«Your opportunities are not in the past»


Prof. Dr. Hanna Kokko
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, Hanna Kokko had been an avid birdwatcher as a child, but studied physics and math. Only at the PhD level did she switch back to her old love. Her hobby is cooking and she runs the "Good Food Society", a cooking club for curious "chefs" who like to prepare foreign foods.

Website Prof. Dr. Hanna Kokko

Why did you choose to pursue science?
HK: Since I was a kid I have always been a birdwatcher, but when it came to choosing a subject at the University, I had no idea that biology could also have a mathematical component – and maths was something I was good at. I studied physics and pure and applied math and then discovered that some of the applied math examples came from biology. At the PhD stage I then switched to studying birds. Well, I think you move until you’re happy.

What do you like best about your work?
HK: I do love the academic environment. I enjoy being creative and working with the brightest young people. Thinking outside the box is highly satisfying.

Did you experience any dry spells or obstacles in your career? How did you overcome them?
HK: With my expertise in applied math I have always been a sought after person by empirically oriented biologists. They liked giving me their datasets. So I never really encountered dry spells. 

Who has given you the most support during your career? And what about your personal life?
HK: Mentors are terribly important during an academic career. When I was switching my PhD topic Bill Sutherland was particularly important to me, because he gave me confidence and due to him I started understanding that learning really doesn’t stop in your early 20s! In my private life my parents were supportive: As a kid I used to get up and out before five o’clock in the morning for my bird watching. My parents trusted me and thus never tried to stop or hinder my activites. They gave me the necessary freedom to become who I am. 

Did you have role models who have influenced your career? Who?
HK: My role models were not individual persons, but aspects of various persons. My mother surely influenced me a lot. She is not a scientist, but a book publisher, so I always had interesting people around me and I was not constrained by how things should be done. 

How do you maintain your work-life balance?
HK: I have no family, but lots of friends and lots of hobbies such as hiking, skiing and of course birdwatching. I am also interested in arts and have started etching and I run the «good food society», an informal cooking club for people who like preparing exotic meals and eating. 

What advice do you give to young researchers considering an academic career? 
HK: Do not define your expertise area too early. Read more, not only science papers, but also popular science books – and novels! – and go to seminars more widely than your actual topic.



Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
University of Zurich
Winterthurerstrasse 190
8057 Zurich