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Eva Pongrácz aims to understand people and sustainable development

Professor Eva Pongrácz, from the Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering Research Unit, wants to solve the problems of the world through cooperation. According to her, what happens around the world touches all of us.

“Finland is not a closed system. We are an open market economy, therefore, our wellbeing and financial success depends on the raw materials imported from abroad, as well as the export of goods and services. Even though we are trading mainly with Europe, we should be thinking about our role in the global system,” she says.

In the study of circular economy, we need to understand material flows and the network of interactions. The aim is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the production and use of goods and services, so that they can be as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.

Pongrácz sees the study of the Arctic region especially vital. She has many projects related to the protection of the environment, promoting decentralised energy solutions and sustainable regional development in the Northern Periphery and Arctic region.

“Climate change has a much stronger impact in the Arctic. It creates challenges, but also incentives for our research.” One of the objectives is to forecast the impact of climate change on environmental goods and services in Northern communities. 

“Energy is needed to make clean water, but we need water to get energy. They are mutually limiting, which is a good motivation for solving these issues together. Fewer natural resources are consumed, if the aim is to provide all environmental services – energy, water and waste management - in a comprehensive way,” Pongrácz says. “The communities in the north are often small, which is why it is also useful to look at environmental services as a whole.”

In order to safeguard the future, we must adapt to the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth. For its part, Pongrácz's research aims to meet this challenge.

If the whole world consumed as much as the Finns, we would need 3.8 Earths. In Pongrácz’s opinion, this is not fair, and she wants it to change.

“We certainly use more than our fair share of resources. It would be important for us not to be just takers, but also to give something. If nothing else, we can at least provide know-how.”

 Pongrácz considers teaching very rewarding. As she teaches energy systems, waste management and sustainable development, she also gets a chance to challenge her own ideas.

“When I teach students about these issues, I also have to think about their connections myself.”

Encouragement from the community of researchers

Pongrácz, who works in the Faculty of Technology, comes across as friendly and open-minded. She is motivated by people trusting her. A strong sense of responsibility keeps her going.

“I have gained much strength from that there was always somebody who believed in me. I have found a lot of people like that along the way; my family, teachers, thesis advisors, foremen, colleagues. They believed in me and helped me advance,” she says.

According to Pongrácz, the best thing about being a researcher is the community. “You do not save the Earth alone. “

“As a researcher, what I like best is being a member of a community of researchers who communicate and cooperate. It’s not only about me growing as a researcher. It’s about the strength and creativity found in the community. I come to work every day because people rely on me”

As the head of a research group, Pongrácz also wants to give other people opportunities to succeed and help others to reach their goals.

“I’m not a lone wolf, I define my own identity as a researcher through my research group. I don't sit alone at home and try to come up with ideas. We exchange ideas with the group and solve problems together,” says Pongrácz. 

“At the start of my career as a researcher, I realised that one could prevent waste from being generated only after understanding why waste is waste. If you buy a banana and forget it on your table, when does it become waste?” 

Through studying waste management, Pongrácz has also had the opportunity to think about topics like human behaviour in relation to sustainable development. According to her, in her field, it is also important to understand the underlying human factors. Sometimes the thought process slips even in to philosophical aspects.

“One person may prefer a riper banana than someone else. If the banana I bought turns brown on the table, it becomes waste for me, but somebody else might still think it’s delicious. Waste is an anthropocentric issue, and understanding human behaviour is very important for the environment,” Pongrácz says.

Mathematics, technology and revolution

Pongrácz comes from a small rural village in Czechoslovakia. As a child, Pongrácz was interested in music, literature and science.  Her true talent, however, was in mathematics. For as long as Pongrácz can remember, she spent the breaks at school explaining mathematics to somebody.

“It felt like I had the skill to understand and explain mathematical concepts. I don’t know if my classmates were as eager to listen to my explanations,” Pongrácz laughs.

Czechoslovakia was a communist country and a member of the Warsaw Pact. Pongrácz dreamed about studying in Hungary, and after general upper secondary school, she received a scholarship and was able to do her master’s studies in Budapest. 

During her studies, Pongrácz faced many prejudices. Technology was not considered suitable for women, and people thought that women went to study technology in order to pursuit marriage. Male professors openly expressed these opinions in the classroom.

“I finally ended up studying industrial engineering, because it was the path of least resistance. It was thought that industrial engineering was better suited to women, unlike mechanical engineering, which I originally studied,” Pongrácz says.

“During my time at the university, I started to get interested in environmental issues, but I knew that my chances to study environmental engineering were poor. I would have to go to a country with a good level of environmental engineering, and I also wanted to go to a country where women had better opportunities to study technology.”

The Velvet Revolution took place in Czechoslovakia while Pongrácz was a student. 

“I was right in the middle of the Velvet Revolution, because students were key drivers of the democratic change,” Pongracz says.

The Velvet Revolution began with a student protest in Bratislava. The event started a revolution, which resulted in the end of the 41-year rule of the Communist Party. After the non-violent transition of power, the borders started to open up. Pongrácz moved to Finland to pursue post-graduate studies, after gaining her master’s degree.

In the middle of the nature and the city

According to Pongrácz, the best thing about Oulu is that, with a short walk, you can get to both the middle of the city and the middle of nature. The sea shore, nature and the services of the city are important to the researcher, who spends her days thinking about big issues. The University of Oulu is a good place to build a more sustainable world. 

“The University of Oulu is a true pioneer of clean technology. If I could do anything I wanted, I would do exactly the same thing that I'm already doing,” Pongrácz says.

 

Text: Tiina-Outi Strand

Main photo: Rami Hanafi

Last updated: 17.9.2019