Where are they now? Meet Mari Niemi: following the science from academia to industry

FIMM alumna Mari Niemi began her academic career in neuroscience and committed her postdoctoral research to COVID-19 host genetics before taking a career step into applied data science in industry.

Dr. Niemi in a blue shirt standing in an outdoor setting.
Dr. Mari Niemi Photo: Robert Ekblom

Dr. Mari Niemi completed her PhD degree at Cambridge University, working on human genetics of neurodevelopmental disorders at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. She then conducted postdoctoral research at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) in the genetics of COVID-19 patients. In 2021, she stepped into the big pharma world as a Senior Expert in data science at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR). I recently caught up with Dr. Niemi and learned about her career in human genetics research, transition to the pharmaceutical industry and her future outlook.

How did you come to do your postdoc at FIMM & what did you enjoy most about that time?

For my PhD, I was working in neurodevelopmental disorders, and FIMM was a natural place to go next, in terms of the science and the people there. I joined Dr. Andrea Ganna’s newly established research group. I had been collaborating with Andrea, at the end of my PhD for a few months. When I joined FIMM, we decided to investigate a couple of new projects following my interests. Initially, I focused on neuropsychiatric disorders, analyzing single-cell RNA sequencing data, in collaboration with FIMM Director Mark Daly. I also started working with FinnGen, a large public-private partnership collecting and analyzing genome and health data from 500,000 Finnish citizens. 

Then the COVID pandemic hit. I had the right skills to build the pipeline for incoming data, and analyze that data, along with several colleagues. Things got really busy, so I then decided to dedicate my time to the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative and FinnGen. By the end of my postdoc, I was focusing on these two projects.

At FIMM, the teamwork and sharing successes, like reaching milestones, really inspired me and made my time and projects there enjoyable.

Tell me a little more about what it was like to work as part of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative.

The COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative is a very large collaborative effort in the human genetics community that all started from a Tweet! There are now about 120 research groups or studies that are part of the initiative. It’s a bottom-up community effort that generates, shares and analyzes data on genetic associations to infection susceptibility and severe disease after infection. 

Knowing that our results could potentially be taken up by others, maybe companies to try to develop drugs, repurpose existing ones and come up with ways to help people, it really felt immediate. We worked urgently towards data release goals. We pushed ourselves more than we would have in normal circumstances. Everyone was in the same boat and we felt like it was an important thing to do.

One new challenge for me was being interviewed by media outlets about our results. We had to be especially thoughtful and clear. An article that we wrote, for example, on the genetic findings, was impactful, and we had to carefully explain how to interpret genetic association. Genetics is a key part, but not the only part of severe disease. It was exciting, but also quite a bit of pressure.

How did your time at FIMM help to shape your career? 

During my postdoc at FIMM, I definitely learned valuable skills and new knowledge that I carried on with me as important for my work now and in years ahead. Ethics in research studies is one good example. I learned how to set up from scratch, modify, and write ethics applications including scientific plans. Going through the whole process of getting stakeholders’ approvals and data agreements set up was a big part of my postdoc experience. I now feel much more prepared for and appreciative of what goes into setting up very large-scale scientific studies.

I also learned more about myself and how I work. I enjoy most, and even work better in, a group where there are many colleagues who are all working towards the same goal. I think the PhD experience is often one where you're kind of working on your own, on your project, and your supervisor is helping you with it. My postdoc was primarily during the COVID-19 period, when we were all working from home. I didn't see my colleagues in person for a year and a half, so integrating into a team was really important. For example, with the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, we had micro teams, and we set goals every week, met up virtually and talked about how the work was going. This way our work was as clear as possible and we were able to stay sane.

Having such an understanding of yourself is important not only for satisfaction in your work, but also when you plan your future, the things you want to work on, and the kind of positions you want to pursue.

You recently took a position in a pharmaceutical company. Tell me about your current position. 

Novartis overall has different disease focus areas, and one of them is neuroscience - diseases and disorders of the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system - where I am working. Simply put, we are trying to find new drugs that will treat disease. I work in NIBR, which contains the early phase, the discovery part, of the pipeline. More specifically, I use data science and genetics, my areas of expertise, to answer very targeted questions. Currently I’m working on indications such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. In my role, I can work on more than one project at a time, which also means that there is a lot of variability in the work day. It's more applied data science compared to academic research. I find it really motivating with such a specific focus. 

At NIBR, I have a lot of accountability for my own work, but at the same time I’m integrated into a very interdisciplinary team with lab scientists and data analysts. In the pharmaceutical industry, it can take a decade to turn a molecule into a medicine. And, it's very clear that you can't own a project from the start to end, like you might have during your PhD. It's a huge team effort. And, this fits my working-style very well!

Do you still collaborate with anyone from FIMM?

NIBR is really open to collaborating with academia. It’s essential for us, actually. In fact, NIBR is already collaborating with FinnGen. I've only been working here for six months, but there have already been a couple of situations where I’ve had the opportunity to leverage the academic network. It's very important to have a network that you've built in your previous career in academia.

How is your current position preparing you for the future?

Looking back over my career steps so far, I can say that I’ve always been following the science. When I did my Master's project, I started to realize what the research world looked like. And then I followed the science, and ended up doing a PhD in what I was really interested in, which was both the methods of genome-wide association studies and neuroscience. During my postdoc, I ended up doing COVID-19 research, because it was something I could apply my skills to and try to help in that situation. I learned so many important things from being part of that consortium.

As for future steps, I just got started here at NIBR, and I feel like I'm going in the right direction, in terms of the kind of work I’m doing. From neuroscience to data science, I feel that I’m helping to build an understanding of how we solve problems in the bigger picture. For now, I'm really happy to continue on this path and see where it takes me. I like to seize opportunities and I trust that this way I’m always going to end up where I want to be. Even in the long run, I think I’ll always look for tangible problems to solve.

If I only knew then what I know now…what advice would you give your younger self?

After my Master's, I spent a year before my PhD to learn computational approaches in human genetics. That year, 2014, was actually my first year at FIMM. I had started my career as a lab scientist and even though I didn't have formal training for it, computational approaches were what I wanted to dig into. I joined Prof. Samuli Ripatti’s group and followed that interest in data science. Thinking about this experience, my advice would be to keep pursuing what you are interested in. Being motivated is crucial for your own mental health, but also for what you want to do in your life. Following what you're motivated by is really, really important. 

Also, I’d remind myself that people perceive you based on what you show to them, in good and bad. For some years, especially after switching to computational work, I really struggled with confidence when talking about my scientific ideas or the research that I was doing. I think this really also shone through. I started paying more attention to it, and eventually, I learned not to be constantly ashamed or scared to say what I think and talk about the ideas I have. It’s OK for others to question your ideas, and what you really want is to turn that into a two-way conversation. That’s what science is. Letting go of some of the fear of being wrong, or looking silly and just presenting your ideas with a bit of confidence really can get you quite far, I think. Don’t get in your own way.

Brief career summary

Dr. Mari Niemi was initially trained in biomedical sciences, neuroscience and mental health (B.Sc. 2012) and human molecular genetics (M.Sc. 2013) at Imperial College London. She then spent a year (2014) at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) to learn computational methods and approaches to human genetics with Prof. Samuli Ripatti. In 2018, she completed her PhD in human genetics of neurodevelopmental disorders at the University of Cambridge, working with Dr. Jeffrey Barrett at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. She then stayed on for a short postdoc with Dr. Hilary Martin, and in 2019 joined the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) as a postdoctoral researcher working on the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative with Drs. Andrea Ganna and Mark Daly. Since September 2021, she has been Senior Expert, Data Science at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) in Basel Switzerland.

The “Where Are They Now? Nordic EMBL Partnership Alumni Careers” profiles introduce readers to alumni of the Nordic EMBL Partnership and the careers that they have embarked on.