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Get to know us: Assistant Professor Sandra Kaabel

In this interview we got to know more about Assistant Professor Sandra Kaabel. Kaabel received her doctorate from Tallinn University of Technology in 2019. After her defence, she has worked as a researcher at the McGill University (Canada) and most recently as Postdoctoral Researcher at Aalto University.
Assistant Professor Sandra Kaabel
Assistant Professor Sandra Kaabel

Who are you and how did you end up as a researcher?

I am Sandra, I was born in Tallinn, Estonia – and grew up just across the bay from here. I have just started as an Assistant Professor at Aalto University, Department of Chemistry and Materials Science, and starting the Synthesis Technologies group.

I was very into arts when I was growing up, so it came as a surprise to my family when I announced that I was going to study chemistry after high school. But I am a problem solver by nature, and I saw a lot of unsolved problems in chemistry and materials science. One of the big problems we must solve today is how to reduce the environmental footprint of making and recycling of materials we need in our everyday life, and how to use more sustainable resources for the making of these materials.

What do you research and why?

I am looking to create sustainable organic synthesis technologies, by developing solvent-free synthetic methods. Solvent-free reactions are carried out by bringing together solid reactants, for example by ball milling, extrusion or simply by incubation, and therefore such reactions help us avoid much of the waste generated and the energy consumed in organic synthesis. This can make existing chemical processes greener, but also makes it possible to combine and transform insoluble or poorly soluble materials, like cellulose, in new ways. 

It would be great if our research could contribute to solving major societal challenges such as climate change. Eliminating or minimizing the use of often wasteful and harmful solvents in chemical processing can be a big step in the right direction. 

How did you become a professor at Aalto?

This is my first role as a professor. I did my PhD studies in Estonia and after that I moved to Canada as a post-doc. During my PhD I investigated the synthesis, supramolecular chemistry, and crystallography of a type of macrocyclic organic molecules. The last year of my Ph.D. put me in the path of some great people developing mechanochemical reactions. Mechanochemistry is still an emerging field, but has gathered a lot of attention recently, due to the potential these methods have in helping make existing synthetic processes safer and greener, and for example to explore chemical reactions on materials that are poorly soluble – like cellulose and plastics, for example. The latter, looking at solid-state transformations of these insoluble polymeric materials, is how I ended up here at Aalto, first as a Marie Curie IF and continuing now as an Assistant Professor, since there is such a strong focus on creating sustainable forest product technologies, chemical engineering, and materials science.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

What stands out clearly are the moments where the outcome of the chemical reactions confirms a hunch that we have had but is perhaps surprising to others. For example, observing how macrocyclization reactions can happen as solid-to-solid transformations, governed by small ionic template molecules, or how enzymatic reactions can be much more efficient when carried out in solid-state, like for recycling of waste plastics and textiles.

What would you tell a high school student about your research?

Chemistry, in general, offers so many ways to change the world towards better, be it for example by creating new useful and sustainable materials, or creating new ways to recycle the many types of waste materials we already have and are accumulating. It involves problem-solving and working with people from other research areas and industry, which can be very rewarding and impactful.

Synthesis Technologies

Group led by Professor Sandra Kaabel

Sandra Kaabel's research group
Photo of stainless steel milling jars and balls, and biomaterials cotton and branch.
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