Planning is key to success for researcher couple

“Behind every successful man there is a woman”, according to an old saying. So what about successful women? And what about couples where both are successful – how do they manage family life? LUM met Olle Melander and Marju Orho-Melander, who are among the Lund University researchers to have been awarded most prizes and grants in the field of medicine.

Olle Melander o Marju Orho-Melander LITEN

Olle Melander and Marju Orho-Melander.

The couple’s research has many common points. Both are studying the connections between genes and common diseases – in Marju Orho-Melander’s case, diabetes and obesity, in Olle Melander’s case, cardio-vascular disease. (See related article). They also met when they were doctoral students in the same group.

“I had followed diabetes researcher Leif Groop when he moved from Helsinki to Malmö, and Olle started his doctoral studies in the same lab in 1996. After that we got together very quickly”, said Marju Orho-Melander.

After earning their doctoral degrees, both saw their careers take off. They were both appointed professors in 2010. Marju Orho-Melander received the University’s local Fernström prize in 2010 and the prestigious ERC grant from the European Research Council this year. Olle Melander got the Fernström prize a little later, in 2013, but his ERC grant a little sooner, in 2011. They have also been awarded grants of millions of SEK from the Swedish Heart-Lung Foundation and the Swedish Research Council, among others.

“We have always been able to rejoice in each other’s success, and to avoid feeling envious. Although I have to admit that when Olle got his ERC grant I thought it ought to be my turn too at some point … But I had to apply six times to the ERC and made it as far as the interview four times, before I finally got through the sixth time!” said Marju Orho-Melander.

With two children, 12-year-old Wille and 10-year-old Mella, the couple do their best to live a normal family life, in spite of their intensive work. This means reserving weekends for family and avoiding discussions about work at the dinner table.

“And we don’t actually talk shop during the day either, since we have offices in different locations. We deal with all research discussions via email or scheduled meetings”, said Olle Melander.

He thinks that the balance between work and home life generally works well. What can upset the balance is the business trips.

“The trips are quite demanding, I must say. They are on the margins, a little beyond what you feel you can actually handle. At the same time, it is necessary not only to email and talk on the telephone to cooperation partners in other countries, but to actually meet in person sometimes”.

Does nothing suffer in the attempt to combine parenthood with top-level research – sleep, for example?

“No, we sleep a lot, we have to in order to manage. We go to bed early and wake up early. I can go to bed with the children and get up at half past three to get a bit of work done before breakfast. Olle gets up at five and runs ten kilometres”, explains Marju Orho-Melander. She also ran before getting a slipped disk, but now her exercise regime involves roller skis and yoga instead.

So sleep is important, along with planning. Both are very careful to use their waking hours as efficiently as possible. But of course something has to give.

“I long to be able to read more. But sometimes my head is so tired I can’t read, and months can pass before I have the energy to immerse myself in a book”, said Marju Orho-Melander.

She would also like to start singing again. Before having children, she sang in a motet choir, which she found very rewarding.

“Reading sheet music and singing are an incredibly good form of meditation. You use a part of the brain which is not normally engaged. I also really long to do that!”

The Melander couple have the same principal research specialisation – the interaction between genes and various diseases – which gives them an understanding of one another’s research issues. It also means that they can sometimes use the same equipment and analyses. One example of this is the expensive analyses that were required to map all the genes of the 28 000 participants in one of the major Malmö studies, which neither of them could have done alone.

Meanwhile they specialise in different diseases and base their work on different issues and methods. So they don’t have to compete directly for research grants. Their research teams are also of a slightly different nature.

“Olle is a physician and has several physicians in his team, and several Swedes. I am a biochemist and have mostly biochemists and epidemiologists in my team, which is also more international. This means that we and our colleagues think in slightly different ways and can provide each other with valuable insights. We usually organise common meetings for the teams once a year, which gives rise to many new research ideas”, said Marju Orho-Melander.

What do they see as their most exciting research findings through the years? For Olle Melander, one of the most interesting discoveries was that vasopressin, one of the body’s salt and water-regulating hormones, can predict future diabetes. The blood content of this hormone has proven to reflect a person’s risk for diabetes long before blood sugar levels have started to rise. The level of vasopressin is also linked to other diseases, such as high blood pressure and obesity.

“What makes me happy about this discovery in particular is that the level of vasopressin is treatable. There are already drugs which block the effects of the hormone. And it might be sufficient to drink a specially large amount of water? If you dilute the blood by drinking water, the body’s secretion of vasopressin decreases”, explained Olle Melander.

Marju Orho-Melander’s happiest research period was when it finally became possible to identify genes which are associated with the major common diseases. This breakthrough happened in 2007. At that point, it had become technically and financially possible to analyse not only individual genes but the entire human genome – all the genes at once.

“Until then, researchers had to select certain genes which they believed could be linked to various diseases. But there was not sufficient knowledge to choose the right genes or to analyse them in the right way, so these analyses were almost fruitless”, said Marju Orho-Melander.

She therefore remembers the years leading up to 2007 as frustrating, filled with hard work which gave no results.

“I was close to giving up then, to go on to something different. But it was lucky I didn’t because if I had I would be feeling really sorry for myself today!”

Text: Ingela Björk

Photo: Gunnar Menander

Genes and risk of disease

Marju Orho-Melander is researching the interaction between genes, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, and diseases like diabetes, obesity, dyslipidaemia and cancer. We currently know that there are several gene variants which increase the risk of these diseases.

Having an increased risk is not the same thing as actually developing the disease, however. It is therefore important to understand how to help those affected, through diet and exercise, to prevent the risk genes having an impact.

In recent years, Marju Orho-Melander has also started to get interested in the microflora of the intestinal tract, which can play an important role in the interaction between genes, diet and diseases. She is therefore part of the working group for diet and health within the MOS, Malmö Offspring Study. The participants in this study are the children and grandchildren of people who took part in a previous major Malmö study, Malmö Diet Cancer. The idea is to follow tendencies and risk factors over generations in the same family. A separate sub-study deals with food, the bacterial flora of the intestinal tract and its effect on health.

Olle Melander’s research specialises in genes and disease mechanisms connected to cardiovascular disease. He is also using material from the major studies completed and underway in Malmö.