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Researcher profile: Mia Phillipson

Good research calls for a degree of friction, to Mia Phillipson's mind. Therefore, she consistently tries to keep her research team heterogeneous. PHOTO: Michael Wallerstedt

‘Swedish research needs self-confidence’

‘I often tell my children they must find a job they love,’ says physiology professor Mia Phillipson. She practises what she preaches, not even seeing days in the lab as work. Still, life as a researcher is not without friction.

‘Free thinking rules! I really want to change that old motto in the University Main Building[1], and I believe thinking freely should characterise academia today. Creativity and ambition should weigh more heavily when funders award their grants, and I’m convinced that Swedish research has much to gain from a change in attitudes.’

In spring 2015 Mia Phillipson joined Young Academy of Sweden as one of eight new members. The appointment undoubtedly benefits both sides. In her, the forum gained someone whose commitment to research policy few could surpass. In Young Academy she found a national means of influencing and improving conditions facing Sweden’s young researchers.

‘At best, our situation’s superb. We can realise our ideas and see people around us grow. Unfortunately, a lot of us don’t get access to the wherewithal for carrying out curiosity-based research. I think many postdoctoral researchers have revolutionary ideas that are never realised because Sweden lacks the infrastructure to make use of them.’

Ahead of her own postdoctoral period, Mia chose to exchange the Uppsala of her childhood and student years for Calgary, Canada. Returning in 2006, she now heads her own team at Uppsala Biomedical Centre. In July 2014, aged only 41, the University promoted her to a professorship in physiology.

‘Now I feel secure and can focus on my research. I also have enough funds to dare to be more patient — a privilege I and many others seldom get to experience. Good research funding is, of course, a balancing act, but the larger the sums the bigger the projects where results can grow before publication. I’m convinced that would help enhance both the quality and the reputation of Swedish research.’

Besides her involvement in Young Academy of Sweden, she also joins in interdisciplinary discussions on how Uppsala University is to recruit tomorrow’s researchers and provide them with the infrastructure they need. These ideas have not yet been launched, but she is already perceiving her real chance to exert influence.
   
  ‘Being in the forward-planning group for our discipline has boosted my self-confidence, which can be pretty important for a woman in academia. Structurally, our prospects aren’t necessarily worse than men’s, but we definitely have to be better at putting ourselves forward. To do so, we need to work on our own core attitudes, venture to take ourselves seriously and feel that we can. Not least, we must encourage our children to dare believe in their own competence and follow their own guiding star regardless of society’s gender expectations.’

In spring 2015, Mia herself faced what could have been a virtually impossible dilemma when her husband died after a period of illness. Besides the severe personal loss, she suddenly found herself alone with three school-age children. In a phase of life that even in normal circumstances is highly demanding in terms of juggling roles and commitments, she now has to fit a double dose of PTA meetings and school settling-in periods into the midst of work and heading her 12-member research team.

‘It works well, actually. My mother, the children’s paternal grandparents and, not least, my University colleagues are a tremendous help. Researchers have highly flexible working hours and perhaps it helps that we’re a relatively young team. Anyway, they’ve shown great understanding and consideration for the situation I’m in.’

First impressions confirm that the part of Uppsala Biomedical Centre occupied by Mia and her team displays the curiosity and creativity she seeks in the research. An eye-catching lithograph by Lasse Åberg, a somewhat unusual sight in academic premises, adorns the entrance and around the coffee machine half a dozen colleagues are having an apparently spontaneous discussion. Neither is likely to be a random phenomenon.

‘I think good research calls for a degree of friction, so I consistently try to keep the team heterogeneous. Whether in terms of nationality, character or prior knowledge, the crux is for everyone in the group to contribute to our seeing challenges from various angles. Today, our forte is precisely the creativity that stems from contrasts.’

When, in 2014, Mia was awarded the Eric K. Fernström Prize for young, highly promising and successful researchers the citation stressed this wealth of ideas and how the strong team has several advanced experimental techniques at its disposal. Its discoveries, such as how cell transplantation can cure diabetes and lack of sleep can impair the immune system, have already aroused keen media interest. Publications on new ways to use immune cells in focused drug therapies are in the pipeline.

‘In our field it’s important for the results to have clinical relevance and a practical bearing on healthcare. The fact that I’m now supervising a PhD student with ardent entrepreneurial ambitions has got me toying with the idea of running a company as well.’

Research, physiology, business and an academic future: the question is whether Mia is reflecting on alternative careers at all. The reply comes like lightning: absolutely not — research is no mere job, but her interest. She has explained repeatedly to her children why she actually wants to work, just as she stresses that they too must find jobs they love. Her 11-year-old son is may already be convinced on both points.

‘He tried reading one of my physiology books and got entranced. Now I’ve promised he can think up and test an idea of his own. So this autumn he’s coming to visit us here at the lab to give our work a try but also “do what’s important”, as he says. We’ll see how it pans out. But physiology certainly is both fun and important, and we should all talk much more about it — most preferably with our children!’

TEXT: MAGNUS ALSNE

 

[1] ‘To think free is great, but to think right is greater’ (Tänka fritt är stort men tänka rätt är större).

Facts – Mia Phillipson

Name: Mia Phillipson
Age: 42
Title: Professor of Physiology
Lives in: Bodarna, Uppsala-Näs
Bedside reading: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, an extremely good book.
Latest compliment: from a neighbour, for fixing a boat-engine problem.
My summer programme would be about: organ donation, since everyone should take a stand and help to extend life.
What I’d do with a day off: I’d take another day off and go to Stora Karlsö.