NCMM Alumni: Harri Itkonen
Dr. Harri Itkonen joined NCMM as a PhD student in the Mills Group in 2010. He now has his own group at the University of Helsinki. Here, Harri details his career to date and how his NCMM experiences have helped shape his career.
Harri Itkonen at NCMM, May 2011. Photo: Ola Sæther.
Can you tell me a bit about your PhD project at NCMM and how you came to do a PhD in Norway?
Whilst I was working on my MSc in Finland, I had the opportunity to spend almost a year at the ‘Leibniz Institute on Aging’ in Jena, Germany. This experience assured me that I wanted to pursue my PhD training abroad. It also confirmed that, ideally, I wanted to do research in a clinically relevant context. I came across the position in Ian (Mills)’s group which sounded like a perfect fit for me. Ian already had a successful career in the UK before his move to NCMM. I was Ian’s first PhD student and, when I joined NCMM in 2010, I was also the first student in the new NCMM Facility. In practical terms when I joined, the Centre was still very new and was more of a very large room than a research facility. This ended up being a positive thing for two principal reasons: I participated and closely followed as the research facilities were being established and, in addition, Ian had a significant amount of time to develop the project I would pursue.
At the start, I worked with bioinformatics, mainly ChIP-seq and gene expression analysis. This was a good learning experience and it gave me some freedom in choosing what to work on. I think that researchers are much more motivated when they are jointly developing their projects and making the decisions on what direction to take.
My PhD focused on prostate cancer, in particular on the role of an enzyme called O-GlcNAc transferase (OGT), in this disease. The support that I got from Ian, and more broadly from NCMM, had significant impact on my career.
Can you give me an overview of your career since defending your thesis, and what you are currently working on?
I very much enjoyed being part of Ian’s lab and, as I had spent altogether one year visiting other labs during my PhD, I wanted to continue as a postdoc in the Mills Group. Ian obtained funding for a postdoc position to continue the work that I initiated during my PhD. I then successfully applied for this postdoc position in 2014.
My postdoc project in Ian’s group aimed to decipher how OGT regulates gene expression in prostate cancer cells. In order to deplete OGT activity from cells, we needed specific inhibitors. The leading scientist in the development of OGT inhibitors was, and still is, Professor Suzanne Walker (Harvard Medical School), who gave us the OGT inhibitors being developed in her lab. More importantly, we established a fruitful collaboration with the Walker group and I obtained a visiting fellowship to spend altogether one year at Harvard.
After my postdoc with Ian was over in 2017, Professor Walker offered me a position in her group. I was the only group member working on cancer biology, but overall the experience was fantastic. Harvard Medical School and the neighbouring Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) have excellent seminar series, and its also home to some of the leading researchers in their fields who are working on diverse projects. Overall, an excellent environment for a scientist to be in.
As my project at Harvard was coming to an end in 2019, I was offered an opportunity to join Professor Massimo Loda’s laboratory who was at the time based at DFCI. He was in the process of moving his group to Cornell University and invited me to be part of his group at Cornell. I joined the Loda lab in Manhattan, while the rest of my new group was still working at DFCI. As we were setting things up, I found myself in a similar situation to when I first joined NCMM: I had significant amount of time to reflect on what to do next.
The ability to reflect and develop ideas is of high importance. At this time, I also felt that I should be closer to my family and established the aim of returning to Europe. I got a chance to start my own group in the Department of Biochemistry and Developmental Biology, in the Faculty of Medicine (University of Helsinki), where I have been working since September 2020.
We have started our work, and I now have two MSc Students and a PhD student (February 2021). In the summer, I will host two MD-PhD students. Starting a group in a new environment in the midst of the pandemic has set up some challenges, but I am excited on how quickly we have set-up everything, and I look forward to further developing our projects and promoting my trainees’ careers.
How do you think a PhD at NCMM prepared you for where you are now?
I think the most important factor was having Ian as my supervisor. I was one of the first NCMM PhD students and it was a unique experience to join both a new group and a newly established centre. NCMM was, and continues to be, a relatively small institute. When I joined, there was a real community feel and things like the Friday pub and other social events were considered important. Ian and Preben (Morth) saw the value in these events, and so the early NCMM groups established positive momentum. I think reinforcing this team spirit is of high importance, and this is also something I aim to recreate in my own group.
Are you still in touch with your supervisor or former peers/colleagues?
I’m still collaborating with Ian and we are still publishing together, most recently in January 2021. I also keep up with some of the members of the wider group, including Alfonso Urbanucci and Morten Luhr. Morten was part of the Mills group, and later Autophagy project team. When I was still working at Harvard, Morten visited DFCI, and I also met Morten in Oslo before Christmas in 2020.
I think those of us who joined NCMM in its early days, and the team spirit we established, was of huge benefit to us and played a significant part in our careers. The opportunities that the Centre provided, and being a part of the international group Ian established, have served me well.