FIMM Peer Mentoring in Soft Skills


FIMM PhD students and postdoctoral researchers support one another through regular peer mentoring in soft skills. 


During the early research training years, significant effort is put toward acquiring research and technical skills as well as writing manuscripts and giving presentations. Soft skills, how we utilize our personal character traits that make us who we are, get less attention. While development of problem solving and critical thinking are key in high quality research training, interpersonal, organizational and time management skills can be overlooked even in the best training environments.  In comparison to “hard” skills, which are often grasped successfully in courses, workshops, and hands-on activities, soft skills tend to be most commonly acquired through experience, self-learning and reflection.

Peer mentoring not only provides opportunities for more experienced PhD students or postdocs to share their knowledge of the system, give feedback, and answer questions, but also helps to establish (professional) contacts that can provide support in different (challenging) situations. Oftentimes, level of seniority is irrelevant in peer mentoring because experiences are varied and simply sharing independent perspectives raises awareness of a diverse array of views and actions.  Since peers do the mentoring, it takes away a possible factor of intimidation that can arise in a typical, hierarchical, academic environment and, importantly, provides a strong sense of community. Added value comes to the mentors who experience what it is to guide and help others.  For more information about peer mentoring in soft skills in biomedical science, please see the Career Column entitled “Self-Taught Soft Skills” written by Alexandra Lucs and published in Nature in 2014 (Vol. 506, p. 257).

As an initiative of the FIMM PhD Student and Postdoc Council, four dedicated PhD students organize a peer mentoring effort with goals to:

  • learn from each other how to improve interactions with PIs, colleagues, lab-mates, and co-authors,
  • learn how to work effectively and productively keeping science, career aspirations, and work relationships in mind,
  • facilitate intra-institute networking, and
  • build and strengthen a community voice.

Four times a year they bring FIMM PhD students and postdoctoral researchers together in an informal setting and discuss a topic most relevant and important for the community at the time.  Specific topics that have been explored include

  • Motivation
  • Time and project management
  • Saying no and asking for help
  • Gender in science

In addition, through dedicated sessions at the Annual FIMM Retreats, PhD students and postdocs have actively explored the following topics in dedicated self-organized and active sessions:

  • Scientific Integrity (2016)
  • Popularizing Your Science (2015)
  • Development of Soft Skills by Case Study – giving credit and acknowledgement, meeting deadlines, finding supervision and mentorship, dealing with difficult and unexpected situations, understanding cultural differences (2014)
  • Scientific Ethics (2011)


Meet the organizers of FIMM Peer Mentoring in Soft Skills

(contact information in the right column above)

Meri Kaustio

Group:  Saarela

Thesis title: Genetics of Primary Immunodeficiencies in Finland

I started at FIMM in fall 2012 as a FIMM-EMBL rotation student, and rotated in the Wennerberg, Verschuren and Saarela groups - a time that I value and that taught me a lot. My M.Sci. I got in the University of Tampere, working on immune signalling in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Having gotten attached to immunology, I started by PhD in Janna Saarela's group studying genetics of primary immunodeficiencies. These are rare diseases resulting from a mutation in an immunologically relevant gene, which causes the affected individuals to have an increased susceptibility to infectious disease, cancer or autoimmune disease. I mainly work on the analysis of exome sequencing data from immunodeficient patients with the aim of identifying novel disease causing genes and variants, and on their functional characterization.

I joined the Soft Skills team in spring 2016 since I find it important to develop also the "non-scientific side" of scientific work-life skills. In addition to providing knowledge and food for thought, I hope the Soft Skills sessions can serve to better connect people at FIMM with each other.

Jaakko Leinonen

Group:  Widén
Thesis title:  Exploring the molecular mechanisms behind pubertal timing

I’m a doctoral student in Elisabeth Widén's group, working in the field of human genetics. My dissertation project concentrates on elucidating the function of genes associated with pubertal timing, utilizing zebrafish as a model organism. I’m also actively involved in studying the genetics of lethal arrhythmias, discovering mutations predisposing to disease such as LQTS, CPVT and idiopathic ventricular fibrillation. I really appreciate the chance to be a part of the scientific community here at FIMM, and the chance to study genetics from multiple angles in my work.

In addition, together with my colleagues and with support from our Research Training Coordinator Gretchen Repasky, I am involved in developing peer mentoring sessions at FIMM. We have an initiative to increase awareness and collectively develop “Soft Skills” for young researches. In essence, these skills represent the interpersonal and social sides of science and career development. I feel the peer mentoring sessions hold the potential to increase cohesion between trainees here at FIMM, and help us to develop skills that will be useful in the future – no matter what sort of careers we choose to pursue.

Elina Parri

Group:  Wennerberg

I am a doctoral student in Krister Wennerberg’s group, where I started my PhD project in spring 2015. FIMM was familiar for me already before starting the PhD studies; I completed my Masters thesis on lung cancer modeling with Emmy Verschuren’s group and worked as a research assistant in group Wennerberg. During these times my excitement about the cancer research grew into the complexity of the disease and chemical biology. In my current main project I am aiming to better understand the role and regulation of STAT3 in pancreatic cancer.  My interests also include validation of kinase predictions.

As one of the soft skills peer mentoring organizers, I want to continue discussing and raising the awareness of non-scientific, interpersonal communication and integrity skills that are as important as professional "hard" skills. While soft skills can be challenging to master, if we share ideas and expertise in an open environment FIMM PhD students and postdocs have a chance to better develop and master these skills already in early stages of their career development.

Back row:  Elina Parri, Arjan van Adrichem; front row:  Jaakko Leinonen, Meri Kaustio

Past Organizers

Arjan van Adrichem, co-founder, recent graduate 2016

Group:  Wennerberg
Thesis title:  The regulation and druggablity of small GTPases and their regulators

I am a Doctoral Programme In Biomedicine student in the group of Krister Wennerberg at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland FIMM and University of Helsinki, Finland. I received my BSc in biomedical engineering and MSc degree in medical engineering from the University of Technology in Eindhoven, the Netherlands focusing on clinical chemistry. I joined Krister Wennerberg’s group for PhD studies in cancer chemical biology with the aim of elucidating the oncogenic function and therapeutic potential of key regulatory proteins of the Rho family of small GTPases. As a member of the FIMM PhD and Postdoc Council, I co-founded FIMM’s Peer Mentoring in Soft Skills. During these sessions, doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows at the institute are encouraged to exchange knowledge and expertise.

Tiia Luukkonen, co-founder

Group:  Palotie
Thesis title:  Balanced Translocations and Inversions:  Gene-mapping and Epidemiology in Finland

I am in my last year of a PhD in genetics, working under the joint supervision of Drs. Aarno Palotie and Teppo Varilo at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland FIMM, Doctoral School in Health Sciences, Integrative Life Science Doctoral Program. My PhD project focuses on balanced chromosomal rearrangements and loss-of-function variants in the Finnish population. I am also actively involved in studying the genetic background of atopic dermatitis.

I recently finished studies in marketing and sales at Aalto University School of Business. My special interests are in marketing, sales and immaterial property rights within the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. In addition, I have acquired pedagogical experience through planning and teaching undergraduate level genetics courses at the Faculty of Biosciences and Faculty of Medicine.

As a member of the FIMM Soft Skills peer mentoring team I participate in developing research training at our institute. To complement technical skills and support current and future careers, we offer FIMM PhD students and postdocs training on topics such as communication, teamwork, time management, problem solving and emotional intelligence. For me, personally, this position provides first-hand experience in teamwork as well as planning and organising, moreover, loads of motivation when we succeed in guiding and helping our peers.

Last updated: 08.10.2016 - 20:35