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Emil Stråka: It’s interesting to see physicists and chemists complement each other’s expertise

In this ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, master’s student and research assistant Emil Stråka explains how much he enjoys his summer work at the Department of Chemistry and Materials Science and the Life Inspired Hybrid Materials (LIBER) Center of Excellence—a unique research environment combining chemistry and physics.
Emil Stråka, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.
Photos: Linda Lehtovirta

What was your path to Aalto like, and can you share something about your studies?

After I finished upper secondary school in Uusikaarlepyy, Ostrobotnia, I learned about the different universities. I had a good impression of Aalto and decided I that wanted to come here to study. I’ve been at Aalto for four years now. In three years, I completed my bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, and now I have studied one year in the Master’s Programme of Engineering Physics.

Initially I was more interested in chemistry, as it was one of the subjects that I liked most at upper secondary school. Later, it became apparent to me that what I enjoyed about chemistry, such as the insight into how the world works on a fundamental level, was more in line with physics than chemistry. Therefore, I decided to switch paths. Of course, there is also a lot of overlap between physics and chemistry.

This is your second summer working in the same research group at the School of Chemical Engineering. How did you get there?

Halfway through my third year of university, I knew I wanted to try research. I browsed through various summer job applications at Aalto, and I found the Soft Materials Modelling Group led by Maria Sammalkorpi.  The group employs computational and theoretical methods to study various kinds of soft-matter systems, requiring both physical and chemical understanding. I found it both exciting and interesting, and it was the only research group I ended up applying to. I didn’t even bother sending in any other applications.

I was already working in Maria Sammalkorpi’s group last summer. During the semester I worked part-time. The group is part of the Life Inspired Hybrid Materials (LIBER) Center of Excellence, which draws inspiration from life, and it designs hybrid materials that can learn, adapt, or respond to the environment. LIBER operates at the interface between chemistry and physics, so my chemistry and physics background fits in well. Understanding life-like systems requires a collaboration between physics and chemistry.

There are a total of eight research groups in LIBER from Aalto, VTT and Tampere University, and there is a lot of collaboration between them. I do computational and theoretical research, and we often collaborate with experimental groups.

Emil Stråka, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.

What is it like to work in the Center of Excellence as a young student?

Particularly the first couple of weeks working in the research group were amazing! Working in a scientific environment was such a refreshing experience. For the first time ever, I was excited about my work. Science and problem solving have been things I’ve enjoyed ever since I was a child. Getting to do that for a living was incredible to me.

There is a break in the summer, but usually every two weeks there are seminars where the whole of LIBER gets together to eat pizza and discuss science. About 50 to 60 researchers attend each event. It’s interesting to collaborate with different groups and see how physicists and chemists can be looking at the same system, and yet arrive at very different conclusions, questions, and results. They complement each other with their different skills and backgrounds. If you only work in one type of group, you usually only see one side of research. But in LIBER, you can see the expertise from different disciplines.

It’s also great to follow the work of the more experienced researchers. If I discuss a problem with them, I immediately get some ideas, suggestions, or useful insights for my work. Our group has quite regular meetings with other LIBER groups, including their respective leaders such as Markus Linder, Jaakko Timonen, and Olli Ikkala.

In our research group, there’s myself and another master’s student. And there are more master’s students in the other groups in LIBER. I find it an inspiring and unique environment.

Emil Stråka, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.

Why do you feel cross-disciplinary cooperation is important?

Cross-disciplinary collaboration allows for different perspectives and ways of approaching a problem. It also gives access to a broader range of skills and knowledge. Life-inspired materials require both physics and chemistry, and the interdisciplinarity increases the number of ways in which a given problem can be approached.

What is the culture like in your research group?

We usually have coffee breaks and lunches together, and in the summer, we often go for ice cream together. There are 11 of us in the group, and some people come to the office more regularly than others.

The group is very international. It’s just me and two others from Finland, and then there are researchers from Switzerland, Iran, Russia, Germany, Brazil, China, and Hungary.

We have some cultural activities. For instance, the Iranian researchers have taken us to an Iranian restaurant. We got a taste of their cuisine. There are also activities outside the daily coffee breaks. Recently, we went to Tallinn together, and had a barbecue together during a lunch break. It’s really nice.

Emil Stråka, photo by Linda Lehtovirta.

What is it like to walk in Emil Stråka’s shoes?

I let my curiosity and my interest lead me, and I just follow them. This has led me to work with biomaterials. I didn’t always have a clear goal, but I wanted to do research. The goal was sort of taking shape. Walking in my shoes is a kind of a process.

What do you do in your free time and why is that important to you?

I exercise. I go jogging and to the gym, for example. In the summer I go swimming in the sea a lot. It’s important for me—a kind of a meditation. Exercise makes me feel good and healthy, and it also makes the rest of the day better. I also like reading, both fiction and non-fiction.

Are you involved in the student activities?

I have been to an extent, for instance attending events. The best thing about it is the community that I belong to. I can go to an event and see people I know and can talk to.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to finish my master’s degree in the next year, and then I want to do a PhD. I enjoy working in this field and with this group, but as mentioned, I will let my curiosity and interests guide me. If I find something else interesting in the next few years, I may change the focus slightly. However, my future is definitely in research, and PhD is the first step. I want to do science for a living.

LIBER community

The LIBER Centre of Excellence

LIBER aims to create dynamic and soft hybrid materials with a capability to learn, adapt or response to the environment. LIBER combines eight research groups with expertise on molecular self-assembly, soft robotics, surfaces and interfaces, genetic engineering of proteins, biotechnological production of engineered biomolecules, and computational modelling.

Soft Materials Modelling group Aalto University

Soft Materials Modelling

Group led by Professor Maria Sammalkorpi

Department of Chemistry and Materials Science

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Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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