Professor at University of Turku
Starting Grant 2007 and Consolidator Grant 2014
Virpi Lummaa holds an Academy of Finland Professorship at the University of Turku, Finland. She is interested in ageing, lifespan and natural selection in contemporary human populations, looking at evolutionary, ecological and demographic factors. At present, Prof. Lummaa also focuses on senescence patterns of the Asian elephant, a long-lived mammal that offers unique opportunities to address ageing mechanisms. Her latest findings highlight the significant role that elephant grandmothers play to ensure the survival of the calves, providing vital baby elephant care comparable to childcare in human communities across the world.
Well, when I was a kid I really really loved animals and I thought what I would be doing is going to some adventure in a jungle and study animals there. I wanted to follow my great hero - Jane Goodall and go to study chimpanzees somewhere in Africa. But I discovered, there is no opportunities to study chimps in my University, so I end up working on humans which was kind of close enough cause it’s closest relative so that’s how I got into biology.
What was really fascinating me about humans is the life history and particularly women. „Why did I stop having children half way through the potential lifespan and have menopause?” And that’s really an revolutionary puzzle because no other specie is practically has that trade.
There’s two key questions there: „why do we live as long as we do and reproduce as long as we do?”, and then secondly: „why is there such enormous variation between different individuals and how and what age they do that?” So to study these questions what I needed was to be able to know detail life events of lot of individuals from birth to death. And to achieve that, what I’ve started doing was going to church archives and building pedigrees of people and studying those records.
What we discovered was that, actually living beyond that menopause age was beneficial for women because the grandmothers, as it turns out, provide really key help in the family in raising those children, so if the grandmothers continue living for long enough time, they are actually more successful in passing on their genes to the next generation. Because that way, they can assist the next generation to successfully raise their children.
I’m actually a single parent of two little kids and I also breed dogs so I have a lot of dogs as well. And basically juggling the career and science having kids, having dogs it’s not very easy and I've very recently been able to move back from UK to Finland and it’s been fantastic because now I’m more close to my mother and she’s able to help me with raising kids and raising dogs and being a scientist.
Getting the ERC award was really critical to actually build your own team so that you have a lot of talented people working together. We even go for run together every week to discuss our result its and was a bit hassle in Finland in winter pot. I guess I like adventures.
I love being back home, I like having my family back together every weekend, seeing the extended family. I believe in humans actually living in big social groups so I’m glad reunited with my group.
Photography: Kacper Pempel
Interview: Adam Easton