is not only a matter of individual but a matter of society and community. Supporting the social needs of the employees and helping to adjust the work demands according to everyone’s unique situation may be a public health act and help us avoid the most severe psychological consequences of the COVID-19. So being “in this together”, not only in theory but also in practice, may be more important than we now realize.

 

Notes:

  1. Xiong J, Lipsitz O, Nasri F, Lui LMW, Gill H, Phan L, et al. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Vol. 277, Journal of Affective Disorders. Elsevier B.V.; 2020. p. 55–64.
  2. Pierce M, Hope H, Ford T, Hatch S, Hotopf M, John A, et al. Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2020 Jul [cited 2020 Aug 19];0(0). Available from: www.thelancet.com/psychiatryPublishedonline
  3. Tuominen J, Sikka P, Lieberoth A. COVID-19-pandemian vaikutukset suomalaisten elämään: COVIDiSTRESS-hankkeen väliraportti. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 18]; Available from: https://osf.io/6c9w5/
  4. O’Connor RC, Wetherall K, Cleare S, McClelland H, Melson AJ, Niedzwiedz CL, et al. Mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic: longitudinal analyses of adults in the UK COVID-19 Mental Health & Wellbeing study. Br J Psychiatry [Internet]. 2020 Oct 21 [cited 2021 Jan 15];1–8. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.2020.212
  5. López-Núñez MI, Díaz-Morales JF, Aparicio-García ME. Individual differences, personality, social, family and work variables on mental health during COVID-19 outbreak in Spain. Pers Individ Dif. 2021 Apr 1;172:110562.
  6. Dawson DL, Golijani-Moghaddam N. COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. J Context Behav Sci. 2020 Jul 1;17:126–34.

 

 

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Embracing the New Year in the Midst of Seasonal Darkness

Lihua Sun

Lihua Sun, post doctoral researcher at the Turku Collegium for Science, Medicine and Technology

I sincerely wish everyone a happy new year! The 2020 was extraordinary, particularly shaded by the pandemic. Normal academic life is challenged, but it seems not to be only negative. For instance, several my colleagues expressed higher effectiveness in remote working including mentoring and writing. On my side, working remotely seems to be ideal since I can flexibly arrange my work hours while helping with family members. Nevertheless, somewhat lack of social life sounds depressing for many people, not to mention other challenges like unemployment or loss of close ones. Beyond all consequences of the pandemic, however, I would like to raise my concern for winter blues which may also greatly affect sociality and joyfulness.

We are still in the darkest wintertime, where emotionally down with less motivation for social interactions (maybe also sleeping too much, little to no energy, or eating too much) characterizes the winter blues, or known as the seasonal depression. You may be surprised that, in Finland, winter blues or its sub-syndromes affect over one third of the population. Causal factors for it include the short daylength, and the first-in-line choice for treatment is light therapy. Daylength in southern Finland ranges seasonally from 6 till 20 hours (or 7 till 23 hours when counting the morning and evening twilight). Darkness is a prominent character of the Finnish winter, since it lacks daylight plus the mostly cloudiness. While darkness often accompanies bad emotions that we may subjectively feel, my recent study highlighted one brain mechanism potentially explaining it, i.e., seasonal variation in socio-emotionally important brain neurotransmission.

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Lignin – the new petroleum?

Picture of author Lokesh Kesavan

Lokesh Kesavan
TCSM Postdoctoral researcher
Materials Chemistry and Chemical Analysis

The world has been heavily dependent on fossil geo-resources for its scientific exploration and material progress, so far. Due to fast depletion, non-renewability, and increased carbon foot prints of fossil geo-resources, there is a need for technological maneuvers to combat the scarcity of resources, pollution, and unsustainability. This is also one of the key themes in sustainable development goals. Researchers around the world have started looking at new possible resources in nature, and have identified bio-resources, especially forests, as the next treasure houses. Though forest products research has been in practice since long ago, it has not gained momentum with petroleum reservoirs still providing raw materials easily and cost effectively.  However, after the advent of new buzzwords like ‘climate change’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘circular economy’, the focus on bio resources and utilizing them in an eco-friendly way has grown multifold in recent years. Continue reading

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Should research always be “useful”? A case for fundamental science, by Sophie Reichert

Picture of author Sophie Reichert

Sophie Reichert
TCSM Collegium Researcher
Ecology and Evolution Biology

This question came up with a friend and fellow researcher recently. She had just given a public lecture on her topic of research in ecology and was asked why her work was important /relevant / useful. As researchers this is quite a recurring question from people, especially for those of us working in fundamental research. Fundamental research is usually a curiosity driven investigation; most of the time, it is motivated by a gap in knowledge about something. Quite simplistically, in opposition to fundamental research is applied research, which in theory focuses on filling a need established prior to the start of the project. More basically, fundamental research wants to elucidate “why is this phenomenon important”, whereas, applied research will focus more on “how can I use this?”. Given these descriptions, applied research seems more valuable, especially since resources and efforts are often limited—after all, applied research attempts to offer practical solutions to some of the most pressing issues, including epidemics, food shortages, pollution, etc. But, as stated in (UNESCO, 2015), “basic science and applied science are two sides of the same coin, being interconnected and interdependent”.

Unfortunately, the viewpoint that applied research is superior / more valuable than fundamental research is prevalent and quite common. As most part of scientific research is funded by governmental grants (i.e. public funds), public opinion has a very strong influence and gives great importance over the allocation of funding to and in science. As a result, when fundamental research is perceived as ineffectual and/or frivolous, this perspective influences legislators and funding agencies to reduce funding to fundamental research. Continue reading

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