Beyond measurable legacies
Given the hundreds, if not thousands, of Finnish scientists influenced by Ilkka Hanski, I, a Malagasy scientist, feel misplaced to write about him. Even in Helsinki, random Finnish persons I talked to in bars have heard about him. The more curious non-scientists can google his name and realize his success as a scientist. His seminal work on the Glanville fritillary butterfly in Åland island; the large number of students trained, scientific publications, and grants acquired; and prestigious prizes in his field he received illustrate his exceptional scientific merits. Since Ilkka was a scientist, it is natural to look at him by standards of scientific merits. But Ilkka was more than a scientist. When I first met Ilkka, I was oblivious of his fame, and it was his non-scientific merits that I appreciated and still appreciate the most.
My name is Tanjona Ramiadantsoa and I was one of the many PhD students he trained. People often ask me how did I end up in Finland? Depending who asks, I provide a boring or a fairy answer. If a Finnish or an ecologist asks, the boring answer is: “If Ilkka Hanski and Otso Ovaskainen—my other PhD advisor—want to work with you, you go”. Otherwise, I narrate a fairy story as incredulous as the commonalities between the two countries. Finland is a Nordic country with introvert people which tops the world in most human development indices, and Madagascar: a southern country with over-smiley people which bottoms the world in the same indices. The condensed fairy answer is: “I was napping next to a dead wood in the jungle (because Madagascar is just jungle)* when a foreign researcher woke me up and asked if I want to do a PhD in Finland and … ta-da”. Believe it, the most gullible can briefly wonder the veracity of my answer. Nevertheless, the story is a metaphor of how unlikely I ended up in Finland.
Back then, I was an ignorant mathematician with burgeoning interest in ecology. I had no idea who Ilkka was, but he was conducting field work in Madagascar and Patricia Wright (an American primatologist) suggested we meet. I was struck by how unrushed our first conversation was and the interest he had in me. Who spends so much time talking to a random person—in retrospect not a very Finnish behavior? Even today, he showed more interest talking to me than most scientists I meet. Although being efficient is a virtue of great scientist, the time he allocated to casual conversations seems to outweigh the time he allocated to project meetings. His office door was always open and ready to chat without rush. His generosity with time endured for all the time I have known him.
His second act of generosity was even more memorable, during that first meeting, he gave me a book!!! I have never received a book in my life (remember I was in the jungle sleeping) and a random person gave me a book. The book was spot on: a very basic introduction to mathematical ecology, i.e., using mathematics to understand how population changes in time and space. I was enlightened, I finally had a glimpse of how I can apply my math skills in ecology. He also signed the book which captures how my life dramatically changed. In retrospect, he might have had a secret plan to help Malagasy students, create more connections in Madagascar, or other reasons, all possibly true. The bottom line, I was a lucky one.
And my luck continued when I moved to Finland. Well, a person of color moving into one of the whitest countries… Things were actually easy. The Metapopulation Research Group that Ilkka Hanski founded was diverse with over 70 researchers from different field of science, technology, engineer, and mathematics (STEM) and originating from over 15 nationalities. The environment fostered exchanges among different ideas and bathed everyone in diversity. I might have been one of the oddest members of that group (a jungle boy) but I did not feel an outsider nor left out by the rest of the group. As a person of color, I got exposed to how a person of color can be himself and treated fairly. My interactions with the researchers especially with Ilkka epitomized the much-sought equity. Thanks to the environment Ilkka created.
He spoiled Malagasy people, and me, sometimes. In 2012, Ilkka had an expedition to Borneo. The project assessed if dung beetles have moved to higher altitude due to the increase in temperature during the last 25 years. I was a mathematician and could not make the difference between a dung beetle and a wasp, but I was part of the crew. He said he wanted to show me the land of my ancestors (ancestors of Malagasy people indeed come from southern Borneo). That teasing was part of his geeky humor but indeed he gave me the opportunity to see the land of my ancestor. During another field work in Madagascar, a Malagasy student and a friend of mine was aware of his fame and was afraid to talk to him. Aware of the situation, he approached her and sought to ease the perceptible discomfort. As they conversed, she shyly asked about secrets to attain such success and fame. His advised to ignore success or fame and try do the right things to the best of one’s knowledge.
His generosity became infectious and things began to happen in Madagascar. He was a major artisan of the bridge between Madagascar and Finland, two unlikely countries to meet. Numerous exchanges between the two countries ensued: study-abroad courses that brought together Malagasy and Finnish students, semester long exchange programs that brought Malagasy students to Finland and Finnish students to Madagascar, the birth of non-governmental organization projects aiming to improve livelihood of rural communities, the proliferation of Suomi-Madagascar seura that managed to support underprivileged kids in rural Madagascar. Those projects are obviously not his, but they might not have happened without him. These are examples of non-standard merits.
At this stage, it sounds like I am here to praise the one that no longer needs to be praised. Although praises are due, I do not think that is what he really wants. His goals were to create a better world through the lens of ecology. One of his late major projects linked medicine and ecology. Investigating the importance of biodiversity on human well-being. Although the idea on how human benefited from biodiversity is not new (pollination, climate regulation etc.). His late big project showed how biodiversity directly influence our health. With other colleagues, they found that early exposure to biodiversity might reduce incidence of chronic inflammatory disorders such as asthma and allergy.
During the last six months I have spent significant time with his entire family. Although Ilkka often gets the spotlight, it became apparent that each member of his family played a massive role on how he was and what he became. Eeva, Katri, Eveliina and Matti’s direct and indirect influences on his non-scientific merits are undeniable. For instance, I recognized the same generosity in them. Sometimes, I wonder if they instilled that in Ilkka. I will do more research which will probably be the topic of another blog :-).
“I was lucky in my whole life but ran out of luck at the end” Ilkka said as he was reflecting on the late diagnosis of his cancer. These lucks should not go in vain. Madagascar got a glimpse of that luck, a silver bullet that managed to promote directly and indirectly research, education, diversity, equality, and conservation. A luck that we are trying to perpetuate thousand kilometers from his home country. Obviously, he cared more about his birth country where he generously dedicated his time, fortune, and knowledge. The Ilkka Hanski Nature Network to protect biodiversity in southern Finland is probably his greatest non-scientific legacy. What is left is to perpetuate that legacy so that the whole country becomes a winning team. Our efforts should not be a burden but as an act of generosity, not in honor of Ilkka Hanski but in doing the right thing for Finland and for a better world.
Saturday, August 8th, 2020
*apologies about the prejudice but at least it is a fun story Tanjona Ramiadantsoa Adjunct Professor, University of Fianarantsoa