When docent Taina Pennanen flies home from international science congresses, she asks herself if she still grants herself permission to continue to work in science.
These thoughts of the scientist well established in her career describe how tough the competition is in her field, microbial ecology research.
– It is necessary to put your work into wider perspective. If you aim at top science, you must reach the high international level in your field, Pennanen says.
So far, Pennanen has granted herself that permission and the knowledge of what forest trees need to grow well has grown considerably.
Aiming for even better
Finnish research on microbial ecology has reached the level of the twenty best groups in the world. The top is occupied by Max Planck Institute and Michigan State University.
As fiercely demanding Pennanen is towards herself, she thinks life is mostly about compromises and strategic thinking.
– That would mean a totally different way of life, working in research 24/7. However, here in Finland we do need people who work with top groups.
Doing research in Finland is not easy either, but far from it.
– We do not have a lot of money for research here. To get any funding, or to get those best international collaborators, your ideas have to be really good.
Knowledge for growth
Mycorrhizal fungi are Pennanen’s field of expertise. Without the intertwined lives of tree roots and mycelium, forest ecosystems could not exist.
Pennanen’s own networks intertwine, in addition to science community, to commercial nurseries. She has worked hard to share knowledge to nurseries about the importance of healthy, well developed roots for saplings.
She talks tenderly about saplings, living beings that need to be well nurtured. Mycorrhizal fungi are a key factor in the growth of trees. Therefore, it would not be cost-effective to ignore the information available about them. Moreover, diverse microbe communities are useful also elsewhere.
– The diversity in the forest soil is immense. How can we promote our knowledge about it? Cultivated fields have lost their diversity, could it be improved with our latest knowledge about microbes? Pennanen leaps forward with excitement, posing yet new questions to herself.
Thinking out in the sea
On her free time, Pennanen heads out to the sea. The interest in boats and navigation has been spread by Pennanen’s long-time colleague, professor Hannu Fritze.
– It is impossible to think in a cubicle. I need an inspiring environment. Hannu and me, we often head to the sea to plan a new research.
There she goes again. Work follows her everywhere. However, the boat is about relaxing too.
– I would be bored to death in a gym! I need the sea to reset my brain, Taina Pennanen says.
Text: Marjatta Sihvonen