Conversations with Avanti Award Winners: Dr. Elina Ikonen

Posted on October 14, 2021

Elina For Fb And Li

We would like to congratulate Dr. Elina Ikonen on being the recipient of the 2021 European Biophysical Societies' Association (EBSA) Avanti Lipids Award! We caught up with Dr. Ikonen to find out more about her research and what winning the EBSA Avanti Lipids Award means to her! Keep reading to find out what she had to say!

Tell us a little bit about yourself (current role, background, family, etc.)

I am a professor of cell and tissue biology at the Medical Faculty in the University of Helsinki, Finland, my alma mater. I am here directing the Lipid Trafficking Lab, a wonderful and inspiring group of talented young researchers, and am also in charge of coordinating bioimaging research infrastructure development at our university.

What do you consider the greatest breakthrough in lipid research in recent years?

It is difficult to name one, but technical advances that enable unambiguous identification of individual lipid species at high spatiotemporal resolution in cells, are making a big difference. For instance, isotope-labeled and clickable lipids used in combination with sensitive mass spec and imaging techniques are extremely powerful.

Did you always envision yourself becoming a scientist? If not, what did you want to be when you grew up? Who influenced you to become a scientist?

Absolutely not, it is a convoluted route. As a kid, I dreamt of becoming an air hostess (nice outfit) but in high school, my biology teacher was so captivating that I thought I need to learn more about the human body. This led me to the medical school and wanting to become a medical practitioner. But I was there caught by an inspiring PhD supervisor, Leena Peltonen-Palotie, who introduced me to the world of science and eventually, after a postdoc with an equally charismatic mentor, Kai Simons, I got interested in lipids and permanently hooked on science.

What caught your interest and motivated you to research lipids and their analysis/detection, as well as, use computer simulations and physics to better understand their physicochemical mechanisms and processes?

I realized that lipids seemed under-investigated compared to proteins and was naïve enough to think that this was probably because most people did not think about them. The challenges of lipid research were not apparent to me at all - and had they been, I may never have entered this field. But what keeps me on this track is that by interacting with experts from various fields, physicists, chemists, physicians, who know more about lipids than I do, I keep learning and being excited about them every day.

How did you identify lysosomal storage diseases as a key area of interest?

I studied a heritable lysosomal storage disease enriched in my home country Finland, called aspartylglycosaminuria, in my PhD thesis. I understood that despite the typically sinister prognosis of such diseases, nature’s deviations can provide fundamental clues into intracellular trafficking and metabolism. And digging into the underlying mechanisms will be critical for finding novel therapies for these diseases. Later on, I have focused on lysosomal lipidoses, such as Niemann-Pick type C, not only because of academic interest but also because of the urgency that the families affected express for finding a cure.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do outside of the lab?

I have always been a lover of classical music and dance. I started to appreciate opera after turning 40 and my kids opened my senses to symphonic metal… I play fourhanded with my husband (a much better pianist than I am) and started dance classes again a couple of years ago, staying firmly at the beginners’ level but enjoying every moment: someone tells you exactly what to do and trying to follow the instructions takes all your attention.

What would be your first piece of advice to women interested in a career in science?

Just go for it, you can!

What does winning the EBSA Avanti Lipids Award mean to you?

It means a lot: It is a remarkable and unexpected recognition from researchers and experts in the field that I respect very much. And it helps to keep me going during the tough times that we all have experienced during the pandemic.

Again, we would like to congratulate Dr. Elina Ikonen on her incredible achievements and thank her for taking time to catch up with us!

Click HERE to learn even more about her exciting research!