New professors 2014
Twenty-five new professors were inaugurated at Uppsala University on 14 November 2014 in the grand inauguration ceremony. Here they present their research.
My research focuses on allergy and asthma. At first it was experimental in nature, and I studied aspects including changes in blood flow in the respiratory mucosa in allergic reactions and from exposure to irritant substances. One of the facts I demonstrated was that exposure to cigarette smoke results in an increase in blood flow in the mucous membrane of the airway. This is because of the gas NO (nitrogen monoxide, also known as nitrogen oxide or nitric oxide) contained in the smoke, which has vasodilatory properties. In a sideline of this research, I showed that NO, which can also form in the body from enzymes in the respiratory mucosa, is found at elevated levels in the exhaled breath of asthma patients, and can be used as a measure of the degree of airway inflammation. This discovery led to commercial product development, and the method is now used clinically all over the world. Today, my research is mainly clinical, with the emphasis on finding and developing more usable biomarkers to improve asthma diagnostics further. It focuses particularly on infants with asthma, where diagnostic methods are lacking at present. My plan is to work for further development of collaboration between academics, healthcare and industry in the area. This is essential if the research is ultimately to benefit patients.
My research focuses on studies of hydrological processes. The earliest known civilisations, such as those that emerged on the fertile river plains along the Nile and the Indus, depended on access to water resources. These are crucial for people’s livelihoods and for creating conditions that favour socioeconomic development. Since people both benefit from water and contend with water-related disasters (floods and droughts), the hydrological regime is affected by dam construction, reservoirs, canals, defensive embankments and so on. My aim is to understand the dynamic relationship between water and humankind, by studying how communities impact on the hydrological regime while, at the same time, hydrological changes shape communities. My research has focused on three main lines of investigation in this context: understanding the interaction between people and water systems, exploring the scope for using the growing accessibility of remote analysis and global data, and estimating the intrinsic uncertainty that all modelling involves.
All organs in the body are supplied with blood vessels. These have general characteristics and functions, such as distributing gases and nutrients, but they also have organ-specific adaptations. Two extremes in this respect are the blood vessels in the brain and the kidneys. Those of the brain have exceptionally impermeable walls that prevent substances passing from the blood into the brain, other than by strictly regulated transport mechanisms. The blood vessels of the kidneys, on the other hand, especially those located in the filtration units (glomeruli), have walls that resemble a fine strainer; here, filtration of blood plasma gives rise to primary urine. Despite this difference, all blood vessels are composed of the same cell types, which have become specialised in various ways in different organs. Specialisation arises in molecular interaction between the blood vessel growing into an organ and the receiving organ. This takes place in the course of development, in many cases as early as the foetal stage. Our research is aimed at surveying and understanding the signals that govern the growth of blood vessels and organ-specific adaptation under normal conditions, and how these processes go wrong when the brain, kidneys and other organs become diseased.
Much global ill-health is due to malnutrition. Anyone affected at the foetal stage of life runs an elevated risk of illness and morbidity in childhood and overweight, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood. My research focuses on pregnant women’s and children’s nutritional status in low-income countries. The aim is, in cooperation with local healthcare and research stakeholders, to understand the causes of malnutrition and develop effective interventions to prevent it and reduce its impact. In Bangladesh, we have shown that child mortality risk falls sharply if malnourished women get extra food and micronutrients in early pregnancy. When their children reach school age, these dietary supplements during the mothers’ pregnancy mean that the children have reduced risk markers for adult cardiovascular disease. My research also includes other factors that affect mother–child nutritional status, such as domestic violence and exposure to toxic metals. Improved nutrition is vital both as an end and as a means of improving global health.
My research emphasis is on finding underlying mechanisms of type 2 diabetes and diabetic complications, such as kidney damage and cardiovascular disease. A long-term goal is to help develop improved methods of preventing and treating diabetes. This also includes new drug principles, where the research group conducts not only experimental studies at cell and molecular level but also clinical treatment studies among diabetic or obese patients. One central question in several ongoing research projects is the role of fatty tissue in the development of type 2 diabetes. The research is clarifying interaction between fat and other tissues in the body, which is partly regulated by hormones and nutrients. Tests are also being done, directly in fatty tissue obtained from healthy experimental subjects and diabetes patients, to determine the effects of various potential drugs. The group is also investigating the mechanisms underlying major side-effects of various immunosuppressive drugs, such as cortisone. These drugs inhibit the effects of insulin and can cause diabetes and other metabolic disorders, and this can be a major clinical problem in patients who have undergone organ transplantation. Gastric bypass, a surgical intervention to combat obesity, is a highly effective method for treating or curing diabetes when the patient is simultaneously obese, but the mechanisms of this are insufficiently known. Clinical experimental studies are elucidating the influence of this surgical treatment on the metabolism of fatty tissue and regulation of various hormones. In the future, this knowledge may help to optimise surgical treatment, and also to provide ideas for new principles of drug treatment for diabetes and obesity. Another vital task is to translate the results from the research projects described above into improved diagnostics and treatment in clinical practice. I am also involved in teaching and supervision of medical students, biomedical specialists, nurses and several researchers at PhD and postdoctoral level. My research group has a large network of partners – local, national and international. One important objective is to raise awareness of research in diabetes and metabolism at Uppsala University and the University Hospital. Another is to encourage further collaborations with other universities, and also with the business sector.
In the Hellenistic period, roughly 320–30 BC, the Mediterranean was the foremost communication link among the various states located around it. People, ideas and goods were shipped from place to place as never before. Nonetheless, the epoch is usually seen as one of Greek decline after what had been the classical heyday of ancient Athens, in particular. Many city-states lay along Asia Minor’s west coast and the key maritime trade route there. They were often prosperous and created superb culture. Simultaneously, the great powers of the day – the Hellenistic kingdoms – fought major wars for control over the region, which also suffered from devastating earthquakes. Kos was one such city-state, and I am working to reconstruct what happened there from various source materials. A clear alternative image of the island state under Hellenism has emerged from the results. Kos was independent, democratic, politically and militarily active, and economically strong, and it was flourishing culturally – all contrary to the current image of Greek city-states in decline.
Our genes contain all the information needed to build a new individual, and they also change from one generation to the next. Principles of population genetics describe how genes interrelate with one another and how they change, or evolve, over time and space. My research focuses on sorting out the interaction between genetic, evolutionary and demographic processes. I investigate the complex genetic patterns of variation found in humans, to understand our evolutionary and demographic history. Today, we can study millions of genetic variants in huge numbers of individuals, and the frequency of these variants differs somewhat from one part of the world to another owing to our complex prehistory. Using molecular genetics, we can also study genetic variants from human skeletal material many millennia old. This gives us genetic data over time that, along with models of population genetics and modern statistical methods, are opening up new ways of deciphering our past. Anatomically modern human beings developed a few hundred thousand years ago and we look, for example, for the genes that changed in this process. I am also studying how people have migrated across the world in the past 100,000 years, colonising new areas, and how these processes are connected with revolutionary cultural developments like the spread of agriculture. Genetics is in a very exciting phase, as we can now find out how the human genome has changed over time. My research on human evolutionary history is driven, above all, by the question ‘What makes us human beings unique?’
Evolution through natural selection is a mainstay of biology. However, it is not entirely clear which unit this selection affects, since the principles of natural selection can be applied to any biological unit whatsoever that displays variation, reproduction and inheritability. The fact that all life is built up hierarchically means that evolution can work at several different levels simultaneously. Throughout history, researchers have accepted the individual as the unit on which selection works, and the general perception has been that the genome (i.e. an individual’s whole genetic make-up) is an integrated, coordinated network that has been developed to produce viable individuals. Selection at several levels simultaneously, however, leaves scope for conflict between levels, for example between a gene and the individual carrying it. Conflicts of this kind are costly, and they are therefore often seen as a driving force for change. In my research, I use genomic methods and fungus model systems to study selection at several levels and their evolutionary consequences. My research group studies selfish genes, which break Mendel’s laws of inheritance and may be found in more than half of offspring, and selfish cell nuclei, which reproduce in a fungal mycelium although it does not benefit the mycelium. We study such issues as how these selfish elements arise and the response that takes place at a higher level to counteract the conflict they entail. Ultimately, I hope that my research can help to increase understanding of how natural selection drives development forward.
The purpose of my research is to describe and understand the dynamics of a chemical reaction from start (reactants) to finish (products), via various possible reaction pathways, by developing, analysing and implementing theoretical models and computation methods. We use theoretical methods from molecular physics and physical chemistry to compile a detailed description of the chemical reactions we are interested in, often based on quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics. Numerical tools from scientific computing, combined with effective computer implementations, are then used to solve the quantum-mechanical equations. My main interest has been in the quantum dynamics of small molecules that interact with ultra-rapid laser pulses, and in analysis and development of theoretical models and numerical methods, with a view to carrying out a thorough study of reactions in large molecular systems.
To understand how a disease arises, epidemiology is a valuable instrument. This science provides a searchlight for finding factors that can then be investigated further, for example with medical imaging methods. Work on medical quality registers is significant in this context. We have analysed the incidence of multiple sclerosis (MS) and factors contributing to genetic and environmental risk, and also studies of sex ratios owing to a growing preponderance of young women among the patients. Medical imaging investigations of the nervous system, especially magnetic resonance (MR), provide information about injuries and can be supplemented with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which investigates function and can map and correlate results with neural networks. Our MS studies are exploring causes of neurasthenia and cognitive problems, and also mechanisms in cold therapy. In fMRI studies of epilepsy, an impact on language has been identified. Since the onset of epileptic fits can reveal the location of brain damage, this approach can extend knowledge of brain function. Our studies of fits in which patients experience religious and/or ecstatic emotions in the form of a ‘sensed presence’ (the perceived presence of a loving figure) revealed epilepsy in the insula of the brain. Sleep disorders are an important field, and have been so particularly in Sweden since a vaccination against swine influenza virus (‘swine flu’) gave hundreds of people narcolepsy. The ‘sleepy teenager’ is in focus, both clinically and in terms of research. Conditions like narcolepsy, Kleine–Levin syndrome (KLS), depression, delayed sleep-phase disorder, drug abuse, mental disturbances and somatic diseases involving fatigability are identified, as is dependence on social media and/or computer games. To date, our studies have described symptom presentation, short-term memory impairment and medical-imaging deviations in KLS.
Electricity is something we take for granted in our everyday life. The electrical system of the future faces a number of challenges connected with the vigorous launch of intermittent sources, while local electricity production affects operation and balancing in the grid. My research focuses on the generators in the electricity system and how they are designed, operated and controlled in association with the rest of the power system. New methods of analysis, such as finite element simulations and modern power electronics, permit a better understanding of phenomena that arise in the electricity system, and to work more actively with the components of the system. Increased knowledge is often beneficial, but sometimes accompanied by challenges. For example, what should we do with all the measuring data that can easily be produced? How can we design robust components without overdimensioning them and making technical solutions more costly? I am working to understand these components better while, at the same time, investigating what technological development can offer in terms of its potential for an improved future electricity system.
Zoonotic microorganisms are hosted in nature by various animals, and cause a range of diseases in us human beings. Many zoonotic agents consist of viruses, which are often transmitted to humans via arthropod vectors, such as mosquitoes and ticks. My research initially focused on the Puumala virus that causes Nephropathia epidemica (‘vole fever’) in the north of Sweden and large tracts of Europe and Russia. The Puumala virus belongs to the hanta virus group, in which we find other rodent-borne variants that cause considerably more severe forms of what is termed ‘haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome’ (HFRS). Over the years, my research has broadened to include various members of the genus Flavivirus that are pathogenic to humans (such as tick-borne encephalitis virus, TBEV, and also West Nile virus), highly pathogenic haemorrhagic fever viruses (such as Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus, CCHF), highly pathogenic avian influenza (‘bird flu’) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The research spans molecular virology, evolution, epidemiology, ecology (for example, how the host animals and vectors are affected by the infections, and how the viruses circulate or are transmitted between the host animal, vector and human), and also how the host animals and humans react to the infections. Increased knowledge in these areas is helping to give us a better understanding of which potential threats are represented by various zoonotic viruses and how we can protect ourselves, how we become better at treating the illnesses they cause and how we can produce effective vaccines. My research is being conducted in national and international collaborations with microbiologists, molecular biologists, infectious disease specialists, veterinary surgeons, entomologists and ecologists. As a professor of virology at Uppsala University, besides researching and teaching students at various levels, I also seek to work to improve the conditions for, and future of, virological research.
Intensive research has given us fundamental knowledge of how cells are transformed in cancer. On the other hand, our knowledge is considerably inferior when it comes to the mechanisms behind the capacity of tumours to metastasise. Research in this area may make it possible to develop new anti-cancer therapies. I am engaged in basic medical research in collaboration with preclinical researchers, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. In my research, I have studied the ability of tumour cells to transform from specialised epithelial cells into invasive cells, resembling connective tissue, capable of metastasis. This process is associated with the development of cancer stem cells. I have investigated how growth factors produced by tumour cells regulate the transformation into invasive cells and emergence of cancer stem cells. My research has identified transcription factors and protein kinases that regulate these processes. In the immediate future, I shall continue to survey in detail the basic mechanisms that regulate the metastasising capacity of cancer cells, and also the mechanisms underlying development of stem cells. My main aim is to find inhibitors of metastasis and development of cancer stem cells that can be used for treating cancer patients. As a professor of medical biochemistry, as well as carrying out research and teaching, I want to work for the recruitment of young, promising researchers to our university and to support and help them in their academic careers in biomedical research.
Social sciences are characterised by the multiplicity of methods used for conducting studies. This is partly due to the particular nature of the objects of investigation, their capacity for reflection and the fact that researchers themselves are part of the society they study. Roughly half of all articles on social science subjects in academic journals use some type of number-based argumentation, i.e. quantitative methods. These are especially useful for studying large-scale empirical phenomena. With small random selections, conclusions can be drawn about much larger populations. It is, for example, possible to investigate whether certain individual traits (for example, a free church background and liberal political sympathies) are associated more often than could reasonably have been caused merely by chance. I have used quantitative methods in many of my studies, which have usually been in the field of medical sociology, the border area between medicine and social sciences that is concerned with issues of health (or illness, or death) in various demographic groups. My main specialist area has long been suicidology, in which the medical sociological issues may generally be said to concern the role played by people’s social surroundings (from their immediate circumstances to society at large) in suicide mortality. This varies sharply, for example by a factor of more than 30, among the countries that have statistics on the phenomenon.
The immune system we are born with is vitally important in enabling us to defend ourselves against invading microorganisms. But it is also involved in other bodily processes, such as healing of wounds and formation of new blood vessels. Certain immune cells are dispersed in the great majority of tissues from birth, but their role in the development and function of organs is still unclear. Other immune cells must first migrate from the blood vessels and into tissue, in order then to navigate their way to the site of action, where they can perform their functions. To fight an infection without causing undue tissue damage, it is extremely important for the right immune cells to reach the right place, at the right time and in the right number. We have recently realised that immune cells have differing, situation-dependent functions and that the microenvironment can determine whether they either are voracious bacteria eaters or stimulate blood-vessel formation, for example. My research is aimed at clarifying how the immune cells find their way to their targets, how they interact with and affect other cells they meet on their way, and how their functions are regulated in the healthy, inflamed or hypoxic (low-oxygen) tissue.
Archaeologists study the human past through material remains and relics. These include objects, habitation sites, graves etc., but also written sources. We work in the field, libraries and laboratories. In the past few decades, more intangible aspects of life in the remote past have been explored, and it is in this area that I have mainly worked. In my research I have long focused in particular on the Iron Age and the Viking period in the Nordic region (approx. 400–1100 AD). What I have attempted to investigate, above all, is the conceptual world of the time: religion, magic and ideology. In my work I have also addressed issues of warfare, conflict and cultural contact. Similar themes permeate my other research area, historical archaeology from the 17th century, mainly in the Pacific Region, Asia and the Indian Ocean. In recent years I have researched battlefields of the Second World War, the opium trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, and piracy in a global perspective.
Ongoing globalisation and Europeanisation have entailed changes in the conditions facing administrative law, the discipline concerned with public agencies’ functions in society and how they relate to individual people. In many areas, issues of administrative law can no longer be dealt with solely within a single country’s borders. In my research, I have been interested in how agencies’ roles are affected, and also how regulatory frameworks of administrative law are applied in an international context. How can networks of agencies that act beyond the scope of the state be governed and controlled? How can ideals of administrative law – efficient, transparent and legally secure decision-making processes – be attained? One area to which I have paid particular attention is rules for cross-border data protection, especially in medical research using biobanks. The capacity of the new technology to obtain, store and distribute large quantities of information gives rise to opportunities and challenges, and this calls for solutions involving administrative law to be applicable across national borders.
Proteins perform many vital functions in the cell. Correct synthesis and folding of proteins is therefore very important for cell survival. Protein synthesis is a complex process involving complicated interaction among different components in the apparatus of protein synthesis, which includes ribosomes, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), transfer RNA (tRNA) and translation factors. In my research, I am keen to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the various stages in the protein synthesis. I use bacteria, above all, as model systems since doing so enables us to explore the governing principles of protein synthesis in a relatively simple system. It also allows us to study how antibiotics attack bacterial systems and how antibiotic resistance arises in bacteria. Indirectly, these studies may lead to development of new antibiotics, which is extremely important for the whole of our society. In the area of protein folding, I am especially interested in the role of ribosomes in the folding process. In my research group, we have already shown that the protein-folding activity of the ribosome (PFAR), which is dependent on ribosomal RNA, is a target for anti-prion drugs. I am now trying to understand the connection between PFAR and prion propagation, using yeast prions and recombinant prion proteins as model systems.
One of our most common assumptions about the world and its components is the idea that there is a real distinction between facts and values. Facts are considered solid and reliable, the basis of truth and knowledge. Values, on the other hand, are regarded as expressions of both personal and cultural opinions that reflect our feelings and psychological make-up. By using philosophical methods to analyse this distinction, we can investigate its foundations more thoroughly and ask ourselves whether these two domains are genuinely as separate as they appear to be. In my research I have concentrated on value, and primarily aesthetic value – what it is and how it may be said to exist in the world. Is it possible to develop a theory that explains the metaphysical position of aesthetic value and its unique combination of projection and observation? As both David Hume and Immanuel Kant noted, aesthetic value is particularly interesting in this respect since, on the one hand, it appears to be the most subjective form of value but, on the other, it is also based on objective characteristics in the world. I have explored the philosophical relationships between perception, emotional response and judgement in aesthetic experience and their conceivable connections with cognitive value. I have also written about the way in which empirical data about the brain and its functions could elucidate our analyses of aesthetic experience, the aesthetic value of ideas (including philosophical and mathematical notions) and the interplay among various kinds of values in art.
Common X-ray methods are used to depict the shape, density and structure of various parts of the body (anatomical depiction) in order to diagnose pathological changes. In my research, which concerns cancer diagnostics in particular, I have used the PET camera to produce images of the various biological functions of tumours (functional depiction). I have focused mainly on tumours that start in hormone-forming tissues, such as adrenal and parathyroid glands, and the neuroendocrine tumours that start in endocrine cells in, for example, the intestinal wall and the endocrine cell islands of the pancreas. I have developed and tested various PET substances that accumulate in tumour cells, by using one of its various transport systems or by binding to recipient structures on the cell surface. The latest development makes use of the strengths of various techniques by combining anatomical and functional depiction in the same equipment. By combining PET with computer tomography (PET/CT) and PET with magnetic resonance (PET/MR), we can achieve the aggregate image volumes of the two techniques, and this makes the diagnostics more powerful than when the techniques are used separately.
Secretion is the process whereby cells discharge proteins and other substances into surrounding tissue. Disruptions in the secretion process can give rise to severe illnesses. One example is diabetes, which in most cases is caused by inadequate release of insulin, the hormone that reduces blood sugar, from the pancreatic beta cells. My research is oriented towards studying the cellular mechanisms that control secretion. Using molecular tools and advanced techniques of light microscopy, we can directly follow how stimulating a cell with nutrients, hormones or nerve signals results in changes in the concentration or location of signal molecules, and how this affects secretion. There is a particular focus on the processes that govern release of insulin and other hormones involved in blood-sugar regulation from the islets of Langerhans, which are the hormone-producing microorgans of the pancreas. The studies have found, for example, that the concentration of many messenger substances undergoes cyclical variations at intervals of a few minutes, which cause pulsating release of hormones. These variations in secretion enhance the effect of the hormones. Knowledge of the regulatory mechanisms of the secretion creates scope for improved treatment of illnesses like diabetes and, at best, scope for preventing their onset.
The skin is a complex, multifunctional organ. One function is to act as a barrier between the inside of the body and its surroundings. The outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, prevents water losses from the body and protects against infections and mechanical and chemical influences. The epidermis contains epithelial cells responsible for forming a surface layer composed of complex lipids. These have a fundamental role in the skin’s barrier function. In my research, I have studied how the surface skin barrier is formed and how chemicals in self-care products affect the lipid layer. I have also focused on how the skin barrier works normally and in certain skin diseases. The research concentrates mainly on two types of unusual hereditary skin diseases. I study, first, diseases caused by genetic defects that affect formation of the barrier and, second, diseases where genetic defects cause a weakened cell skeleton in the cells of the epidermis. In-depth knowledge in these areas can explain various disease mechanisms. This is of great importance in the development of treatments for diseases that affect the skin’s barrier function, such as eczema and severe, sometimes life-threatening hereditary skin disorders.
In the West, economic inequality has become more pronounced over the past few decades. In a well-functioning market economy, disparities in people’s incomes and assets signal that hard work and entrepreneurial risk-taking are worthwhile. But many economic models also show how a polarised distribution of prosperity can destabilise society’s political institutions and inhibit economic growth. Economics researchers therefore face a key task in describing the degree of inequality and, at the same time, analysing its origin and implications. My research is about economic inequality. In a number of studies, I have investigated the spread and variability of income and asset distribution in Sweden and other countries. In the years ahead, I want to continue to study these processes and, in particular, gain a more profound understanding of what capital and wealth mean for inequality. Why have incomes from assets become so significant in the Swedish income elite, while they play a considerably smaller role in other western countries? What are the implications of the increased importance of inherited assets in the economy where income distribution is concerned, or how does this impact on the significance of family background for success in life? How harmful were taxes on property and inheritance, and what lessons from their abolition can be applied in the shaping of the future tax system? These are some of the questions I want to work on during my forthcoming years as a professor of economics at Uppsala University.
The aorta, the main artery of the body, conveys blood from the heart out into the body. Rupture of an aortic aneurysm is a relatively common and potentially life-threatening event. An aortic aneurysm, an abnormal bulge in the aorta, grows slowly and commonly without symptoms, eventually bursting, which results in a major and often fatal internal haemorrhage. I carry out basic research, close to patients, with the aim of improving the treatment of patients with aortic aneurysm. To prevent a rupture, a prophylactic operation is performed in which the bulging portion of the blood vessel is replaced by an artificial section. Early detection is therefore important, and I have been interested in screening of risk groups, especially elderly men, which has proved to halve mortality from the disease. Uppsala was the first county in Sweden where a screening programme for aortic aneurysm was introduced, in 2006, since when these programmes have successively become clinical routine throughout the country. Vascular surgery has undergone rapid technical development from open to minimally invasive methods. The majority of operations are now performed endovascularly, i.e. from the inside of the blood vessel, and patients with advanced aortic disease for which there used to be no suitable treatment options can now be treated. One key role of a professor of surgery is to evaluate and develop new surgical treatment methods. In collaboration with scientists engaged in basic research, I am studying the mechanisms underlying the onset and development of the disease, which is a precondition for developing non-surgical medical treatment options. New, growth-inhibiting drugs are also being developed and tested.
Ever since I first looked into a microscope, I have been fascinated by the world concealed on the micrometre scale. For more than 300 years, scientists have used microscopes, and our modern biology and medicine are largely based on knowledge from observations made by means of microscopy. Present-day microscopes are often connected to digital cameras. This means that we can process the images using mathematical algorithms in a computer. My research is oriented towards development of these algorithms, i.e. digital image analysis, to obtain quantitative information from microscope data. Modern robotics makes it possible to collect digital images, in more than two dimensions and in numerous wavelength intervals, of huge numbers of samples over time. With digital image analysis, we can automatically find objects and measure, for example, their form, colour and pattern, reproducibly and rapidly. I conduct my research in close collaboration with other researchers, mainly in biomedicine. We use technology for such purposes as measuring how cells are affected by different drug molecules and studying genetic changes in tumour tissue in detail.