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Evolutionary Ecology, Locally and Globally

"Lonely Hearts or Sex in the City?" It sounds like glossy magazine romance advice but it's actually the title of an academic research paper--the full version is “Lonely Hearts or Sex in the City? Density-dependent effects in mating systems”--by Finnish scientist Hanna Kokko (pictured left).

Kokko is an evolutionary ecologist who last year was awarded a professorship at the University of Helsinki. The driving force in her career has been, she says, "appreciating the fascination of nature, and how things happen." And to appreciate nature to it's fullest capacity, she feels, it has been important to embrace a complimentary--not polarised--view of her research, balancing two perspectives--biology and ecology, or valuing and studying both the local environment and more distant, exotic locales.

Kokko's interests span evolution--adaptation within particular animals and species--and ecology--the study of populations, in context. One of her main research areas is animal sexual selection, encompassing the evolution of mating systems, sex roles, and parental roles. Another wing of her research explores ecological questions, such as the social and spatial behaviour of populations, the competition for breeding grounds and habitat choices, in particular. "If something has a consequence for the individual [evolutionary], does this have population [ecological] consequences too?" she asks. In research, says Kokko, most people work in one field or the other, in evolutionary biology or ecology. But Kokko seeks "to understand the link and the whole picture." The mutual interaction of population dynamics and evolutionary processes is a key theme.

Today Kokko is passionate about biology, but she didn't start out that way. At school she enjoyed reading Finnish language books on biology and nature, but when it was time to choose a discipline, Kokko says, "I was good at maths and thought that biology wasn’t exact enough for me," so she enrolled in an undergraduate engineering degree at Helsinki University of Technology. The course work was maths heavy and required her to use examples from economics, medicine, and biology to test mathematical hypotheses. Those biological questions intrigued her most; she realised that "biology was close to my heart." So she decided to integrate a 1-year biology research MSc. into her engineering degree. For her thesis, she used applied maths to study the dynamics of a population of seals; at that point she knew that she wanted to continue her biology studies in biology. Research in evolutionary biology, in particular, had caught her attention. "Ideas in evolution are cool," she remembers thinking.

But with only one year's training in biology, a Ph.D. seemed daunting. "I didn't have the confidence," says Kokko. But Bill Sutherland, a long-time mentor and collaborator based at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, encouraged her. "He told me, it's really important and healthy to research what you like." Kokko spent the winter of 1994 in Norwich with Sutherland working on her first evolutionary biology project. Afterward, she returned to Finland to continue this work, looking at sexual selection and the evolution of mate choice at the University of Helsinki. She finished her doctorate in 1997.

Kokko's next stop was to the UK, for a postdoc in zoology at the University of Cambridge, continuing her work on sexual selection and exploring new areas like sustainable exploitation and animal territoriality. Cambridge, she says, "is like a transit hall for scientists, meeting so many people." Although she had worked with great people in Helsinki, Kokko says, by leaving home "you realise there are many different ways of looking at things."

Two and a half years later, Kokko was offered a lectureship at the University of Glasgow, and won independent funding from the Royal Society as a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow. During this period, Kokko began collaborating with the University of New South Wales in Sydney and the AustralianNationalUniversity in Canberra. But 2 years after starting in Glasgow, she began to feel homesick for Finland, so she moved to the University of Jyväskylä in central Finland where she was hired as a lecturer. Just a year later, in 2003, her wish to return to Helsinki was fulfilled; she now has a 5-year, fixed-term professorship at the university and has set up her own research group, currently with three Ph.D. students and three postdocs.

Kokko and her team are researching questions of ecological evolutionary dynamics--at the interface of evolution and ecology. Some members of the group are addressing mate choice and the evolution of so-called “costly” ornaments, like a peacock's tail. Do the costs of such adaptations show at the level of population dynamics?

A professor at the tender age of 34, Kokko has had a successful career to date, but her position is not on the tenure track. She does, however, have a permanent job as a lecturer at the same department. “It’s complicated," she says. "I am secure [with my lectureship]. It’s also possible that the university hires me as a professor afterward, but it’s not guaranteed in the same way as a tenure track would be.”

“The first year of the professorship was tough," she says, although she finds her scientific independence and teaching rewarding. Despite these professional demands, she strives for a healthy work-life balance: "I have lots of hobbies and friends. You can't sit in an office for 24 hours a day."

So how are the prospects for those hoping to follow in her footsteps? "Evolutionary ecology is very strong in Finland," she says, but that doesn't mean that jobs will be available. "We have excellent graduate schools, but that means we are training all these students, and I wonder, where will they end up?" Research funding, she says, is relatively healthy in Finland, by international standards. “One advantage enjoyed by Finnish researchers is that the government of this small country is very aware of the need to avoid isolation,” says Kokko. The country's major research funders, the Academy of Finland, she says, "really encourages"--and funds--"international collaboration."

And international collaboration, for Kokko, is one of the keys to a satisfying career. The Academy of Finland funds pays for her visits to the AustralianNationalUniversity in Canberra once a year. "It's a fantastic collaboration. It has been so easy to click with the people; they are very open-minded." But working in Australia has a professional as well as cultural appeal. Many biologists, says Kokko, "have a Northern-hemisphere bias." Sometimes you have set ideas, for example, about a bird's behaviour, and then when you are in the Southern hemisphere you realise it doesn't follow." Still, she believes in balancing mind-broadening international research with a local--and less exotic--focus. "Locally, so much cool research can be done."

Local nature is close to many Finnish hearts, including hers. Kokko takes time out of her schedule to write about and lecture on general popular science and biology, in Finnish. Kokko enjoyed having access to Finnish-language biology books as a teenager and wants to make sure others--non-scientists--have similar access. Recently, after she gave a public lecture, a priest approached her and asked her if she was planning to write some material for the general public on evolutionary biology that he could use for his community. He was worried that “intelligent design notions” were emerging in Finland, which might alienate people from the church. "I thought this is something important," explains Kokko, so she wrote it up.

Much of her own research--particularly the sexual selection work--is, she says, "intuitively appealing" to the general public. She cautions that her work should never be casually extrapolated to humans; yet it is of general interest because "everyone knows what it feels like if you don’t get a mate." For serious academic work, she is less cautious and feels free to use provocative titles, like “Treat 'Em Mean, Keep 'Em (sometimes) Keen: evolution of female preferences for dominant and coercive males.”

"There is no need," she says, "for science to be boring."

Anne Forde is European editor North and East for Science 's Next Wave.