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Get to know us: Assistant Professor Mari Lundström

In this interview we got to know more about Mari Lundström and how she ended up in her current position as an assistant professor. She thinks that one of the qualities that the make you an excellent researcher is being able to stay in good spirits after bad results and not giving up. Let’s dig in!
Mari Lundström
Photo: Mikko Raskinen

What does your work as an assistant professor involve?

It boils down to keeping our team of laboratory staff focused and furthering our goals to improve the recycling of metals and the efficiency of unit processes in metal production. I supervise tens of different research topics, but I’m not hands-on working on any of the projects. By discussing with the researchers, helping with interpretation of results, and giving them ideas I'm a part of each research team. I’m also involved in large collaborative projects such as the BATCircle. The goal of BATCircle is to improve the manufacturing processes of mining-, metal- and battery chemical industries to increase the recycling of lithium-ion batteries. Outside of the research and managing tasks we teach and conduct “political” metallurgy by delivering and disseminating information about our field to funders and the general public. Working in the administration is quite different from my time as a doctoral student.

What career options open up after doctoral studies?

The doctor’s certificate is not a golden ticket to the top. I feel the master’s degree is very appreciated in Finland. You can learn to become a researcher in various ways: many of our people do go to VTT or Outotec after master’s degree in which the work does prepare you to become a researcher much like the doctoral studies do. However, after 10 years, when you have industrial and organizational background, it will make a difference. Positions like Research and Development Manager, Organizational Technology Management, and other societal positions or work that requires you to spend time abroad. This is because the certificate speaks of your experience of being able to manage experiments, understanding scientific papers and literature. It speaks of your communication skills. These skills transfer over to people and projects you manage, while also demonstrating your capability to see long term development.

What makes academic work important?

Business is driven by money, as it should be, but money is bad at knowing what we need in five years. Profit-focus can stifle research and design creativity. In long term, the amount of funding of academic work is one of the key indicators to how successful a business is. Hence, us studying the fundamentals is useful for the businesses. Moreover, I feel there is added value in doing research in collaboration with our industry, whether it is funded by the industry or not. The discussions between us and the companies can pinpoint what could be improved. The field of metallurgy is a pyramid. The companies might be at the top, but education and academic work are their foundations. I know that many companies understand this. More so, many great minds from our laboratories have been hired by the companies we have collaborated with, which I'm proud of. Finland is a high technology, high knowledge country, so the collaboration is key to our industry’s competitiveness.

What has been an unexpected skill you have developed?

It has been a bit surprising that your absolute academic value, for example the amount of publications, is not the be all end all. Being able to explain what you are trying to do and why it is important is essential to secure funding. People are much more likely to trust you with their money if they can understand what you are trying to sell them. This sort of pedagogical attribute is not taught on any courses and has also been really helpful when I've lectured or helped my colleagues in their endeavors.

Why have you focused on the metal industry?

Now, more than ever, the metal industry is needed. To combat global warming, we need green energy which means turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric cars. Moreover, the rising global population means demand for electronics. Both phenomena involve metal intensive products and Earth’s supply will not be enough. For example, electric cars require three times more copper than traditional cars. Unfortunately, tens of years ago we did not recycle metals as much as it needs to be done now. We need to learn to circulate very difficult products such as mobile phones and batteries. Recycling these secondary raw materials is challenging both technically and economically. Indeed, our whole global development is based on whether we can recycle for example lithium, cobalt, and copper. We cannot talk about permanent magnets or electric cars without focusing on improving the metal industry. It’s necessary and a key field to support our hopes for clean, renewable energy and further technological advancements in other fields. In conclusion, I feel like I'm making a difference here. I want to be able to keep improving the metal industry to handle the global ecological goals.

What is required to get into your research group?

Willingness to work and learn. This is no kindergarten, so we want to see progress. I think we foster a good environment for these two qualities, as all our people are very willing to discuss and offer advice to each other. Then there are other qualities that make you a super-hyper-good researcher! For example, being able to stay in good spirits after bad results and not giving up, searching for possible mistakes or improvements. You do not have to be the “straight A student” because a strong willed and hardworking researcher will make it in the long run.

This interview is conducted by Aleksanteri Kupi who has been working during the summer at the School of Chemical Engineering.

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