Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Johanna Ivaska MAE#

As part of the work with the CALIPER project the Academia Europaea Cardiff Knowledge Hub interviews people passionate about gender equality. In the latest interview, Johanna Ivaska MAE shares her passion for cancer research and the challenges faced by female scientists.

Johanna Ivaska

About Professor Johanna Ivaska MAE#

Johanna Ivaska MAE is a Finnish Cancer Institute K. Albin Johansson Research Professor. She is also Professor of Molecular Cell Biology at Turku Bioscience Center at the University of Turku in Finland. She was nominated EMBO member 2015 and EMBO Council member 2023. Professor Ivaska is a speaker at Academia Europaea’s Class C (Life Sciences) meeting on 9th October 2023 in Munich. Prof. Ivaska was elected member of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology section of Academia Europaea in 2023.

Read the interview#

Could you tell us a little bit about your background. What factors led you to choose the scientific topics that you have pursued and what your current research focuses on?

“I am Finnish and from Turku, the oldest city in Finland and the former capital. When growing up, I lived in the UK and in the USA, because of my father’s academic research visits.

I studied Biochemistry at the University of Turku as I was interested in how cells and the human body work, but I never wanted to become a physician. After my MSc degree, I wanted to join a research group working on some aspect of human disease. I joined Professor Jyrki Heino’s group and there I explored the role of collagen binding integrins in thrombosis and fibrosis.

After completing my PhD at the University of Turku in 2000, I wanted to focus on cell signalling in cancer and moved to London to work in the Protein Phosphorylation laboratory of Peter Parker at the CR-UK London Research Institute. After my postdoc, I was extremely lucky to have the possibility to move back to Turku to a new Research Institute directed by Professor Olli Kallioniemi. I then moved to the VTT technical Research Centre of Finland, Medical Biotechnology Unit in 2003 to establish my own research group on ‘Cell Adhesion and Cancer’.

From the start, the focus of my group was to investigate how the extracellular matrix in tissue interacts with cells and how cells respond to external cues via their ECM receptors, integrins. I love microscopy and really attest to “seeing is believing”. Combining imaging with mechanistic cell biology is a powerful way to unravel fundamental cell biological processes that underlie malignant cell behaviour in cancer.

In 2013, I moved to my current position at the University of Turku. In 2014, I was a Visiting Professor at the Institute Curie in Paris and I am currently an Affiliate Professor at the University of Glasgow and the CR-UK Beatson Institute for Cancer Research. In Paris, I was learning mechanobiology and at the Beatson, working with cancer models in vivo. I think that the best way to learn new things is to go back to the bench and do it yourself.

I am currently a Finnish Cancer Institute K. Albin Johansson Research Professor. I am also Professor of Molecular Cell Biology at the Turku Bioscience Center at the University of Turku. I was nominated EMBO member in 2015 and an EMBO Council member in 2023. I am also the Director of the Academy of Finland Center of Excellence in Biological Barrier Mechanics and Disease (2022-2029).

Currently my main research interests relate to the biological role of integrins in cancer progression, mechanobiology and metastasis. At the moment, my research focuses on integrin mediated cell adhesion and migration, cell-matrix interactions and mechanosensing as well as molecular mechanisms governing endosomal traffic of integrins and growth factor receptors in cancer. My research is currently funded by grants from the Academy of Finland and national foundations like the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, Sigrid Juselius Foundation and the Finnish Cancer Organisation.”

What do you think are the biggest challenges for young female scientists to advance in this extremely competitive field and how would you address them?

“Many things have changed for the better from the time I started. At that time, most speakers at international conferences were males and their wives were either working as their secretaries or lab technicians or stayed at home. Today, there are growing numbers of amazing female scientists and also amazing males who are role models by sharing an equal load of family life and supporting their spouse’s career. This makes me really happy.

I think that life sciences in general are becoming more and more equal and female scientists are treated equally. To me, the biggest challenge is how to motivate females to pursue their careers, perhaps against societal expectations and how to manage this in practice, especially in countries where day-care is expensive and paid parental leave is short or non-existent. I always wanted to combine family and having a career and this is one of the reasons I wanted to return to Finland.”

What piece of advice would you give to yourself as a young academic or to other people who are just beginning their academic careers now?

“Read, think, make sure your science is robust and well executed and enjoy the discoveries that science brings. Along the way it is important to treasure the freedom of exploring, while at the same time keeping your eye on the ball. At every career stage there are certain boxes to tick. Things that are expected (publishing, mentoring, writing a grant, giving a talk, organising a conference, serving on an evaluation panel etc.) Talk to your colleagues to find out what those things are and try to make sure you get these on your CV, in addition to making great science. It is also important to make friends and build a scientific network.”

You have been recognised for your contributions to STEM, for example, you received the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Finland Program award in 2008. What impact do you think these acknowledgments have had on your career and goals?

“We got a really nice package of beauty products from L’Oréal for the entire lab so I suppose it made us look nice! All the recognitions have been valuable to me, even though I do not do science to win prizes. I do it mainly out of pure curiosity. I love to find out how things work. The publicity that has come with the prizes has been good in the sense that it has given young women perhaps a different kind of role model. A female scientist.”

How do you believe we can encourage more young women to pursue careers in STEM fields?

“I think role models are important. It is just unfortunate that scientists are not often featured. I try to do outreach work by giving talks in schools, and we have high school students visit our lab. I suppose the best we can do is to try to tell them about science as a career and spark their curiosity.”

Originally posted 9th October 2023. For further information please contact

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 873134
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