The passing of the baton - connecting over science

We traditionally think that women shy away from technical fields. This preconception could not, however, be further from the truth. Professor Dr Heli Jantunen, Dr Hanna Kähäri, and Maria Väätäjä, who is ready to defend her PhD thesis, sat down to discuss what it is like to be a female scientist in a technical field.
Professor Dr Heli Jantunen, Dr Hanna Kähäri, and Maria Väätäjä, who is ready to defend her PhD thesis, sat down to discuss what it is like to be a female scientist in a technical field.
Professor Dr Heli Jantunen, Dr Hanna Kähäri, and Maria Väätäjä, who is ready to defend her PhD thesis, sat down to discuss what it is like to be a female scientist in a technical field.

The discussion turns immediately to the ins and outs of becoming a doctor. Writing a doctorate thesis doesn't take place in isolation. It takes true dedication and determination and can be a long, arduous process, unavoidably peppered by your private life events. It also requires a solid sounding board from your peers.

Heli Jantunen and Hanna Kähäri have functioned as the sounding board for Maria Väätäjä, supervising her PhD process for several years. As a result, her doctorate research process has been almost a scientific equivalent of the passing of the baton. Väätäjä's study on electronic ceramic components without high-temperature sintering builds on the work Kähäri began during her PhD studies. Jantunen, in turn, has been watching over both younger ladies' growth as scientists for years. First, Jantunen supervised Kähäri's doctorate research. Now, with Väätäjä, she's let the younger ladies manage most of the doctoral research process amongst themselves while always being available at the drop of a hat when her experience was required.

Discuss. Check. Supervise.

"Both Maria and Hanna came to us from the Department of Chemistry," says Jantunen. "It's been a rare treat for me first to guide Hanna and now have her guide Maria closely alongside me," she continues with pride over the two younger women.

"I think the hardest thing for me to comprehend when growing as a mentor has been to understand that Maria is not like me," Kähäri says and turns her head toward Jantunen. "When I was working on my thesis, I didn't want anyone to interfere with what I was doing. So, I'd often plonk my work in front of Jantunen and say, "This is what I did."

Jantunen laughs, "And I'd say: 'Looking good'."

Väätäjä works differently. She appreciates going over things together.

"Yes. I like bouncing ideas off other people. It works well for me. I find things get crystallised in my head this way, and I can narrow down what I should be focusing on. It allows me to avoid writing a bit here and a bit there and risk getting diluted in thought and concentrate on the things that take me forward."

Kähäri: "We're all so different. But having someone who knows exactly what you're talking about is valuable. For example, I originally developed the method with which you can process ceramics at room temperature. And Maria has now developed it further."

Jantunen: "Yes. Maria has concentrated on printed electronics, developing ceramics for 3D printing. Hanna focused more on the technique. So not only do we have a continuum of one woman mentoring the next but also one research topic building on the work of the other. And all this research we've been able to do with the ERC grant I was granted."

A work environment to thrive in

Both Väätäjä and Kähäri praise Jantunen and her team for nurturing such a convivial working environment. Professors, doctors, and postgrads work side-by-side without any discernable pecking order.

"We've had fun working together," Jantunen agrees. "There is a room where Hanna was sitting before she left the university. When Maria came, she ended up sitting in the same room with Tuomo Siponkoski and Mikko Nelo, just like Hanna had done."

"Some people think they need to have their own room when they've received their doctorate, but this was a tight little group and wanted to stick together in the same room," Jantunen says with a broad grin.

Väätäjä thinks the atmosphere is excellent in Jantunen's team, possibly partly also because doctoral researchers in Jantunen's team don't have to compete over funding.

"We've been fortunate to have European Research Council funding," underscores Jantunen. "It's the type of funding that allows you to work and be guided principally by your curiosity. Because the funding was there whether we failed or not, it's probably given us the mental freedom to succeed."

"Think about how the first things I did for my research," Kähäri continues, "spray painting ceramics on paper, attempting to make the same component for two years. And it went nowhere. Then we tested other unorthodox concepts and were finally able to get over the hurdle."

"It's also been nice that you've continued following what we are doing here through supervising Väätäjä's work, even though you're no longer working at the university," Jantunen nods.

How does one end up as a researcher?

Like with most careers, there is no typical path to becoming a researcher. Väätäjä tells how she liked all subjects at school and that her parents, who are not academics themselves, gave her freedom and encouragement to choose her path in life, while always emphasising the importance of studying.

She took the matriculation exam in chemistry twice because she was not happy enough with the first result. She ended up getting eximia cum laude approbatur for her exams. The result got her admitted to the Chemistry programme at the University of Oulu without having to take an entrance exam.

"I found natural sciences appealing because there was less to remember," Väätäjä remembers her youth. "You only had to get the rationale behind how things work," she continues as Jantunen and Kähäri nod vigorously in agreement. "I believe it was the third course in chemistry that introduced the ideas of reaction equations and balancing when I felt this was the best thing ever. I was thrilled to notice that if I counted atoms here and balanced them elsewhere, it would work like a charm. There was no need to recall what someone had done, where they had gone, in what year, and then there was famine. So, for me, chemistry was both enlightening and satisfying."

"It's like when I was a teenager and went to the United Kingdom for the first time," Jantunen adds. "I realised that hey, these people speak English and only English. It was an eye-opener to realise that school subjects have a real function and use."

"First year at University studying chemistry was not too thrilling but interesting enough to keep me going," Väätäjä continues. "But once one pushed through the 'basic porridge', it got a lot more fascinating."

”When I did my bachelor’s and master's thesis, I followed how my supervisor and a doctoral researcher in the same group went about their research. It gave me a spark to think I might like doing what they do. I was already cooperating with people at the Microelectronics Research Unit on some materials I was researching for my master's."

Keep calm and get your doctorate

The talk turns to the magical day of the dissertation. We go back to discussing stage fright and nerves. Väätäjä admits that she is nervous but quickly adds that it's in a good way.

"I want to get to show what I have learned. And I have prepared well: I've been doing these mental exercises in case I panic or can't answer something. And, of course, I've been reading my dissertation and have tried to think what type of questions my opponent might conjure up as I'm going through my text. The whole research process preps you for the occasion," Väätäjä says with humble confidence.

"The opponent's task is to determine whether the doctor candidate can critically discuss their research and other people's research in the area," Jantunen explains that the Finnish system is very thorough. "There are two supervisors. And there are two checkers. Often people create a doctorate thesis from many publications, and they have been prechecked by international experts who would ask you to amend the text if they found something inconsistent or erroneous. So, the likelihood of the dissertation not being accepted is vanishingly low due to the rigorous process."

Jantunen targets her next words to younger women, saying that "doing technical research and being in the technical field is so much fun. And you can make a profound impact on almost anything by working in this field."

She adds: "The path of research is so very long. Consider how much research has gone into all the equipment and materials needed in operating rooms. So much has been done, but so much is still needed in the future."

"Yes," agrees Kähäri. "Making a better world has always been a good motivator. And you can do it in so many ways in our field."

Interview: Katja Longhurst

Photo: Teija Soini

Manufacturing electroceramic components at room temperature rather than 1000 °C is only in its beginning. In her thesis defence, Väätäjä will prove how the method is suitable also for printable electronics. To discover more about Väätäjä's research, see her doctoral dissertation "Prospects of the room temperature fabrication method for electroceramics: feasibility for printing techniques and integration with temperature-sensitive materials"

Last updated: 10.5.2022