Medical Doctors in Research: Let’s Meet Ulrika Hänninen, M.D.

“For medical research to truly benefit the patients, it’s important that we have also research oriented medical doctors”

By: Ulrika Hänninen, Alison Ollikainen and Tiia Pelkonen

Suomenkielinen käännös täällä

It is notoriously hard to be accepted to study medicine: in spring 2019, altogether 3134 people applied for the 145 places available at the University of Helsinki (more statistics here). For medical research to truly benefit the patients, it’s important that we have also research oriented medical doctors, but combining medical studies and / or clinical work with research can be challenging. To make it a bit easier, first year medical students at the University of Helsinki are encouraged to apply for a specific MD PhD program, which allows them try out different research groups during the summers to find the right group and research topic on which to complete their PhD, and hopefully to continue on a career of clinical research. Since throughout these ‘summer rotations’ the students’ salary is paid by the Faculty of Medicine, it is a good opportunity for the research groups also to attract research oriented medical students.


The MD PhD program makes it easier to combine medical studies with research, there are, of course medical students, or already licensed MDs, who are not part of the program, also do research and complete a PhD degree. Here we are introducing one, Ulrika Hänninen, who is finishing her PhD from Prof. Lauri Aaltonen’s Tumor Genomics research group. Lauri himself is an MD with a stellar research career, and his group frequently host both MD PhD program students, as well as young MDs such as Ulrika.


Subtitles available in both Finnish and English from the video settings.

Can you introduce yourself?

I’m Ulrika Hänninen and I graduated as an MD 2013 after which I’ve been working as a doctoral student in the Tumor Genomics lab. Currently I’m writing my doctoral thesis.

You’re coming to the end of your PhD, what has been your experience?

I’m very happy I decided to commit on doing research full-time. I’ve always been interested in research but it wasn’t until closer to my graduation that I started thinking what I actually wanted to do. Some ways I also felt I wasn’t fully ready for clinical work so I weighed my options and found a summer job in our lab. I’m glad I took that chance as that turned into a doctoral student position and I’ve got the opportunity to be part of high-quality cancer research.

It has been a versatile, exciting, and an educational experience. As one of the largest biomedical research groups in Finland, you work with people with different backgrounds bringing together their expertise. You strive to achieve common goals in an inspiring atmosphere and learn a lot from each other. And I’ve been lucky to have such amazing colleagues.

What’s your PhD mainly focused on?

I study genetic changes found in small bowel and colorectal cancer. My focus is on the protein coding regions in the DNA, called the exome. The general aim is to characterize mutations that might bring growth advantage to tumors. Understanding how tumors develop also helps in identifying which changes could potentially be used one day as targets in drug development.

What is the most significant finding in your research on small bowel cancers?

My most extensive project was on small bowel adenocarcinomas (SBAs), where we collected a population-based set of tumors around Finland with the help of the Finnish Cancer Registry. By exome sequencing 106 tumors, thus far the largest exome set on SBA, we were able to define most frequently mutated genes and signalling pathways together with other factors characterizing this tumor type.

SBA is a rare cancer and thus its molecular background hasn’t been extensively studied. Our study confirmed that these tumors display differences from colorectal cancer regarding their mutation content. Molecular knowledge on SBA is needed since it’s an aggressive disease and its incidence is slowly rising.

How do you think this work could impact on treatment/future?

SBA has been treated similarly to colorectal cancer in the advanced setting. Our study together with other recent molecular studies have demonstrated genetic differences between different intestinal cancers, suggesting new future pathways for treatment specified to SBA. Based on improved understanding of this tumor type, the first set of guidelines for the treatment of SBA have now been published. Further research efforts to better understand this rare cancer are, however, still required.

Could you give some advice to medical students who might be interested to work in research?

Even though some might think basic research is distant from the clinical world, I found them to complement each other. Being involved in research gives you a broader and deeper understanding on the medical field. You learn new perspectives and, for example, to evaluate literature and value well-conducted research. I’ve also found knowledge on genetics to be relevant and applicable in various fields of medicine.

If you’re interested in research, don’t be afraid to contact research groups to see what’s it about. As with anything, you learn to do research by doing it. To me it opened a new world with a possibility to work in international collaborations. Combining research with medical studies is possible, as research work usually has flexible hours. Finally, I’ve been asked whether it’s harder to go to clinical work now but to me it actually feels easier. I’m more ready to face new challenges and I hope, in the future, to combine both research and clinical work.

Regardless of where your interests lie, don’t be afraid to find your own path.

Ulrika Hänninen
Ulrika Hänninen, M.D., PhD student in the Tumor Genomics lab, attending the 2018 AACR Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL.

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