Searching for aerosol particle clusters: Hanna Vehkamäki

About one year ago, out of the blue, I contacted Prof. Hanna Vehkamäki and introduced myself as passionate about gender equality and equal opportunities. I heard she was keen on the same themes and I wanted to talk about what could be done to create a more positive environment for women here in Kumpulan Kampus. The outcome of this meeting was the start of our successful network of women. I am very glad that she accepted to share her advice and her story here on our blog: welcome!

Could you introduce yourself?

I am a professor in computational aerosol physics at the Department of Physics.

In simple words, what is your research about?

My research is theoretical and computational work on understanding on molecular level how trace gas molecules (such as sulphuric acid, ammonia, organics and water) in the air collide and stick together to form clusters that eventually can grow to larger aerosol particles that can affect health and climate

When and why did you decide to pursue a career in physics?

At high school my mathematics and physics teacher was very inspiring, he demanded a lot but was at the same time fair and encouraging. I can not really say whether it was the subject or the teacher that had the decisive role. I enjoyed solving problems that were sufficiently hard so that the internal reward was great when I understood. I asked the teacher whether I should take mathematics or physics an my main subject at the university, and he said physics, as the things he knows I enjoy doing most are central in university physics rather than mathematics

What are the hardest challenges of being a team leader?

Being open, honest and fair at the same time as trying to be a good leader with a professional attitude to leadership. And obtaining a constant stream of funding…

What do you consider your greatest science achievement?

Contributing to the realization that a significant fraction of key trace gas molecules can be attached to very small clusters with only a few molecules. Earlier the picture in the minds of atmospheric scientists was mostly that the clusters grow when single gas molecules collide with them, and cluster-cluster collisions are insignificantly rare as there a much more single molecules that clusters. Now we know or suspect that in certain chemical mixtures smallest clusters and their collisions to other clusters can be very important. Experimentalist have also started to see the implications of this, which is very exciting

Last May you received the Maikki Friberg award for your efforts to promote gender equality in science: what motivates you? What do you reward as your best achievements and what challenges are you focusing on now?

Motivation: To help to make the abilities of all different kinds of people blossom, and strive for a working environment where creativity is not hampered by subordination, humiliation, neglect, extreme competition or other bad spirit.

Best achievement: Increased awareness of work well being and equality (not only gender but also linguistic, cultural etc) issues at our division , and the fact our division has an equality and work well being group, with also male members. The group monitors well being by surveys and design measures to improve   the culture of the community.

Focus now: We have lately focused on information flow, and meeting culture, as these are important factors in creating the feeling of being and ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’, having means to affect your work situation or feeling frustrated and powerless. This benefits men and women alike, and is thus easy to justify something to be invested in.

What do you love to do in your spare time?

Read, often something related to history, do some exercise such as walk, orienteer and swim, play board games, listen to metal music. Some of these hobbies I share with my 8 and 10 year old daughters and husband.

Do you have any career advice to share with young physicists?

Working hard is essential no matter how talented you are, but do start taking care of your of physical and mental well being early on, and make it a habit. It makes you more effective and improves your output rather than stealing time from scientific achievements. Learn to know methods and people also out of the box of your immediate MSc or PhD training group.

Do you have a message for girls who are physics students or are considering to study or work in physics?

You don’t need to fit a certain pattern to be a good physicist or researcher in general. Diversity is really good for science and creativity. You have all the ingredient to became a physicist, it is your own interest and motivation that matters.

Mathematics as an artwork: Juliette Kennedy

Here we go with another interview to introduce a lady rocking science here at University of Helsinki: Juliette Kennedy. Juliette is a Lecturer at HY, currently visiting the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge, UK. Beside working in mathematical logic, she is an active participant of the academic life and promoter of interdisciplinary activities.

Could you introduce yourself?

I am a university lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. My area(s) is (are) logic and the foundations of mathematics. This encompasses mathematical logic, set theory, and the history and philosophy of logic.

In simple words, what is your research about?

Right now I am working on a kind of invariance, and this is how you detect it: if you take your favorite canonical mathematical structure most of the time it is built out first order logic, the logic in which the quantifiers range over elements of a given domain. I ask the question, what happens if you change the logic? To, say, second order logic, in which the quantifiers range over subsets of the domain.

Sometimes you get the same thing back, but sometimes you get a new structure.

How did you fall in love with mathematics?

I was not interested in it as a teenager. I wanted to write novels! But I happened to take a math course at NYU while I was an undergraduate there. The teacher was really great! From then on my fate was sealed.

One occasion on which mathematics really amazed you…

Hard to choose just one! Recently I was amazed by Åsa Hirvonen’s lectures on the Main Gap Theorem of Saharon Shelah, which she gave in her model theory course last summer as part of the Scandinavian Logic Society Summer School in Logic. To simplify the statement of the theorem just a little bit, it says that countable theories are either “classifiable”, which means that they have relatively few models and admit “geometric” invariants—like the basis of a vector space; or, in the nonclassifiable case, they have the maximum number of models possible. Also in the nonclassifiable case the models are very entangled with eachother, meaning that it is very hard to tell them apart. The mathematical statement of this entanglement is really beautiful, and the proof itself is majestic. The theorem took many years and about one hundred papers to prove—or so I have heard—but Åsa gave everyone a real sense of the proof in one week. That was amazing!

You publish papers on art as well. Does that relate to mathematics still or is it a parallel passion and research?

I think the answer is that both are true. I think it is very important to engage with the culture of your time, so for me the form this takes is art and curating. I believe art tells us something very important about what it means to be human; tells us where we are in our consciousness. On the other hand as a theorist I ask myself the question, can mathematical constructions be treated as artworks? Most of my curating is about this question in some form or other.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to face? And the achievement you are most proud of?

Biggest obstacle: Being a girl, no doubt!! I felt like a real “fish out of water” while I was an undergraduate (in the 1980s), even so that I had wonderful professors and I really loved my courses. Then in graduate school at CUNY I had to deal with a professor who decided he was in love with me. Phone calls morning, noon and night, and lots of other bad stuff went on. He stole years of my life.


Achievement I am most proud of: I asked a question in 2009 that nobody had asked before. It turned out to be a very good question, in that it has led to some deep results—at least my collaborators and I think the results are deep! Something else I am proud of is that my niece went into mathematics, getting her Ph.D.  in statistical methods related to public health, specifically water-born diseases. When she was a child we played a lot of math games, like generating sequences of values related to the Collatz conjecture (also called the 3n+1 conjecture), just for fun. I guess it was no surprise that on her first day of university she declared a math major! Still I take some credit for that.

What mathematician of the past has most inspired you?

Julia Robinson. She was a wonderful mathematician, worked on so-called decision problems. She is the “R” of the celebrated MRDP Theorem, which gives a negative answer to Hilbert’s Tenth Problem: is there an algorithm that tells you, if you input a Diophantine equation, whether it has solutions in the integers? I admire her as a person very much. In her public life she was politically active (working on left-wing causes), also her character was very modest. She struggled with all kinds of obstacles, one being that she was in poor health most of her life. But she always met these obstacles with grace and optimism. I highly recommend the biography of her written by her sister, Constance Reid.

Can you describe your perfect day off work?

Do you mean a day off, away from math? Or day of work? A perfect day off work is walking along the coast of Ireland with my husband. A perfect day OF work is making progress on a paper, whether it is by working alone or at the blackboard with my collaborators Menachem Magidor and Jouko Väänänen.

Do you have a message for girls who are mathematics students or are considering to study mathematics?

This is a great time to enter mathematics for women, so don’t hesitate to follow your interest! If you decide to become a mathematician though, please marry somebody who is willing to follow you to YOUR job, not insist that you have to follow them to THEIR job. In my case moving to where my husband’s job is worked out really well, because I had a job (of assistant) waiting for me. But I have seen too many women pass up great opportunities, or not apply for positions they would otherwise be in the running for, because it entails living abroad, and the partner is not willing to move, or because there is a perception that his job is more important. I can say though, that from what I have observed,  young Finnish men are generally very enlightened when it comes to gender equality. And the older ones aren’t so bad either.

In the world of particles: Eija Tuominen

I got to know Eija through our community and I learned about her passion to fight abuse, bullying and harassment when she volunteered and actively participated in organising a well-being event at the university. I am very grateful that she accepted to share her story with me and with our followers: welcome Eija!

Could you introduce yourself?

Eija Tuominen, Docent of Instrumentation of Particle Physics, Dr.Sc.(Tech); scientist and physicist. Depending who is asking: semiconductor, particle or nuclear physicist. In addition, single-parent continuously struggling with work-life-balance.

In simple words, what is your research about?

I do experimental research on radiation detectors, or instruments for large particle and nuclear physics experiments. My specialty is semiconductor detectors but I also work with gas-filled detectors as well as with the development of quality assurance methods. I am also a member of CERN CMS experiment to study particle physics.

What is your typical day like?

On a typical day, I am a “Firefighter” in a “Department Store of Science”: I am in charge of Helsinki Detector Laboratory that is a national infrastructure to support research projects working with the instrumentation of particle and nuclear physics. We have a lot to do with limited resources. And in experimental physics the things typically do not go as smoothly as planned.

On successful days I also have the joy to be a typical researcher. This means that I do research, education and societal interaction: designing measurement systems, taking and analyzing measurement data, writing or reviewing scientific articles or presentations, supervising students, giving lectures, and attending visitors. I also participate in conferences, seminars, meetings and experimental tests about my scientific subject both in Finland and abroad.

My typical days continue well beyond the working hours: As voluntary work I lecture courses of semiconductor physics and radiation detectors. In addition, as a hobby I study subject courses of university pedagogy.

What of Physics attracted you so much?

Mathematics and physics were a very natural choice for me. I liked them and they were easy for me. I also had good and enthusiastic [female] teachers. Actually, it never even occurred to me that I should choose to study something else just because I was a girl. Thus, all through the high school I knew that I will go to the University of Technology. However, I ended up studying at the Department of Technical Physics just because it was the most difficult place to get into, and the challenge intrigued me. I have never regretted.

What is the professional achievement you are most proud of?

I am very proud of still being a physicist: Combining single-parenthood and international scientific career has been a challenge, especially when my daughter was very small. But I have got wonderful support both from my friends and family and from my colleagues and the scientific community.  Despite the challenge, I have managed to perform so well in my work that my fixed-term researcher positions have been continuously renewed during the last 12 years.

What do you love to do in your free time?

I love my family and my friends and my cat. Most of all I love my daughter. I spend much time with them. Whatever the weather, I enjoy bicycling to work and back. I relax with yoga, Pilates, knitting and science fiction movies. My voluntary work among single-parents makes me happy. I also have positions of trust in single parent organizations. And, I strive to become a better university teacher.

You helped realizing last spring well-being event in Kumpula and I know you are very active in fighting violence against women. Can you tell more?

We women have enough challenges in science and society even without the humiliating and paralyzing phenomenon of sexual abuse and violence. There should definitely be zero tolerance for any kinds of harassment. Some 15 years ago as a young boss I ended up witnessing a case of sexual harassment in my vicinity at the University. Nowadays in my voluntary work with single-parent families, domestic violence is an issue that comes along all too often. I am sad that there is still need to discuss these themes, also in our University. But definitely the times are changing: 15 years ago, I was sure to lose my job for taking a stand – but now our faculty was swift to organize a well-announced well-being event.

Your piece of advice for postgrad students and junior researchers…

Being a scientist is a fascinating career. Choose it – but do not expect it to be easy: Especially after the post-doc period it will not be enough that you talented, proficient and hard-working. Only the most ambitious, the luckiest and those who are ready to make sacrifices will get to stay in Academia. Most of you will need to tolerate insecurity while keeping on applying for another fixed-term contract one after another. When you are young and independent and ready to go abroad you are fine. But when you have a spouse with another career and children with schools and networks of their own, the life becomes different.

Do you have a message for girls and women studying or working in Physics?

Together we are strong! I truly believe that the active network of Women Scientist will benefit us all. Together we have a powerful voice to bring forward and find solutions to the special obstacles that we still face in science. Although direct inequality is nowadays rare, there is still a lot of hidden structures and prejudices that affect the fair development of our careers.

Life-work balance in academia: Minna Nikunen

About one year ago I attended an interesting event in Aalto University: “The Value of Diversity in Physics and Mathematics”. Among the speakers was Minna Nikunen, an affirmed senior researcher of gender studies and sociology now at University of Tampere. Minna, could you introduce yourself?

I am a senior researcher at the University of Tampere, School of Social Sciences and humanities, in gender studies. I am currently working in a project in which we study young adults and how they define successfulness and social exclusion and how they strive towards adulthood and working life.

I know there’s still some confusion about the definition of gender studies. Can you explain in simple words what they are about?

In gender studies we inspect the social aspects of sex and sexuality. Gender (roughly said social sex role) is not same in cultures, or in every phase in history. In some cultures there are three genders, and in some cultures those defined as physically women can be social men, and so on. People often think that features and typical ways to behave for women and me are universal and have always been that way, but if you think further, you know this is not the truth. For instance, in 80’s and 90’s people though that girls are naturally better in languages than boys and boys better in math than girls: Pisa research has actually shown that this is not the case anymore. So, in gender studies we are interested how people conceive differences between women and men, and how these interpretations affect many aspects of our social life, for instance working life roles and career advancement.

In particular, what is your area of research?

I am interested in gendered aspect of work and employment. Currently I am studying young adults and gendered and classed aspects of their future plans and definitions on being successful and being marginalized.

You published several papers [paper 1, paper 2, …] on the relation between work flexibility in academia and family duties in Finland. Can you highlight some of your findings?

I think it is interesting that even though academics think that university is a good workplace for parents because of this flexibility, still many thinks that having children affects women’s careers. Take for example international mobility. Actually, it is both fathers and mothers who report that they have difficulties in organizing this mobility. Additionally, according to the statistics, Finnish women researchers are as mobile as men. However, academics can perceive the mobility demand as harming women’s careers. There are actually vast differences between the EU countries considering gender and international mobility: for instance in Latvia it is quite uncommon for women to be mobile.

Flexibility can be also demanding on the part of an employee. One has to be quite active in organizing things, for instance if the child is sick. If one is employee in a firm that is not flexible, one can according the law stay at home if his/her child is sick, and there might be a substitute. At the university there are no substitutes, so you do your work at home or after you come back.

Still on family-work balance of researchers, how is the situation different in private research?

I have not studied this but I assume it is about the same. Do you mean by private research firms and industry? They have the same laws considering family leaves but I do not know if they are as flexible.

Does mobility in academia affect participation of women?

I not quite sure if I got this one. But I think it is not usually hindrance for women. Though there might be situations when travels and being mobile in impossible, for both men and women. It is not always possible to arrange things for mobility, even though there is support for taking your family with you.

Do you advocate for any policy change in academia in connection with your topics of research?

Gender and family responsibilities should be taken into account when rules and demands for tenure track and other positions are made. The academia should become more aware of gendered expectations and stereotypes.

Do you have any advice or message for girls and women who want to work in science?

I think that a woman or a girl in science does not have to be one of the boys. Being professional does not mean being masculine. Some disciplines can be more masculine than others, and then it is harder to break the norms. But making a norm visible is a good start.

Thank you, Minna!

Recycling manifolds: Kirsi Peltonen

I am proud to present another fellow mathematician, now working as a Senior Lecturer at Aalto University and as Docent at University of Helsinki, Kirsi Peltonen. Kirsi will also be the speaker at the seminar Women in Mathematics in Finland on November 9th at 4 p.m. in Exactum CK112 (info to come soon).

Please, tell me briefly about yourself…

I am currently working at Aalto University Science School Mathematics department as a Senior Lecturer. I am also docent in Mathematics at Helsinki University. I do research in geometric analysis in pure mathematics. At Aalto I am responsible on activities related to differential geometry and applications. This is a broad field with exciting connections not only to research inside mathematics but also physics, computer science, engineering and arts. At the moment I live in Järvenpää together with my husband and two cats. Our 3 children have already moved away from home and started their own careers and live together with their spouses.

When did you start getting interested about mathematics?

It is hard to pinpoint any particular time or event for a start of getting interested in mathematics. I found natural sciences in general the most interesting subjects at school. I also enjoyed all sorts of handcrafts at the same time. The passion for mathematics is difficult to explain, but it has been a crucial part of all my activities as far as I remember.

In simple words, what is your research about?

In the heart of my research are mapping problems between abstract shapes with certain geometric constraints. The principles of this process could be compared to recycling textiles. You take for example men’s shirt and would like to change it to women’s skirt. If the material, size and other properties are appropriate, you cut and sew to perform the needed changes according to your plan. In my research I take different types of manifolds instead of shirts and skirts which I suppose they could be transformed to each other and try to prove it by making use of the properties they have. I use techniques like cutting and sewing for abstract entities. Sometimes the outcome is a beautiful example but more often the constructions fail. This does not mean failure, but like often happens in sewing, you get something completely different as planned but still something useful. You also learn why certain things do not work and this is important as well.

Up to now, what do you regard as your most satisfying professional achievement?

I think it is the fact that I have been able to find the joy of doing mathematics over and over again. I am privileged to have so many talented collaborators and colleagues that have inspired and encouraged me over the years.

What was your hardest professional period and how did you overcome it?

Without no doubt it was almost 10 years ago when I found myself in the middle of hostile bureaucrat acts and almost lost my health. Thanks to my family, Finnish healthcare and great colleagues in Finland and abroad, I am now completely recovered. I am also happy that this process did not make me a bit bitter or cynical but made me more aware of unconscious bias and the fact that your true friends are those who also tolerate your success.

Did you face any obstacles – direct or indirect – in your work because of your being a woman?

This is a tough question as being a mathematician is equally hard to everybody working in the field. Good collaboration is an essential ingredient of this profession and   I think this has been most challenging to me, especially when I was younger.

Your ideal day outside work…

Crisp sunny day in the forests together with my husband to pick up some mushrooms.

What is your piece of advice to young mathematicians?

Be active, go to seminars, listen broadly what other people are doing and share your problems and ideas with others. Do not take it personally if you do not get the grant you applied. It is not all about you, but most often about politics and circumstances. Just make the next application and continue working persistently.

What would you tell to girls who are thinking to study or work in mathematics?

Just go ahead! Math is fun and always useful ! And when you get the grant you applied be happy and continue working persistently no matter other people might say.

(Picture: Eeva Lehtinen)