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Researcher profile: Louise von Essen

SHE FACILITATES MEETINGS BETWEEN HUMANS AND MACHINEs

In 2010, researcher Louise von Essen’s career was changed overnight, as the government announced that she had been chosen to lead U-CARE, an extensive pilot programme in providing psychological care through the Internet – yet she still considers real-life human interactions essential.

‘For the longest time, I didn’t even reflect on the fact that I am a woman in academia, but over the years I’ve grown increasingly aware that we sometimes face different challenges. At the same time, it’s not a wholly gendered issue, as some women are quite adept at excluding as well, so we could all stand to gain from discussing values and responsibility in our roles as co-workers and leaders’.

Since 2010, Louise von Essen, Professor of Health Sciences, is program coordinator and ultimately responsible for U-CARE, one of 43 strategic research environments in which the Swedish state thus far has invested around five billion SEK. Here, in the heart of the Uppsala University Biomedical Centre, Louise and her research team are laying the groundwork for a completely new form of Internet-based psychological treatment, which aims to increase the treatment capacity in areas where traditional healthcare is stretched too thin.

‘Before U-CARE, we were a small group of four, so it was a radical change. When we heard the news, we had to start off recruiting 25 people, while at the same time creating an outline of the digital portal that is the cornerstone of our project. It’s taken years to reach this point, but now most of it is up and running properly, we’re showing results and I have high hopes for the future’, Louise von Essen states.

The U-CARE offices are bustling with people and activity. Scores of lively discussions line the corridors; in the capacious lunch room, the conversation revolves around an ongoing study. And the importance of meeting face-to-face is one of the central tenets of Louise von Essen’s leadership, perhaps a trifle unexpected considering she has spent the latter part of her career furthering interactions between humans and computers.

‘In academia, workplace culture often takes a turn for the irregular, as everyone sets their own day-to-day schedules, but to me, communication is essential to both well-being and production. I would like us to view it as any regular old job, where you arrive in the morning and then go home reasonably early. In my experience, this also lessens the risk of having unofficial leaders emerge’, Louise von Essen says.

Transparency and fairness are other recurring terms in the von Essenes vocabulary. Within U-CARE, everyone works on equal terms. There can be no confusion over how responsibility is assigned. All employees are informed about why an assignment is made a certain way, no one ever gets “handpicked” for vague reasons – a practice that has come to be highly appreciated by the team.

Her fascination for leadership also played a large role in convincing Louise von Essen to enrol in the Psychology Programme at Uppsala University at 24 years old. After spending time during her youth motivating summer workers and people paid by the hour at a guide company, she had grown interested in delving deeper into the mechanics of group creation and cohesion. After graduating, she had originally planned to start working at a clinic and she received a job offer in Stockholm, but fate had ordained otherwise.

‘I had the most amazing teacher and greatly enjoyed studying, so when I was asked to do a PhD, I made the crucial decision to stay at Uppsala University – and here I am, still. I’ve always enjoyed a great deal of support from the higher-ups, and I very much like it here, but sure, now that the kids are growing up, I’d love to do a stint abroad. Preferably in London, Exeter or Radboud in the Netherlands, where the researchers generally are very good at involving the public in their work’.

However, Louise von Essen does not advocate staying eternally loyal to your Alma Mater. Instead, she recommends her PhD students to go abroad for their postdoctoral studies. Similarly, she is happy to recruit PhD students and postdocs who’ve come by their education at other universities.

‘I’m convinced that a broad knowledge base increases inspiration and creativity, which in turn opens new avenues of research. I also generally strive for heterogeneity as a means of creating well-rounded groups. For my own part, I like to surround myself with people brimming with ideas, as my own aptitude lies mainly in lassoing good ideas and turning them methodologically viable before more operative talents take over, and today, I find us to be a smoothly running team with good prospects of implementing U-CARE in the long run as an essential part of research and care’.

Facts – Louise von Essen

Title: Professor of Health Sciences, program coordinator for U-CARE.
Residence: In Stabby, Uppsala.
Last compliment given: To my son during driving practice, when I told him he's got a knack for driving.
Last compliment received: From a doctoral student, who called me 'freakishly organized'.
Face-to-face or face-to-screen: Both, it depends on the individual.
On a day off: I hang out with my family and friends.