2014 Academy of Finland Awards go to Irmeli Mustalahti and Petri Ala-Laurila

24 November 2014

On Thursday 27 November 2014 in Helsinki, the Academy of Finland will present the 2014 Academy of Finland Awards to two distinguished researchers. The recipients are Academy Research Fellow Irmeli Mustalahti from the University of Eastern Finland and Academy Research Fellow Petri Ala-Laurila from the University of Helsinki.


Award for social impact goes to a keen promoter of research into environmental policy

Academy Research Fellow Irmeli Mustalahti is an active lecturer, writer and debater who is not afraid to take a stand on global issues related to development cooperation and natural resources. Mustalahti has successfully championed research into environmental policy and promoted the general appeal of development studies. Over her career, Mustalahti has built an admirably extensive network of international collaborators. In addition to her academic merits, Mustalahti has been called in as a consultant and an expert in several development projects around the world. Her research also has policy relevance: the state administration and various development projects have benefited from her expertise in designing and implementing environmental programmes.

Irmeli Mustalahti is a development researcher specialised in international environmental administration and policy. She studies the opportunities and challenges of participatory natural resource management. The key research question for Mustalahti is whether it is possible to use a citizen focus and implement participatory natural resource management. The world faces tough choices. Should we cut down forests in the interests of food and energy production, or focus on forest conservation? Forests are effective carbon sinks but also important income sources for rural people. Increasingly, we should listen to what local communities have to say. The more opportunities to get involved, the fairer the decision-making is perceived to be, which may also improve the management of natural resources. Mustalahti is interested in how interactive and participatory policy-making works, in how it shows in and how it influences the management and conservation of natural resources at different levels.

At present, Mustalahti and her team are conducting a comparative study into the opportunities and threats concerning participatory governance in combating deforestation and forest degradation. The target countries for the study are Tanzania, Nepal, Mexico and Laos, where the research is focused on the social and unpredictable outcomes of environmental programmes designed to curb climate change. Mustalahti aims to identify global change processes that influence justice at different levels of environmental administration. The research is expected to yield new information to support the planning of future projects as well as policy-making.

The Academy of Finland Award for Social Impact is granted to a researcher who has significantly contributed to increasing public awareness of scientific research or the researcher’s job, inspired interest in science, actively contributed to public debate in society, or otherwise strengthened the role, application and impact of science and research in society.


Visual sensitivity researcher receives award for scientific courage

Academy Research Fellow Petri Ala-Laurila is without a doubt one of Finland’s most promising young biophysicists with a bright future in international neurophysiology ahead of him. Ala-Laurila has proven to be an open-minded researcher who is not afraid of risk-taking. He studies the mechanisms by which visual data are processed in neural circuits, focusing on how the visual system is able to detect minute signals produced by only a handful of photons. Ala-Laurila has a diverse educational background, which is a necessity in implementing such multidisciplinary research projects. He received his doctoral training at Helsinki University of Technology (now Aalto University), whereby he has extensive knowledge of chemistry, physics and mathematics. He also has in-depth knowledge of neurobiology, having studied it at the University of Helsinki. He has also spent two consecutive four-year postdoctoral periods in the US in top teams in Seattle and Boston.

The visual system operates with remarkable fidelity, coping with changes in ambient light that may vary billion-fold. Our visual perception is in many respects superior to, for example, cameras operating in comparable conditions. Ala-Laurila and his team are investigating the key mechanisms that set the absolute limits for vision. The bespoke technological equipment at the team’s laboratory is state-of-the-art. To measure the absolute capacity of the retina, the team uses methods and equipment found almost nowhere else in the world. Ala-Laurila’s research is a seamless blend of electrophysiology, behavioural tests at different levels of the visual system, mathematical modelling of the retina, and psychophysics. His work is unique, as it involves analysing vision from the molecular and cellular level all the way to the entire visual system level.

The retina is like a secret doorway to the mechanisms in the human brain that process neural information. Ala-Laurila’s results will help understand the absolute limits of the signal processing capacity of small neural circuits. The results can be further utilised in designing better equipment for night vision, for instance. They can also shed new light on the causes of certain retinal diseases. Thanks to their universal applicability, the results can also be applied to signal processing studies of other sensory systems.

The Academy of Finland Award for Scientific Courage is granted to a researcher who has shown exceptional scientific audacity, creativity or innovation in research. The award can be granted for a novel or original research idea, for forward-looking work that crosses scientific boundaries or for a willingness to take risks in research.


Encouragement through awards

This is the twelfth time that the Academy of Finland Awards will be presented. Recipients must be Academy Research Fellows or work as Academy-funded Postdoctoral Researchers. Nominations are submitted by the Academy’s research councils to the Academy Board, which makes the final decisions. The purpose of the awards is to recognise and encourage outstanding researchers with dynamic career prospects and to highlight goals and objectives the Academy considers important. The recipients are presented with a mouth-blown ornament, entitled “The Moment”, designed by Miia Liesegang.

More information:

• Vice President for Administration Ossi Malmberg, Academy of Finland, tel. +358 295 335 003, firstname.lastname(at)
• Irmeli Mustalahti, Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, University of Eastern Finland, tel. +358 50 563 2071, irmeli.mustalahti(at)
• Petri Ala-Laurila, Department of Biosciences, University of Helsinki, tel. +358 294 159 863, petri.ala-laurila(at)

Photos and videos

• Photos of the winners are available on the Academy’s website at
To find the photos, go to the photo gallery and search with the winners’ names.
• Videos (with subtitles) about the winners are available from 27 November at 20.00 at and on the Academy’s YouTube channel.

Academy of Finland Communications
Communications Specialist Terhi Loukiainen
tel. +358 295 335 068

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