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Antti Valkonen honoured as School of Engineering Alumni of the Year 2023

”I hope that my example can encourage students to go abroad after graduation. The competition can get tough, but it should not scare you off. Technology graduates from Aalto have a lot to give to the world,” says Antti Valkonen.
Antti Valkonen, Alumni of the Year 2023

Antti Valkonen completed his master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2016 at Aalto University, and defended his Ph.D dissertation at Princeton University on May 10th, 2023. Aalto University School of Engineering honours Valkonen as its Alumni of the Year for 2023.

Valkonen, 30, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the digital monitoring of the health of buildings and structures, bridges in particular, and its economic feasibility. After graduating with a doctorate in engineering, he switched fields to business and now works as a management consultant with Boston Consulting Group in New Jersey.

”Antti Valkonen is an inspiring example to all students and staff of Aalto University. He completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees with high marks in three years and thus demonstrated how one can make the most of their study time and the education available,” says Dean Kari Tammi.

Antti’s story 

Master’s degree in technology: a strong foundation

I began my university studies in the mechanical and civil engineering major, and the first half of studies was quite demanding due to the broad and laborious nature of basic studies. However, I believe that the broad knowledge base and in-depth expertise in science and mathematics provided by the mandatory courses were invaluable: at first, in the latter half of my master’s studies, which were more about applications, and later in my career as a structural engineer, as a doctoral student at Princeton, and as a management consultant today.

Aalto gave me an incredibly varied set of skills and the ability to learn new things quickly. This has been exceptionally valuable in the changes that have occurred in my career. After completing the master’s degree in mechanical engineering, I worked at Sweco as a structural designer specializing in demanding structural calculations. I remember the work being difficult at first, because I had not studied civil engineering. I knew nothing about concrete and had never even opened structural design codes. However, I adapted to my duties well, thanks to the foundational engineering competence I attained at Aalto.

How did you end up at Princeton and what did you get from studying there? 

I had worked at Sweco for about a year and gotten a reputation for calculating blast and impact protection. It’s a complex area within structural engineering, so I thought I could accelerate my career by completing a doctoral degree. I was working evenings as a lecturer at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and enjoyed teaching, so doctoral studies seemed like a natural choice.

While visiting my sister in Colorado, I saw that the United States would be a good place to pursue doctoral studies in. Thus, I came to a decision: If I’m going to go, I’ll go to a top university. I investigated the options, and Princeton seemed like a place where I would thrive. There was a professor at the Princeton Civil and Environmental Engineering department whose research interested me, so I sent in an application.

Starting out at Princeton, I remember thinking to myself how difficult studying at an elite university might be. I soon realized, however, that the base of knowledge I got at Aalto was truly first-rate, even when compared internationally.

Princeton gave me a lot. The university values multidisciplinarity: This is evident not only in research collaboration but also in the way the university invests in social events aimed at all doctoral students, regardless of their department or discipline. It was great to get to know and talk with people from different fields.

One of my favorite experiences, however, was teaching. Princeton gave great opportunities to explore teaching. I supervised exercises on a few different courses and oversaw the bachelor’s thesis seminar at our department. I lead exercises of a sociology course over three academic years, which was a very interesting diversion from regular engineering studies.

The best part of teaching, however, was interacting with the students working toward their bachelor’s degrees. A significant portion of Princeton students will go on to reach the top levels of business, politics, and economics in the US and globally. I believe that many of my former students are a part of this group who end up as CEOs, senators, even presidents. It was a great privilege to follow the development of their thinking, and for my part, influence it.

The most important part of my time at Princeton had little to with studies, however: when I was getting started with my doctorate, I met my wife, Vanessa Notario, who was beginning her master’s degree studies at the time.

What do you think about being chosen as Alumni of the Year?

To me, this recognition is an honour and a delight. Aalto University is an important place to me, as my father studied at HUT, and Otaniemi has always had a presence in my life. Even though pursuing university studies in Otaniemi was kind of an obvious choice, I could have never imagined how far my Aalto education would take me. Being recognized as Alumni of the Year feels great.

I hope that my example can encourage students to go abroad after graduation. The competition can get tough, but it should not scare you off. After five years in the United States, I can speak from experience: technology graduates from Aalto have a lot to give to the world.   

What do you like to do on your time off? 

I like to exercise. We’ve also had our Labrador Retriever, Nalle, for two years now. My wife is from Paraguay and in the past years I’ve studied Spanish, which I can now speak fluently – though there’s always room to improve. Studying Spanish has in fact become one of my favorite hobbies. We live in New York City, where there’s enough to see for a lifetime. On weekends, we love to go on road trips around the New York metropolitan area and its surroundings.

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