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'Aalto is a step ahead'

Marja Makarow, Director of Biocentre Finland, was conferred as an honorary Doctor of Technology at the ceremonial doctoral conferment event in Dipoli on 14 June 2019. Makarow, talented in many fields of science, urges Finnish universities to form long-term international partnerships
Maria Makarow. Photo: Heli Sorjonen
Maria Makarow at the ceremonial doctoral conferment event. On the left, the Dean of School of Business, Ingmar Björkman. Image: Aalto University/Heli Sorjonen

What are your main thoughts after the conferment ceremony?

I am very happy and proud to have received this honour. At the ceremony, a large group of young doctors celebrated alongside us honorary doctors. What was notably important was the large share of new international doctors. These doctors have an enormous amount of talent that Finland should hold onto. They should be helped with a smooth transition to the world of business or continue on their academic path. 

I was involved in the first Aalto University board to help the new university get started. Because of my background, it was particularly wonderful to become an honorary doctor when I could see the fruits of my labour making a difference at the university. 

You were involved in setting up Aalto University. Has its development progressed in the desired direction? 

Aalto has redeemed its promises in a record-breaking time. Its ambitious goal was to transform into a university of science through its three founding universities. Today, Aalto has a number of top researchers, for whom the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded prestigious top-level research funding. This already shows that the goal of becoming a science university has become a reality. 

Aalto is also at the forefront as an influencer of social impact in Finland. And I didn’t even need to look at the list of new doctors to realise that this is truly an international university. The professorship has rapidly become international through the tenure track career path.

What about the future of Aalto University?

After the first ten years, Aalto University is in an excellent position to tackle the big questions that other universities around the world are also trying to solve. There are enormous challenges ahead, such as sustainable energy sources and new technologies and materials. Tackling these challenges requires multidisciplinary collaborative research. When many universities are only starting to introduce multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinary approaches into their operations, people at Aalto have already been working in this way for a long time. 

You have influenced both the Finnish and international scientific fields. What inspires you in your work?

As the Vice-Rector of Research at the University of Helsinki, I was excited that I was responsible for all the disciplines of the university. When I decided to continue working on similar tasks, I took a conscious risk, because these types of roles are always on a fixed-term basis. I have been lucky to be able to change seamlessly from one interesting role to another. After my role as the Director-General of the European Science Foundation, I acted as the Director of Research at the Academy of Finland and now I head up Biocentre Finland.

I have also been able to do new things in my position of trust, which is very enriching. As the Vice-Rector of the University of Helsinki, I established the Finnish Institute of Molecular Medicine (FIMM). The next major step was Finland's first university merger, i.e. the creation of Aalto University. At the Tampere University Foundation we carried out preparatory work for the new Tampere University, one of the most multidisciplinary universities in Finland. Creating something new with great colleagues has been fantastic. 
 
It is now expected that universities create international networks. Do Finnish Universities have to work harder at this?

It would be very beneficial for all Finnish universities to invest in building long-term international cooperation with well-chosen universities. The number of partners should be limited and it is always useful to find partners who are better than you, and who share your values and spirit.

British universities are quite scared of Brexit, which is threatening to exclude British researchers from European consortia. Many British universities have therefore started to seek partnerships where they could be physically present on campuses in EU countries. Finnish universities have not jumped on this, although there is a great opportunity to form close cooperation with top universities. 

The European Commission's new European Universities programme also offers an opportunity to build cross-border cooperation. The idea is that a limited number of EU universities will be able to develop training and research that is in the common interest. The programme's first pilot search for eligible consortia include Aalto University, University of Tampere, University of Eastern Finland and University of Jyväskylä.
 

Text: Marjukka Puolakka

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