Meet the InnoLabbers: Helka Kalliomäki


Image: This photo was taken in our backyard, which is one of my favourite places. During the past few months, I have gotten to work remotely while observing deer, foxes and rabbit babies from our kitchen window, which I have enjoyed a lot. 

This series introduces the members of University of Vaasa’s InnoLab research platform. Today we’re meeting Helka Kalliomäki.

What are you?

Hmm, what am I? I guess I am quite many things, some kind of weird combination of an extrovert and an introvert. On one hand I am a bit restless and a social factotum, enjoying all the fuzz and buzz around me and getting easily excited about new interesting things. On the other hand, I REALLY enjoy my moments of peace and quiet, and I have learnt to appreciate them. Sometimes that is the best thing ever: to sit in the office doing research and drinking coffee, by myself. I am also a mother of four, so that might have something to do with my growing appreciation of quiet thinking moments. Work-wise, it is about finding the balance between an introvert researcher and an extrovert collaborative professional; I have learnt that a right kind of mix is what works for me. By basic nature I am quite a positive as well as open and straightforward person, so if the balance is not right, I –and also you– can easily tell!

Your title at InnoLab is an associate professor, but what exactly do you do?

My title at InnoLab is associate professor in innovation policy, and my other foot will be still in regional studies at the School of Management. As an associate professor I will do research, teach, and supervise theses in regional studies, but an important part of my work is also building new multi- and interdisciplinary projects engaging diverse societal stakeholders. For example, before summer we just received a positive funding decision related to one really interesting EU project that we are starting together with a wide consortium of public and private actors in the Kvarken region. The project is related to innovations in electric regional aviation and cross-border collaboration. It is a perfect example of a project that requires versatile expertise as well as wide engagement to generate something new and meaningful – something that characterizes also the essence of today’s innovation policy. In addition to holistic innovation policy, my research interests relate to strategic urban development and collaborative research, which have been on my table for several years also in my previous positions at the University of Turku.

Sounds like a lot of work. Why bother?

Even though it sometimes is indeed quite a lot of work, I enjoy a lot of work as long as the work is interesting! As said, I like to have many things going on, and it is no surprise then that nowadays I would consider myself as quite the generalist. It was quite funny to hear when Mari, as a platform leader, once described me as a “platform”. It was flattering in a way, because that is very much what I enjoy doing: bridging people and ideas and kicking off new things. The flipside to that is that I need to have many people around me who have the patience to finish all the things that have been started =) That is what I am still practicing. But in a way that is exactly what I think we should still learn at the university: to recognize our strengths and to learn to work together as a team. It would absolutely never work if everyone was like me, and it wouldn’t be that good either if everyone would just be focusing on their own narrow things – so we need to learn to understand and respect that different orientations are needed and that we can all benefit from each others’ differences.

Imagine your phone rings. It’s the call you’ve been hoping for – what is it about?

That my relatives are coming to help with the kids for a few days and that I can just go to our summer cottage with a pile of books and tons of candy, and with zero obligations! This year has been quite tough, so also during this starting academic year it would be really important to try to find some time to recharge.

Just kidding, it’s actually a journalist. They’re finally doing a story on that one topic you’ve always wanted to give an interview on! What do you say?

Too bad, an extra holiday would have been nice! But I guess what I would at least like to talk about is related to my favorite topic: collaborative research and the many dimensions of it, also the critical ones. Not too long ago one of my colleagues, whom I really admire, was described as a “katu-uskottava tutkija” in one interview. It refers to the “street credibility” of a top performing academic researcher being able to collaborate in a credible and inspiring way with practitioners. When I heard this I though “wow, this is exactly the kind of researcher I want to be”, and hopefully I already am – at least to some extent. I think the world needs more this kind of researchers, and for my part, I would like to be an advocate for this! However, I have also learnt to recognize the many critical aspects related to the current attempts to increase the societal impact of research. I think we need to be aware of them and I would also like to study them in the future.

Good job. Too bad you can’t be the resident expert on every topic. What would you like to learn more about?

As said, because of my background in both geography and multi-disciplinary research, I would consider myself more a generalist than a specialist, e.g. of strategic urban development. Because of this generalist orientation, I would like to know more about basically everything. This is my strength and my weakness at the same time.  I am getting more and more comfortable in the kind of operational environment in which you need to constantly learn something new and learn to live with your limitations. I am often the one who asks the stupid questions in meetings. That said, I guess one topic I would like to learn more about in the near future is holistic innovation policy as it is related to these horizontal linkages (e.g. between different disciplines and actors) that come somehow natural to me.

Sounds interesting. Is that something I, too, should strive for?

I think we are in the middle of something very interesting when it comes to this balancing between disciplinary expertise and phenomenon-based multi- and interdisciplinary research. I definitely think that we should work towards increasing the societal relevance of our research, but not at all costs. This is interesting exactly because we don’t even know where we are going with all of this, we need to embrace the possibilities but also keep our eyes open!

Okay. Now recommend me something – anything!

A good book and a bag of candy is my solution to almost every problem. It might work for you too!

Any last advice for being both an effective researcher and a happy office worker?

This may sound a bit corny, but I definitely believe the key is that you use your time in something that you enjoy and believe in – effectiveness and happiness arise from that simple equation. At least from my own part I can say that following my intuition has led me to this point in my career. I have several times made a conscious decision to follow my own interests and gut feeling, and use my time in something that is important to me instead of just taking the easy path and following what is important to others, even though it has also meant difficult choices. So far I haven’t had to regret any of those decisions.

From the perspective of Helka’s colleagues: If Helka was a plant of any kind, what would she be – and why?

“If Helka were a fruit, she would be a banana: wholesome and full of energy.”

“I’m thinking of a pine tree: straightforward, strong and resilient – building material for anything that needs to last!”

“Helka reminds me of a willow – a very resilient plant that thrives in many surroundings and contributes greatly to the surrounding ecosystem. Willow also has soft catkins that represent Helka’s kind personality.”

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