Science and Executive Director Katja Bargum: “As a researcher, it seemed unfair for me to be able to be part of such incredible stories of nature”

Katja Bargum, Science and Executive Director of the Nessling Foundation, loves ants, choir singing and communications. In the Nessling Foundation, she wants to promote the sustainability transformation.

Katja Bargum, you wrote your doctoral thesis on the social evolution of ants. Tell us a fun fact about ants. 

Most people have only ever seen female ants. This is because all the worker ants in the nest and outside the anthill are female.  

I also presented this fact in two non-fiction books I’ve written. Together with Heikki Helanterä, I wrote Suuri suomalainen muurahaiskirja (‘The Great Finnish Ant Book’) in 2019, and the children’s book Muurahaisten ennätyskirja, Myrornas rekordbok (‘The Record Book of Ants’), written by me and illustrated by Jenny Lucander, was published last year. 

What fascinates me about ants is the dynamics of their coexistence; why are they so social and so selflessly cooperative? For example, there are ants that explode, spreading suffocating mucus from their abdomen, if the nest is threatened by an intruder. They commit suicide to save the others. Isn’t it strange that an individual creature can be so selfless? 

However, behind the selflessness is the constant risk of the cooperative structure crumbling if individual ants decide to become freeloaders. In this sense, an anthill is reminiscent of environmental issues; we all know that natural systems should be protected, but the individual is easily drawn towards overconsumption. 

You’ve actually written three non-fiction books, of which Kutistuva turska ja muita evoluution ihmeitä (‘The Shrinking Cod and Other Wonders of Evolution’) won the State Award for Public Information in 2011 and Muurahaisten ennätyskirja was nominated for the Finlandia Prize in Children’s and Youth Literature in 2022. It’s obvious that you have a knack for writing non-fiction. What’s your secret? 

I think it’s the joy of curiosity. When I was a researcher, it seemed unfair for me to be able to be part of such incredible stories of nature. Not everyone had the chance to get as close to the source as I did in my discussions with other researchers. It was incredibly inspiring and made me want to share what I learned. 

As I was writing, I wanted to keep introducing surprising and interesting facts. I also wanted to build a story to work as a framework for the facts. In all of my books, I’ve collaborated with amazingly skilled people. We complete each other. For example, Jenny Lucander illustrated Muurahaisten ennätyskirja in a captivating way that depicts nature realistically but not photographically.  

However, when working on the book, I had to remind her that the ants in the illustrations couldn’t walk on two legs as they actually walk on six legs. Furthermore, an ant couldn’t hold anything with its feet as they need their legs for walking; they carry stuff in their mouths instead. In that situation, I had to take on the role of the buzzkill researcher who sticks to the facts. 

Apart from writing non-fiction, what do you do in your free time? 

I’ve sung in choirs since I was a child. It’s my favourite hobby! I did take a break from it when my kids were small, but I went back a few years ago. Now, I sing in a mixed choir called Ahjo Ensemble.  

In choir singing, it’s not the individual voice that counts but the combination of the voices. The cooperation experienced in a choir is some sort of a merging. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens, when I can feel the person next to me breath in sync with me and know that we are all completely in rhythm. 

You’ve worked in the media and communications industry for a long time. Are there some lessons learned that you are bringing to the Nessling Foundation? 

I’d like to think that I bring an understanding of impact; what we need in this time to ensure that research reaches a larger variety of people. The world of communications, but also the world in a wider scale, have become fragmented and, in some ways, polarised. It’s difficult to navigate an environment like that if you don’t understand that you can’t constantly interact with everyone or do the same things for each person. Cultural homogeneity is breaking down both globally and in Finland. 

I also think that communications are increasingly present in all activities. It is not limited to the work of communications professionals but it’s also about strategically considering what we bring to the world. This also applies to researchers and all the ways in which they can be active. I think that the communications involved in the work of a researcher mean much more than speaking at events. 

While working in the media industry, you always kept close ties with the scientific community. What is it about science that interests you? 

It’s true. I’ve been a member of the Committee for Public Information for a total of 12 years, the past three as the Chair. Consequently, I’ve been able to thoroughly familiarise myself with things such as grant processes. I’ve also acted as a member of the board of the University of Oulu and worked in the communications team of the University of Helsinki. Of course, by actively producing scientific communications as well, I’ve been able to maintain a connection with the world of research. 

Since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by how things work. I’ve always been curious to learn why things are as they are. The older I get, the more I’m intrigued by the opportunities of science. What can we learn and what is the next step?  

What inspires you in working for the Nessling Foundation? 

I’m greatly inspired by the work we do in the foundation to support the active work of the researchers and projects we are funding. We call this Grant Plus. It’s exactly the kind of support that I would’ve needed as a researcher! And I can see that there is still need for that support. 

At the moment, the sustainability transformation is not proceeding as quickly as it should, and we haven’t reached an agreement on the direction of the changes. That is why I’m glad we are able to support researchers as a financier and create networks for researchers so that they can also support each other.  

It’s been interesting to see the development of the Nessling Foundation from a traditional grant foundation to a more active participant in the field. That’s the kind of progress I wish to see continued. 

The latest Nessling project, Puistokatu 4, makes this easy. I’m immensely inspired by the opportunities offered by the Space for Science and Hope located in Puistokatu 4. It’s a meeting place for people already working for the sustainability transformation, enabling them to offer each other support and new viewpoints. The place also enables encounters with those less familiar with the topic. Puistokatu 4 is a safe, zero-hierarchy space that introduces a planet-sized life from different angles. 

“At the moment, the sustainability transformation is not proceeding as quickly as it should.”

The work of the Nessling Foundation expedites the sustainability transformation. What does the sustainability transformation mean to you? 

“Transformation” is a big word, because it means that something must also be broken; it’s more than just a change. 

For me, the most difficult and, at the same time, the most important aspect of the sustainability transformation is the chance to imagine different worlds made possible by the transformation. What could life be like? It’s important to see the good sides so that we have a dream to strive for, even if it means changing and letting go of many things. 

How can we solve the ecological crisis? 

If we knew the answer to this, we might already stand on the other side of the sustainability transformation. I feel that the transformation requires the right time and enough people to work for it. I believe that “enough people” doesn’t even have to mean the majority of people. Studies show that major social change can take place when even a small but still critical mass of people drivesit forward. I also believe that more people than ever agree that now is the time. 

Pictures: Annukka Pakarinen