Associate Professor Matti Kummu understands the importance of water in all life

From being a young researcher in a development project in Cambodia to being an Associate Professor at Aalto, Matti Kummu has had an impact on not just on research, but also on his colleagues as a researcher, teacher and mentor in the field of water resources.
Matti Kummu

Matti Kummu works as an Associate Professor in the Water and Environmental Engineering research group at the Department of Built Environment. His main research focus is the interaction between humanity and water resources on a global perspective. “The main goal of my research is to bring humanity and nature closer together, so that they both could flourish at the same time”, he concludes in his installation talk which celebrates his tenured professorship earlier this year. During his career, he has been working as a visiting scholar at various universities and worked with numerous projects related to water resources research. He has made an impact not only in terms of research, but also in practical implications, teaching and on a personal level to his colleagues around the world.  

Developing water resources management in Mekong -region

The academic story of Kummu starts from the early 2000's, when he was working in Finnish WUP-FIN project in Mekong -region in Cambodia. The aim of the project was to develop and explore water resources of the area for creating economic growth, reducing poverty and supporting sustainability of the environment. Kummu worked in a team of researchers who focused both on developing the water resources and the expertise of young professionals in the region to maintain the future sustainable development.

Veneitä Mekong -joella
Picture: Marko Keskinen

Kummu’s partner in the project, Juhani Sarkkula, tells this about the outcome: “Our team’s hard work has resulted as broad, multidisciplinary and strong basis and evidence for sustainable development of Mekong water resources, which also means that we have developed the expertise of local young professionals. Wide collaboration with local organizations, individuals and international partners has played big part in the project. Our Matti have had a significant role in the work.”

Kummu and his team had a great impact in the sustainable development of water resources in the area. Paradis Someth, a collaborator from Mekong -region tells that Kummu was part of planting and sharing 'water resource modelling seeds’ to the area. “It has been growing inside myself and many other Mekong citizens and continues to shape our careers and future water resource development of the Mekong region.”, Paradis concludes. 

Kummu’s other colleague from the region, John Dore notes that Kummu had also a personal impact to his colleagues: “Whether dispelling myths, clarifying uncertainties or exploring new understandings, Matti has made many long-lasting professional relationships and many Mekong-based friends, of which I am very pleased to be one.”

Current research projects

Since working with local challenges in South-East Asia, Kummu has been involved with various research projects on water scarcity and food production on the global scale. In Aalto, Kummu works in Water and Development research group, which focuses on the global water resources challenges: physical resources, governance issues, and methodological development.

One of his current research projects is Sustainable food futures within safe operating spaces - SOS.aquaterra, which aims to identify feasible solutions to meet future food demand globally while staying within local and global safe operating spaces, such as planetary boundaries (e.g. land, biodiversity, water and nutrients). The project is funded by a highly competitive H2020 European Research Council CoG grant.

During his career, Kummu has been a supportive mentor for his students. Postdoctoral researcher Miina Porkka, who is working in SOS.aquaterraand was Kummu’s former doctoral student, feels grateful for his help on her career. ”Matti has been a great support during the early stages of my academic career path. He has taught me good tools for independent researcher’s career. He has been able to give me enough guidance and enough freedom and responsibility, and also opened doors to interesting projects with the experts of the field.”

Other projects that Kummu is working with currently include two Academy of Finland projects.“Towards more resilient food system in the face of uncertainty" is a joint project with Natural Resources Institute Finland, where the focus is on short and long-term resilience and food systemprepardness, especially in the context of instability and crisis. “Water and vulnerability in fragile societies” focuses on vulnerability in fragile societies through the linkages between biophysical and socio-political processes related to water. The work focuses on South-East Asia and Mexico.

Fragile Water näyttelyn teos
Picture: Anne Kinnunen

Presenting the research through art

Besides research projects, Kummu has been involved with creating practical implications and impact e.g. through an art. In 2019 he co-organized an exhibition project Fragile Water, which showcased visualizations of sustainable water solutions in Helsinki-Vantaa airport. The exhibition was made in collaboration with water researchers and design students. 

When it comes to presenting and visualizing research, Kummu’s colleagues appreciate the way Kummu presents his research.Professor Stefan Siebert, from University of Göttingen describes KummuI have been in particular impressed by his capacity to explain complex relationships in simple ways and to process, present and illustrate big data. This is a kind of art, turning sometimes even to being magic.”

Mentoring students with unique skills

Teaching is one of Kummu’s passions in Aalto. In Water and Environmental Engineering Master’s Programme, Kummu leads the “Water and People in Developing World” course. Michael Puma, a collaborator from Columbia University and NASA, describes Kummu as “uniquely skilled at mentoring”. He finds a way to encourage independence among his students, but, at the same time, skillfully guides them as they tackle some of the most important questions around water, food, and sustainability.”, Michael describes.

Besides the research, teaching and impact beyond them, Kummu’s colleagues also appreciate friendship and other life lessons that they have learned from Kummu. Joseph Guillaume, Kummu’s formerpostdoctoral researcher in Aalto concludes“In a world where competition dominates and it seems that there is a constant pressure to do more, Matti has always stood out for his humanity. Accompanying his stellar publication and funding record, I have always appreciated his emphasis on balance and his efforts to put work in the right place within a well-led life.” Matti is showing great example of a professor who sees the people in research.

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