Paula Eerola, coordinating Finnish physics research at CERN

Since January 1st, 2016, the Helsinki Institute of Physics has a new appointed director, Prof. Paula Eerola from University of Helsinki. Paula is the 4th director of the Institute since its start of operations in 1996 and the first woman to be appointed. She has a rich research background in particle physics and an academic career which made her travel to Switzerland and Sweden, before coming back to her home university in Helsinki in 2008.

Congratulations for the great achievement! Can you tell me something more about HIP?

Thank you. The Helsinki Institute of Physics is a joint research institute operated by five Finnish universities: University of Helsinki, Aalto University, University of Jyväskylä, Tampere University of Technology and Lappeenranta University of Technology. Its board consists of representatives of the five universities and a scientific advisory board. Formally the Institute belongs to the Faculty of Science in University of Helsinki.

What are you main responsibilities as director?

I am a sort of CEO of the Institute. I supervise scientific operations, take care of personnel issues, make budget plans, and operate under the national mandate HIP was granted to manage all Finnish research at CERN. Soon we will take part also to FAIR research projects, a new center for subatomic research currently under construction in Germany. HIP also helps the Finnish “CERN co-operation high school network”, which allows high school (“lukio”) classes to visit the CERN facilities. Our researchers act as lecturers and guides during the visits. About 80% of all Finnish high schools take part in this educational project, which involves a long preparation and several school subjects: physics, of course, but also English language – since the visit is in English – and Finnish language class. The students usually write an article in the local Finnish newspaper about the trip. I once asked to first-year physics students in Helsinki how many of them took part in such a programme and many raised their hands. I think this kind of inspiration is very important for younger people, to understand what they want to do.

Can you disclose some cool physics HIP does at CERN?

HIP is involved in experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is the biggest and highest energy particle accelerator in the world. The experiments at the LHC we are contributing to are called CMS, ALICE and TOTEM. CMS is one of the two experiments which discovered the Higgs Boson. I used to be leader of the Finnish team of CMS and becoming director of HIP felt like a natural continuation of this path.

Do you have any career advice for aspiring or young scientists?

I think the basis of everything is your own interest and motivation. Do not hesitate and calculate too much which job you will end up doing. The academic career is not deterministic, you need strong faith and you have to accept uncertain conditions.

One obstacle in particular in Finland is that people tend to work too much alone, too afraid of asking questions or discussing their work. They tend to go home, make their calculations alone and come the day after with an answer. However, science doesn’t work like this, it requires constant interaction, not working in a sort of “vacuum”, it asks for cooperation and feedback. If you truly collaborate with someone, the final entity will be greater than the sum of two single parts. I think this scientist ideology should be revised. I advice not to be afraid to ask or to look stupid.

What is your perspective on women in physics? Any advice?

I think it is still harder for women physicists to be considered in a non-biased way, compared to male colleagues. I have been member of Nordic Women in Physics (NorWiP) for many years and I even took part in a focused training for women in leadership at Lund University, in Sweden. Sometimes younger people don’t acknowledge the issue until it hits them hard. At the same time, we need not to make girls depressed. They simply need to be aware and alert, so that if something happens, they can react. I have made my career as a single parent, it often has been hard to plan and organise everything. External baby-sitting help has been mandatory.

Did you have to travel or live abroad a lot?

Yes, I lived for six years in Geneva. Then, I was a researcher and later a professor in Sweden, at Lund University. My son was three when I was offered the first position in Sweden. It was a hard decision to take, moving to a new place without any social network.

Thank you again to Paula for sharing her story and point of view, and, again, congratulations!

Picture: Linda Tammisto.

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.

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.