In Conversation with - Jenni Prokkola

01 October 2018 - By: Alex Evans

In Conversation with - Jenni Prokkola

Jenni Prokkola


“It’s fulfilling to work on something I’m so passionate about,” says Jenni Prokkola, the new deputy convenor of the SEB Animal Section’s Endocrinology Group and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Liverpool.

As well as co-organising a physiology and behaviour session at this year’s Annual Meeting, Jenni is co-organising a session at next year’s meeting in Seville titled ‘Fuelling the fire of life – evolutionary physiology of oxygen supply in vertebrates’.

AE: Jenni, how did you first get into animal physiology?

JP: Oddly enough, animal physiology was not one of my favourite topics as an undergraduate student. However, I was doing my master’s thesis on evolutionary ecology of mealworm beetles when I realised that, to understand ecological change and how natural selection has affected biodiversity, I should also understand more about physiological mechanisms. I was happy to learn much more during my PhD in the group of Mikko Nikinmaa at the University of Turku in Finland. Functional genomics was also an important tool for my research, and my second advisor Erica Leder helped me a lot in understanding how these tools work.

AE: Which projects are you currently involved in?

JP: I’m still involved in some studies on bat ecoimmunology and White Nose Syndrome, which is a devastating disease in North American bats. I am also continuing my work with the project of Anssi Vainikka at the University of Eastern Finland on population genetics, migration behaviour and fishing-induced selection in brown trout. I’m now also collaborating with the project of Andy Cossins on the cold responses of common carp and using ribosomal footprint profiling in Liverpool. My own main project in collaboration with Andy Cossins and Michael Berenbrink, funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, focuses on understanding plasticity in the oxygen supply cascade using myoglobin-deficient zebrafish. This provides me with the opportunity to gain experience in the development and use of transgenic fish, which is a very new and exciting approach for me.

AE: What have been the defining highlights of your scientific career so far?

JP: I enjoy the day-to-day grind of lab work, writing and project management, but some of the highlights definitely include meeting and forming networks with some incredibly inspiring people, especially when I have been co-organising events such as the salmonid researcher meeting NoWPaS and SEB Annual Main Meeting in 2018. I also enjoy being involved with SEB Animal Section, where I get to contribute to how the Society helps other early career researchers.

AE: That’s right, you co-organised a session on the pace-of-life syndrome (POLS) at the SEB Annual Meeting this summer. What was the inspiration behind this session and were you pleased with the range of talks?

JP: The idea for the session was born when I began working on brown trout behaviour and read about the POLS concept, then started thinking about applying it to my own experiments. As it seemed such a nice way to combine themes that are always presented in SEB meetings, I suggested to my co-workers to propose a session – but we then found out that Tommy Norin and Neil Metcalfe had hatched the same idea and so we organised the session together! The day was very successful in my opinion, thanks to the great diversity of talks, which all approached the same theme using modelling approaches or different organisms. The whole experience was encouraging and definitely worthwhile.

AE: You recently became the new deputy convener for the SEB Animal Section’s Endocrinology Group, what makes the SEB a good fit for the field of animal endocrinology?

JP: I joined the Animal Section as a deputy for Nic Bury who is the convenor for the comparative endocrinology theme. Although my research only partially overlaps with endocrinology, I appreciate the importance of hormones in regulating almost all physiological processes; it really can’t be overlooked. Within the SEB, researchers from all areas of organismal biology have the opportunity to interact and learn, which is really valuable for such an all encompassing research field as endocrinology. Similarly, SEB meetings have been very useful for myself and I have always learned important things and made great connections in the meetings.

AE: Are there any other areas of research you would like to explore in the future?

JP: Yes and no. In some ways, being interested in molecular and evolutionary biology, ecology and physiology in various species means that having a better focus could be more efficient, but I don’t think I can stop stepping into new fields. My latest project uses biological imaging, which I haven’t had the chance to work much with before, and which might well stay with me in future projects. I’m also fascinated by genome duplication events, which provide huge opportunities for the evolution of new physiological abilities, so hopefully I will get to do more research on these.

AE: What do you think are some of the challenges faced by today’s early career researchers that need to be addressed?

JP: I come from a place of very many privileges, and I think it is really important to realise that early career researchers still face quite diverse challenges. I would also like to see early-stage research careers treated and compensated more like other professional careers, because at present it is still a straight-up financial burden to the people who wish to embark on a science career due to the demands for moving, self-paid expenses or lower salaries. Depending where you live, there are also large discrepancies in how family leave and other personal leaves are allowed or compensated, and every country has room for improvement. Perhaps a specific challenge that might be universal is that the supervision and mentoring provided for ECRs should be more tailored to their needs; it is clear to me that all of us need a lot of help with our careers and it has become more difficult to find safe employment now than it has been in the past. It is also important that underrepresented minorities (URMs) receive support and that the people in the majority are aware of the challenges facing URMs which may have been invisible to themselves.

AE: Finally, having spent a lot of time researching both fish and bats, which has been your favourite to work with?

JP: After gaining some very interesting and valuable experiences studying bat biology with Ken Field, DeeAnn Reeder and Thomas Lilley (my spouse) at Bucknell University, I still found my real calling was with fish - they live under water, how can you beat that?! So, then I applied for a post-doc position in Finland where I could focus on salmonids, which have long been my passion and contain my favourite species, Arctic char and brown trout. They have complex life cycles and genomes and great physiological flexibility. We need to understand them better in order to conserve them and to learn more on their adaptation and evolution, especially in the face of climate change. It was also fun to work on a well-known and valued species and to have some real-world applied research goals, including the development of better fishing and fish stocking practices, as well as scientific ones.

Category: Animal Biology
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Alex Evans

Alex Evans

Alex Evans is a PhD student at the University of Leeds investigating the energetics of bird flight. In his spare time, Alex enjoys writing about the natural world, contributing to the Bird Brained Science blog and exploring other avenues of science communication.