Researcher profile: Tove Fall

Tove Fall’s research study on dogs and asthma in children was widely reported in the media.

Asthma findings make headlines

An Oscar, the scientific spotlight, and fresh millions in the research account. The autumn of 2015 was an eventful one for Tove Fall, Associate Professor of Epidemiology.

‘We had a feeling that the study would draw the attention of the media and the University’s information officer prepared me for some potential questions from journalists. That said, it’s not easy to prepare for the experience of being interviewed over the phone on Colombian radio with an interpreter translating on the fly. All the attention is a great acknowledgement, but there’s also the worry that something will go wrong – the feeling that, after all, it’s “just me”.’
On Tuesday 3 November, the press release went out: ‘Early contact with dogs reduces the risk of childhood asthma’. Suddenly, Tove Fall, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Department of Medical Sciences, became the focus of the large media companies. American radio and television network CBS wanted an exclusive interview. British BBC made sure to get two. By the end of the day, Google showed more than two hundred news stories – and that was just the beginning.

‘Of course, I recognise the value of getting exposure for my work. As a researcher, you are under constant pressure to bring in money, and in the face of fierce competition for funding, it doesn’t hurt if my name is familiar. On the other hand, maybe it can be too much of a good thing. I’m glad I had the experience, but I’m very happy to hand over the limelight to someone else the next time.’
But Tove Fall might have to get used to the public attention. Children and pets are obviously popular topics for journalists, and the research group has already secured four years of funding to take their findings further. Their research will include investigating how dog ownership affects children’s normal bacterial flora and the development of type 1 diabetes.
‘Things are going well right now. Over the past month, I’ve received both the Uppsala University Oscar Prize and a major grant from the Swedish Research Council, which I hope will act as a mark of quality assurance for my research. Last time I logged into Facebook, I had received more congratulations than I did when I became a mother.’

Yet there are still things to wish for. As an epidemiologist, Fall devotes a lot of energy to gaining access to the large biobanks. But sometimes, says Fall, rules and regulations can present enormous obstacles. One of the best examples of this is LifeGene, which has the objective of collecting data from half a million Swedes for future research. The Swedish Data Protection Authority stopped their work temporarily, citing insufficiently stated purpose. Although the Swedish administrative courts eventually gave the green light to continue, the project has struggled to recover its initial momentum.
‘Of course we have to safeguard privacy, but this also has to be carefully balanced with the important knowledge contributed by research. Long-term, registry-based studies are extremely demanding today, which presents an obstacle to relevant research. I know that we have it relatively good in Sweden, but that’s no reason to sit back and relax. I could, for example, talk at length about animal testing or being a young woman in academia. There is a big risk of being pigeonholed, but I would rather stand up for my views and sleep soundly at night. In the end, it’s about weighing my career goals against my own values!’

Magnus Alsne

Facts — Tove Fall

Name: Tove Fall.
Age: 36
Family: Husband Nils, two children aged 4 and 7, and dog Ikka.
Would love to return to Nepal where I hiked when I was 20 – and bring my family along.
As soon as I have the time I'll read Sara Danius’ latest book in the book club I joined.
I haven’t met Lassie, but I sang Christmas carols for Gunnel Linde when I was five and got a signed copy of her book The White Stone (Den vita Stenen).
And finally, I would recommend that everyone grab a Thermos flask – and kids if you have them – and go to the newly renovated Skivling Park in Norby.