Kerri Hunter - EuroScholars Exchange in Helsinki

Kerri Hunter in Helsinki

by Maureen Paisley
posted 16 August 2010

What do Finnish rock festivals, the Icelandic Eyjafjoell volcanic eruption and the battle to find a cure for HED have in common?

Downtown Helsinki

Senate Square, Helsinki

For Kerri Hunter, a recent B.Sc. Honours Genetics grad, it sums up her adventurous exchange experience in Finland.

In 2008, Kerri, a Faculty of Science student, went to a Helsinki rock festival and had a blast.  She loved the festival, and she loved Helsinki. Even before she left Finland, she knew she just had to return.

When Kerri graduated (with First Class Honours) in May 2009, she hadn’t forgotten her dream of returning to Finland.  She discovered the EuroScholars program though an internet search, and she began to formulate a plan. 

EuroScholars is a study-abroad program for advanced students where you can conduct research at a high-caliber European institution.  EuroScholars targets highly-talented students from the USA and Canada, and much to Kerri’s delight, one of the participating universities was the University of Helsinki.

Kerri applied to the program and after successfully completing in two rounds of the selection process, was accepted.  She began her six-month stay in Helsinki in January 2010. 

Finding a cure for HED

Her project in developmental biology was called: Molecular Regulation of Animal Development.  In the lab, she worked on mouse models with Hypohidrotic Excodermal Dysplasia (HED), a human genetic disorder that results in the abnormal development of the skin, hair, nails, teeth and sweat glands.  The exciting part of the work is that scientists have discovered that any variation in 3 specific molecules causes the disease, and they are very hopeful that a cure can be found.  Kerri’s part in the project included screening diseased mouse embryos for expression patterns of other candidate genes, using the Whole Mount in situ Hybridization (WMISH) technique.

The lab at the Institute of Biotechnology brought together people from around the world, and Kerri had the opportunity to work on the project with a Ph.D. student from France. 

“At the Institute of Biotechnology, they are very particular about lab technique,” she explains.  She diligently worked on her project and honed her lab techniques.

The eruption of Eyjafjoell in Iceland dramaticallt changed travel plans

In 2010, the Euroscholars got together to present their work to a panel of professors and Ph.D. students in Zurich.  The presentation date coincided with the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjoell in Iceland, and the Euroscholars had fortunately converged in Zurich before the planes were grounded, but Kerri found that she was not able to fly back to Helsinki as planned.

To get back to Helsinki, Kerri braved the throngs of stranded passengers and traveled by train to Hamburg and by using a circuitous route involving six different trains, eventually arrived in Sweden. She was able to take a ferry back to Helsinki to arrive just in time to make her previously-booked student trip to Russia!

The volcanic eruption also meant that Kerri missed one of her exams at the University of Helsinki.  When Kerri emailed her professor that she would miss her exam because of the volcanic eruption, he wrote back saying: “It is the best excuse for missing an exam I have ever received!”

Kerri says that her Faculty of Science background had given her a strong theoretical grounding in the subject matter, and she was amazed in the differences in the Finnish university system.   Kerri explains: “When we got our exam results, the professor sent us an email asking us if anyone wanted to rewrite the exam to improve our marks.”  A system that is markedly different from the North American experience.

Kerri had a great time and learned a lot in the Helsinki research lab.  Armed with her strong degree from the University of Manitoba and her international research experience, she hopes to return to Europe to complete an M.Sc.  She highly recommends the EuroScholars program to other students but stresses that you have to be willing to take the initiative and the responsibility to make sure everything comes together – especially during volcanic eruptions!  Even with the lab work and courses, Kerri found the time to get to a few rock festivals and the visit the Arctic Circle.  Quite the blast!