During my undergraduate at UofT (which I graduated from while we were in Finland), I studied immunology, microbiology, and chemistry – so I couldn’t ask for a better job than the one I had this past summer, working as a research trainee at Dr. Hanna Ollila’s group at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland!
Dr. Ollila runs the “Sleep Group,” which studies sleep-related disorders like narcolepsy, but also chronic fatigue syndrome, long-COVID, and Lyme’s Disease, all of which are thought to have links to immune disorders. The lab uses computational analysis of data from genetic banks, including the UK BioBank and the FINNGEN study, to find associations between the conditions and other aspects of life, including medical data and sleep quality. From that, it is possible to find develop lines of inquiry that once pursued, lead to a better understanding of the conditions and how to treat them.
Over the summer, I worked with the lab to “de-orphanize” an orphan receptor (in other words, find the function for a receptor without a known function) for which there was a known mutation among the general population that was associated with higher rates of sleep medication use – therefore, it was possible that the receptor was involved somehow in sleep regulation.
Under Dr. Ollila’s supervision, I learned more about how to conduct research in the biomedical field – I ran Manhattan plots, looked at phenotype associations, and read a lot about sleep disorders and my protein of interest. With some of Dr. Ollila’s collaborators in the US, we also started looking at doing some protein modelling of the mutated and normal proteins to see how the mutation might affect its structure; I’d never gotten to do that before!
As the orphan receptor project wraps up, I will continue working with Dr. Ollila over the coming year on a Lyme’s Disease-related project, for which I’m very, very excited!
Throughout the summer, I also got to meet some of the other lab members. In June, when Dr. Ollila came to Finland (she is based primarily in the US at the moment), we had several in-person gatherings.
One day, we went to Vallisaari with another FIMM lab. After pulla and a nice lunch, as well as a short discussion about lab-related topics, we played some mini golf and did a scavenger hunt that took us around the island.
A week later, we took another ferry, this time to Suomenlinna, where we had a very nice picnic. Some of the lab members went in for a swim. I stayed out of the water, though – the water we went into during the road trip was cold enough for me! After a long day out in the sun, we went to Pizzeria Via Mercanti, which had a great view of the Senate Square and the cathedral. The pizzeria came recommended also by Milja during the tour she gave us at the start of the exchange – and now I can back up that recommendation. Delicious pizza!
I had a great time working during the summer, but of course, also a great time outside of work. Luckily for me, I had a pretty flexible work schedule, so I could make it to the various events that the 2019 Finns planned for us. It was a cool experience getting to have coffee with the very nice Finnish ambassador to Canada, as was getting to tour the Finnish parliament with MP and exchange alumna Mari Holopainen, visiting Annika’s family in Karis, and going to Löyly.
On other days, after work I would often bike somewhere. I really loved how easy it was to bike in Helsinki, and how safe it felt compared to Toronto. Some days, I would go to Arabia and walk up the park near the water. On other days, I would bike into the centre of Helsinki and just walk around, or go to Oodi.
I’ve been back in Toronto now for about three weeks, and I already miss Finland. It was one of the best summers of my life! Thank you to all the 2019 Finns for hosting us, for the alumni who met us and talked to us and showed us around, and to everyone at work for making the experience so amazing.
Text and pictures by Jonathan Blumenthal