How this Finnish university is producing future medical pioneers
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Using good bacteria to treat eczema. Testing the effects of matcha green tea in killing cancer stem cells. Applying virtual reality to ‘embody’ prosthetic limbs on patients. These projects and discoveries are some of the most ground-breaking in the world today. They demonstrate the power of merging medicine, science and technology to come up with effective solutions for the benefit of many.

The term to describe this relatively new field is “Translational Medicine”. As we discover new drugs and advance technology further, this is the field of medicine that will translate novel innovations into clinical reality.

To join this discipline is to step into a journey with no shortage of excitement. And where better to begin other than at the University of Helsinki?

An energising, collaborative learning environment

Finland’s top university is among the first pioneers to offer professional training in this field. Its Master’s of Translational Medicine (TransMed) is a joint effort with the internationally-renowned medical campus of The Academic Medical Centre Helsinki (AMCH). In this programme, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree in life or natural sciences, engineering, psychology, pharmacy etc. can gain knowledge in medical sciences, translational research and academic communication skills.

It’s developed with the aim of understanding open questions within diagnostics, aetiology and disease therapy, and the ability to utilize patient and clinical data and samples in research.

As a highly multidisciplinary programme, students will be working closely with the university’s Faculty of Medicine, the Helsinki University Central Hospital (HUCH) and the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE), which includes the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) and the Neuroscience Center (NC).

Having these institutions in close proximity makes the campus a lively and dynamic learning space, according to Tiina Immonen, Director of the TransMed Master’s programme.

“All partners are involved in the TransMed curriculum – clinicians from hospital, professors of the Faculty of Medicine, and the leading scientists and research technology experts of HiLife,” she says.

“Due to the location on the same campus, the students have an opportunity to enrol to any of the research groups for their Master’s thesis projects, and to learn from patient cases under supervision of the clinical mentors in the hospital clinics,” Immonen explains.

The learning environment at AMCH is one that’s been described as “exceptional,” an accolade that Director of HiLife, Professor Tomi Mäkelä, attributes to the Centre’s diverse and expansive pool of talent: “The learning environment benefits  from the globally unique national and local healthcare system and from outstanding staff, including top researchers in areas of cancer research, neuroscience, stem cells and regenerative medicine, genetics, and metabolic disorders and diabetes.”

“The approach in education takes full advantage of the strong Finnish education system as well as the interdisciplinary curriculum and staff to provide cutting-edge courses in specific areas as well as in transferrable skills,” Mäkelä says.

Student involvement every step of the way

At Helsinki, students have the option to specialise in the following: neuroscience and psychobiology, cancer, regenerative medicine, metabolic disorders and cross-disciplinary translational medicine – all of which are closely aligned with the research focus areas of the Faculty of Medicine.

But what gives Helsinki an edge over other universities is how these research opportunities are bolstered by the opportunity to closely collaborate, learn from and be supervised by the leading experts and professors in their fields.

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Students get to capitalise on outstanding infrastructure and patient contact at the Helsinki University Hospital, where there are over 10,000 new patients and over 100 ongoing clinical trials annually, including a number of investigator-initiated trials stemming from translational research on campus. Seminars and social events are regular features at this university, too.

“Student involvement is appreciated and promoted at various occasions ranging from lectures, courses, seminar series, and is maintained through a low threshold for the students to approach and discuss with senior clinicians and researchers,” says Principal Investigator and Adjunct Professor, Esko Kankuri.

Shaping confident medical professionals

The common assumption for new fields of study is that graduates will enter a labour market in which jobs are yet to be created.

While this may hold certain truths, it doesn’t apply to TransMed, which provides a sizeable variety of further study and career options, so much so that half of Helsinki’s TransMed graduates are continuing their studies in doctoral programmes, either at the University of Helsinki or abroad.

Close to 40 percent of graduates have been employed directly by bioindustry, pharma or other health sector enterprises either in Finland or overseas. Titles include product manager, product specialist, personalised health care manager, clinical research associate etc.

Elisa Karhu, a TransMed Master’s graduate from Helsinki, currently studying at a University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, describes the programme as one of the best study environments she’s experienced. From the integration of clinical aspects of medicine to the field trips she took, it’s a programme that gives her an advantage in the highly selective medical school admissions process in the US.

“But more than that, I feel confident that as a future physician I can interpret and participate in research that will impact my patients,” she concludes.

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