Petr Stepanek at Pegasus library, University of Oulu

Physicist Petr Štěpánek shines a light into matter

Petr Štěpánek is postdoctoral researcher specializing in nuclear magneto-optic spectroscopy and hyperpolarization at the University of Oulu’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Research Unit. Štěpánek and the group are developing new experimental and theoretical methodologies for studying the structure of materials, working on a submolecular level.

Through a series of coincidences, Štěpánek found himself in Oulu for the first time in 2013, working on a proposal for a project. “When I first heard about Oulu, I didn’t think right away that I would come here. But, in 2015 I arrived and have been working here ever since,” Štěpánek says.

Projects and interests aligned

Even before finishing my Master studies in the Czech Republic around 2008, I was working on a project with a person, who had a connection to Juha Vaara, the leader of the NMR Research Unit here in Oulu. At the time, I didn’t consider Finland as something that would affect me in the future. Some years later, when I was in the middle of writing my PhD, professor Vaara was invited to a seminar at the institute where I was doing my studies. The seminar was about nuclear magneto-optic spectroscopy and I was doing something related, optical and magneto-optical spectroscopy. Since the group here in Oulu had great experience in doing nuclear magnetic resonance research and I was doing optical spectroscopy, it seemed like a good fit. We started a project, applied for the Marie Curie grant and were fortunate enough to receive it. And here I am.

Looking into matter

The work of the whole NMR Research Unit concerns developing new spectroscopic methods, things you can use to study the structure of materials. We have a wide range of interests in NMR. For example, we study materials and their internal molecular motion using so-called Laplace NMR, enhance its signal with hyperpolarization, or do theoretical models of NMR parameters, e.g., in systems with unpaired electrons, which is very difficult to do accurately. I’m specifically working on nuclear magneto-optic spectroscopy: I study how molecules react when their nuclei, which are like small magnets, are arranged in some way and then we shine light on them. It disturbs the electrons around the nucleus and causes them to move around. The idea is to get information about the local environment of atoms and, in effect, look into matter.

We are also involved in developing applications, for example for studying the properties of wood, which is a big topic here in Finland. There are also applications for materials for more green economies, such as collaborating with the Faculty of Technology about new cement materials.

Easy adjustment to life in the North

I came to Oulu in 2015. I had visited for a month in 2013 to see how we would get the project up and running. I feel that since I came to Oulu from Europe, the change wasn’t so radical. Of course there are cultural differences, but the way that people interact is quite similar in Europe. Our group is internationally well-recognized in what we are doing. We have about 25 people in the group and we are doing pretty well in the specific areas where we are focusing. We are currently supported by ERC and multiple grants from Academy of Finland.

"I feel that if you want to have international collaboration, it is very easy to set up and manage here in the University of Oulu."

As far as work environment in general goes, I think in Oulu and in Finland supervisors are very approachable. I try to encourage this with my students as well, I want to treat them as professional equals.

Variety makes for an interesting environment

I really like the location of the University. You step outside of the building and you’re in the forest. I like that it’s not in the hectic city centre, this is very good. The nature overall is different compared to where I’m from: I’ve never seen so much snow in the Czech Republic. The winter here is really beautiful. I like that there is a lot of variety between seasons, even with the light here. And I think the Finnish summer is really nice.

Last updated: 7.8.2019