Täydellisen yhtälön pitkä oppimäärä

Reija Autio, Susanna Pirttikangas, Krista Lagus, Hanna Vehkamäki and Laura Elo are all set to go.

An advanced course in Perfect Equations

Maria Virkkula

The February sun shimmers into the foyer. It must be one of the first bright days of spring. Which is fitting, as understanding how the sun works is essential to the research conducted by some of the women now entering the room. We're about to start the photo shoot for CSC's Perfect Equation campaign.    

These women scientists are looking for answers to questions that may even have seemed overambitious in the early stages of their careers. They give us details about their lives, and talk about diseases, energy production, the environment, human behaviour, and creating a better world.

Through determined work, they have left their mark in the annals of research. Yet in spite of that, as we sit here chatting, they could be anyone. Someone you might meet whilst out cycling – and, in fact, could. Someone like fusion and plasma physicist Taina Kurki-Suonio, who often cycles to work. She knows that it's pointless to fear things and other people, as we can only make the world a better place through cooperation.

That's something that all these researchers have realised.

"Don't stress about it, they're just regular people like everyone else." "No one's any weirder than anyone else." That's what researchers Reija Autio from the University of Tampere and Susanna Pirttikangas from the University of Oulu say in their campaign videos, which were shot today.

Susan Leerink ja Taina Kurki-Suonio shared their thoughts at Vapa Media in Helsinki.


"Science needs more women"

The significance of cooperation keeps cropping up. Now, as everyone tucks into lunch while waiting for their turn with the photographer, they are part of a larger group: Women of Science. However, at least for some of them, the majority of their closest colleagues are men.

– There are extremely few female students in my department. I hope this campaign leads to more applications from women, as I haven't found any reason why it wouldn't suit them, too. I hope that living role models will encourage them, says Kaisa Miettinen, Professor of Industrial Optimisation and Vice Rector of the University of Jyväskylä, who is the only woman professor in her faculty (Information Technology).

One thing is evident.

– Science needs more women, says Minna Palmroth from the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

And not only women, but more diverse perspectives in general.

– I think it's important to show that not all researchers are stereotypical 'nerds'. It doesn't matter what you look like – there's room for all kinds of people and personalities. People's motivations also vary. Some people want to solve mathematical equations or develop new methods that can be used to solve new problems. Others want to focus on analysing patient data and thereby prove or disprove hypotheses on the creation mechanisms of certain diseases. There's no locker into which a researcher should fit, and you're allowed to let your own interests influence your work, says Autio.

Hanna Vehkamäki, Professor of Aerosol Physics at the University of Helsinki, ended up as a researcher after taking a summer job in research. She also wishes that both women and men would have the courage to tackle the things they're truly interested in. It's important to instil a sense of confidence and belief into young researchers, as she well knows from her own experience.

– All kinds of people can do amazing science.

A little snack, and then the shoot can begin!


Believing in yourself and the subject

It's impossible to describe all of the researchers involved in the campaign with a single word or even a single scientific field. They are connected by the computational methods they use, and through courage and a sense of curiosity in their own subjects. They share an understanding of how computing and advancements in IT will significantly change the world as we know it. Computational science offers us a chance to answer questions that no one has previously had the means to answer.

– Computational science opens doors to a whole host of new directions and offers us a chance to delve into the things that interest us. For example, in the case of optimisation, that could be a focus on theory, method development, software technology, or user interface design. The strengths of different scientific fields (such as maths and IT) connect in fascinating ways and offer a broad range of challenges. There's plenty of work for computational science wizards, as new software fields are being created all the time, says Miettinen.

The message to the next generation of women researchers is clear and loudly proclaimed by ten brave women.  

– You have to have confidence in yourself and dare to do the things you believe in. There are no fields that are suitable for only men or only women, says Laura Elo, Research Director of the Turku Bioinformatics Unit.

The Perfect Equation researchers with the campaign's patron, Sanni Grahn-Laasonen.


If you had the power to decide?

Some of the women go to fix their hair and check their make-up. First up are the videos, followed by the stills. As instructed, they're all wearing grey, black or white. Many chose grey.

A few are helping themselves to a second tasty helping of pie. There's an animated discussion going on and no one seems uncomfortable about sharing their experiences or feelings in this company, although many are meeting for the first time. Topics range from family and careers to publications and funding.

If knowledge is power, then knowledge is definitely something that the women around this table have accumulated. What, then, would they change if it were up to them?

– The first thing I would do is make research a much more respected discipline! If it were up to me, more people with PhDs would be hired by companies and the public sector, not to mention ministries. I'd also allocate more money to institutions of higher education, and also for collaboration between universities and businesses, says Miettinen.

Elo and Vehkamäki echo these sentiments: improving the preconditions for effective research and stronger support for using research results in decision-making in all areas.

However, one issue keeps hitting a nerve, even during the photo shoot coffee breaks.

– Excessive emphasis on breakthrough research is leading to unhealthy phenomena in science, and this is something that should be addressed in science policy, says Professor of Medical Biochemistry Taina Pihlajaniemi, who is Vice Rector for Research at the University of Oulu and Director of the Centre of Excellence in Cell-Extracellular Matrix Research.

These ideas are greeted by several nods from around the table.

It was a relaxing day for all.


"Get involved!"

Another idea that seems to garner unanimous support is that research offers unique opportunities to realise your vision – you can work to improve your own little corner of the world. The researchers encourage us to, in Susanna Pirttikangas' words, "Get involved!"   

– It's worth getting interested in science, but you have to be prepared to do a lot of hard work and develop your skills, says Pihlajaniemi.

And from time to time, you must dare to dream a little bigger, to look a bit further ahead and make plans that can only be implemented in a few years' time, just like Minna Palmroth did with her revolutionary space weather model.

– I'd like us to quit mulling over today's problems and really set our sights on the future. In practice, this would mean not being excessively focused on certain things and not taking such a benefit-oriented approach to research. That would leave room for topics that don't seem to have any practical use right now but could revolutionise Finland, and the world, in 30 years' time. Nokia sowed the seeds of its success back in the 1960s, long before the era of mobile phones, says Palmroth.

CSC's Managing Director Kimmo Koski welcomes the researchers.


A big thank you to all of the researchers who've taken part in the Perfect Equation campaign. This article was written on the basis of general discussion and background interviews.

Read more: 

comments powered by Disqus