'Researchers should compete with Netflix, Spotify and YouTube'

According to master's student Ali Salloum, researchers have an obligation to get young people excited about science.
Ali Salloum walking at Laajalahti Nature Reserve in summer, surrounded by green bushes, trees and grass
’I feel sad that some people are so cynical, have given up on the world, and think that the world can’t be fixed. I’m fully against such way of thinking,' says Ali Salloum. Photo: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

When Ali Salloum went to upper secondary school in Helsinki, he participated in a national writing competition in which his essay received an honourable mention. The panellists of the competition were determined that Salloum will be the future Eero Heinäluoma, a Finnish veteran politician and former chairperson of the Social Democratic Party.

Salloum, who studies in the Life Science Technologies Master’s Programme and works as a research assistant, has always been interested in politics and social issues. When he was still in school, he was a member of Vantaa Youth Council for several years, also working as its chairperson.

However, now Salloum finds the memory of panellists comparing him to Heinäluoma a bit amusing. Becoming a politician is no longer his dream, rather he has understood that there are myriad ways to influence on societal phenomena, and research is one possibility to do so.

‘I feel that researchers have an obligation and responsibility to influence on things because we are so privileged. We have had time, resources, skills, and even luck to get to the core of our expertise,’ says Salloum.

Born in the mid-nineties when mobile phones started becoming increasingly popular, Salloum has been living in the era of internet and social media. In his childhood, Finnish teens and young adults were using the first social media platforms, such as MySpace and IRC-galleria (a Finnish platform for sharing and commenting on photos, initially created for IRC users but later adopted by a much wider audience).

According to Salloum, the academic world should discuss more about how science communication can reach young people and get them excited about research. ‘Researchers, academia, and education should compete with Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube.’

Researchers can easily share content online and popularize it in different channels including blog posts. Salloum however thinks that real influence calls for, for example, YouTubers creating videos on science, research articles, and study results in an understandable way.

Researchers have an obligation and responsibility to influence on things because we are so privileged

Ali Salloum

Such YouTube channels exist already, and one good example is a channel called Veritasium. The man behind Veritasium is Derek Muller, a Canadian Doctor of Philosophy in Physics, who talks about science and education in his videos. Veritasium has over six million subscribers, but no names come to Salloum’s mind when asked if he could come up with a similar Finnish YouTube channel.

Many researchers are active users of Twitter, but according to Salloum, there are better social media channels for popularizing science than Twitter. In addition to academics, many politicians and journalists use Twitter on daily or weekly basis. ‘On Twitter, you’re inside a bubble, and the content doesn’t reach a wider audience.’

Simple equations are insufficient for modelling complex phenomena

Last spring, Salloum who works in the research group of Assistant Professor Mikko Kivelä was working on the ELEBOT project ordered by the Finnish Ministry of Justice. He studied bots on Twitter and their attempts to influence the Finnish parliamentary election and the European Parliament elections.

For the assignment, Salloum and his fellow research assistant Tuomas Takko gathered data from Twitter before and during both elections. The final report of the project was published in the beginning of July. Based on the research findings, bots’ attempts to influence elections in Finland were minimal and their tweets received only little attention from Finland’s Twitter users.

Salloum has always been interested in research and he found this research topic important and meaningful. ‘For the first time ever, I got to make use of those engineering tools, use of which I’ve learned during my years at the university, for a societal phenomenon. That was very interesting.’

Another aspect he found exciting was the chance to participate in a research project from scratch. Unlike in many examples used on university courses, the data gathered from the real world was imperfect and causal relationships less straight forward.

Salloum’s parents live in Vantaa, a neighbouring town of Helsinki, and therefore Aalto University was a natural choice for him after upper secondary school. Aalto is the only technical university in the Finnish Capital Region and, as Salloum says, the best one in Finland. ‘Aalto has a great brand. It is well known in Finland and abroad.’

You need to know machine learning and chaos theory in order to model complex phenomena and break them into smaller pieces.

Ali Salloum

Salloum majors in Complex Systems, a discipline that literally focuses on researching complex systems. Students in this major learn use of data processing tools, mathematics, and modelling complex phenomena in general. In the future, they can make use of these skills in many fields. ‘Simple equations or trivial models are no longer enough. You need to know machine learning and chaos theory in order to model complex phenomena and break them into smaller pieces.’

Interest in internationality and performing

Salloum’s mother is a midwife and his father a mechanic and they have always appreciated education, encouraging their children to study. ‘If my Mum didn’t know how to help me with my homework, she took me to our neighbour. Then, she asked the neighbours whether they could help. She always wanted to ensure that I find the right answers to my questions.’

In school, Salloum enjoyed especially mathematics and mother tongue education. He also liked to perform, which encouraged him to join a theatre club as a kid, study expression skills in secondary school, and act as a compere in school events.

All this experience helps him now in the academic world. His friends at the university know that, when their study group needs to give a presentation, Ali is ready to speak in front of an audience. When Mikko Kivelä asked whether Salloum would like to come along with him to the Ministry of Justice and present the results of ELEBOT project, he was surprised – he thought it was obvious that he would be there.

‘I have learned to perform since a little kid and practice on stage, which has endured to this day. I’m very confident when performing.’

During his bachelor’s studies, Salloum spent one semester as an exchange student in Singapore, and in spring 2020, he will move to Lisbon for the same reason. In the future, he would love to live in another Nordic country and work in, for example, education export as a link between Finland and another country.

Social issues are still close to Salloum’s heart and he hopes to inspire people to think and understand, how much there is to learn and how few things are simple. He believes that the humankind needs to have good tools to explore the world, in order to take another step forward.

For that to happen, everyone needs to understand causal relationships, socio-economic factors, and complexity of different phenomena. In practice, some kind of knowledge of mathematical and logical reasoning skills are essential. When a person, group, or a nation works in a certain way, one needs to understand what types of socio-economic factors lie behind.

Moreover, it is crucial to acknowledge that one can always learn more about any matter. Science helps in all this. ’I feel sad that some people are so cynical, have given up on the world, and think that the world can’t be fixed. I’m fully against such way of thinking.’

Read more about studies in Complex Systems: "Mathematics is a bridge between different disciplines"

Ali Salloum standing in the middle of a green forest area and looking at the sky
Photo: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Ali Salloum, Master’s Student and Research Assistant

Education: Bachelor of Science (Bioinformation Technology) from Aalto University; aims to graduate with a Master’s Degree in Life Science Technologies in 2021

Awards: In upper secondary school, the first price in Generation €uro Students’ Awards where the Grand Price took Salloum and his school friends to visit the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. In addition, he received a stipend in mathematics and gained success in writing and speech competitions.

Lives in Helsinki

Comes from Turku, Finland

The greatest professional achievement: Gaining confidence to explain even difficult technical things to others. ‘I want to improve in that and learn new presentation skills.’

Is also

A former theatre and chess club member. ’I get excited easily. I believe that all kinds of hobbies and club activities and the possibility to try out different things is beneficial.’

Bilingual. ‘My strongest language is Finnish, but I speak Arabic almost as well as Finnish. My Dad comes from Lebanon and my Mum from Palestine. They have always spoken Arabic to me, and I will be forever grateful for that. It’s so valuable and enriching.’

Diving enthusiast. ’I find it cool to get to know a completely new world in the seas. I have had the chance to admire the underwater world in the South China Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Andaman Sea.’

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