An interview with Tuomas Aivelo

Name: Tuomas AiveloTiomasAivelo

Current Job: Postdoctoral research at Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zürich, Switzerland, and visiting researcher at Department of Teacher Training, University of Helsinki, Finland.

Scientific Discipline/Field: Disease ecology and evolutionary parasitology,  biology education research (or didactics of biology, as we say in continental Europe)

Country: Switzerland and Finland

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): G,Q


Twitter: @aivelo

What does your job involve?

I do research nowadays mostly on disease ecology. At the moment, my main project is on tick-borne pathogens. I’m looking at the whole microbiota of ticks – not only pathogens, but also commensals and beneficial microbes – and try to figure out within-tick interactions in this microbe community. Previously I’ve worked in within-host helminth dynamics. It combines field work, cutting-edge genetic methods, bioinformatics and statistics. I also have a side project in biology education

I have a lot of side projects in biology education (research on how students and teachers understand what gene is and how it functions, I’m part of group organising National Biology Olympiad in Finland and I write biology textbooks for secondary school) and public outreach (I have my own blog on parasites in Finnish).

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I always knew I want to study biology and that evolution is the most beautiful thing in the world. While finishing my MSc, I attended University of Helsinki field course in Madagascar where I met my future PhD supervisor. I had the incredible chance of working with mouse lemurs in Madagascar, which was incredible for someone who had watched nature documentaries and hoped to work in rainforest some day. That also started me on a path to work with host-related communities. After my PhD I wanted to work in a different disease system and I found my current supervisor Barbara Tschirren from evoldir mailing list. I have two-year funding from Finnish Cultural Foundation to work here in Switzerland.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

Yes and no. I would probably have the same career trajectory in any way but it has affected the details. I ended up studying in Helsinki definitely because it is (or was) the pretty much only tolerable place in Finland for young gay person. Also, I exclude some places when I was looking for postdoctoral positions because I wasn’t sure about how tolerant places they would be. I also have a habit of outting myself to potential employers by mentioning my husband as living in long-distance relationship is rather taxing and I want to make sure my boss is understanding.

Doing field work in non-Western countries obviously makes things a bit more difficult. For example, in Madagascar, the culture isn’t very homophobic, but as a general rule, I’ve mostly kept myself closeted “just in case”. My husband did visit once my field site and it didn’t cause any problems. I wouldn’t work in countries were homosexual sex would illegal and it would be enforced, or in places, where I could be in danger. Finding that information while planning fieldwork is not easy!

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

Not really. I normally refer to my husband as “spouse” and I usually correct people if they suppose he’s female (and I have to admit I find it cute, because that normally throws people off a bit and they profusely apologize). That being said, Finnish has gender-neutral pronouns, so that normally comes up in English/French/Swedish/German context. I never had any direct bad reactions.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

Not really LGBT-wise. There’s really not high-profile LGBT STEM role models, is there? I was nature documentary kid, so David Attenborough has always been my idol. In university I found myself admiring renaissance man -type of scientists, like Ilkka Hanski or Scott Gilbert. Now writing those names down they seem pretty male, but my introduction to science was by my MSc supervisors, Lotta Sundström and Emma Vitikainen, so they were my role models in very literal sense.

What are your plans for the future?

There’s many very different kind of plans and we’ll see which of those will happen! I’d like to stay in doing research, but with the current funding situation… That being said, I also love teaching so I wouldn’t mind doing that.

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