Jussi Ryynänen: In the back row, I wondered what on earth I was doing here and whether I would survive

In the ‘Walk in My Shoes’ interview, Jussi Ryynänen, the new Dean of the School of Electrical Engineering, reflects on his time as a student, ponders the future and explains how his social battery is drained after the workday.
Jussi Ryynänen, photo by Mikko Raskinen.
Photo: Mikko Raskinen.

You started as dean of the School of Electrical Engineering at the beginning of August. What kind path have you taken to become dean?

I came to the Helsinki University of Technology in the early 1990s and ended up studying microelectronic design. I originally thought I would do master’s thesis quickly and then go into industry. But I became interested in the subject and went on to do a licentiate and then a PhD.

In the middle of my PhD, I decided that it was a good time to build a house – though the professor supervising me might not have been entirely happy with the decision. I took care of the day-to-day duties and spent evenings building the house, but maybe the project had a little impact on finishing the PhD.

I was appointed professor at the beginning of 2007. In the early days of my professorial career, I focused on developing teaching as a programme director. When Aalto was established in 2010, I was closely involved in reforming the bachelor’s programmes. I later became the head of two merged departments and now, in the summer, dean.

Can you tell us some concrete stories about your work?

This is clearly the first year that the students no longer have to be divided into groups due to COVID restrictions. It was therefore my pleasure to be the dean welcoming new students this autumn. The hall was packed – there were more undergraduates than chairs.

The atmosphere was good, even though the new students are always clearly wondering what kind of place this is. I still remember when I was in the same situation myself 30 years ago. I sat somewhere in the back row and wondered what on earth I was doing here and whether I would survive.

Teaching has always interested me, and as a dean, I still continue to teach two bachelor's level electronics courses. When I give a lecture, I feel like I've given it my all. It's different from a regular meeting.

It's motivating and inspiring to teach and to see students at the point where they are making choices. Our students grow up to be the future lecturers, researchers, professors, deans, and maybe even presidents at some point.

When I want to clear my head of the day's thoughts, I go and lie down under the car to fix it. That way, I get something tangible done

Jussi Ryynänen

Can you describe yourself as a leader?

I think about the big picture and how we can get things moving – not so much about the details. And at least before I became dean, I felt I was reasonably good at prioritising my duties. But now I feel that it would be nice to have 300% more hours in my working time to be able to do everything.

What do you plan to emphasise in your work as dean?

In the future, we need to think even more carefully about which important future areas we need to focus on. We will not be able to recruit to the same extent as we do now, and this will also affect the units in which we will be teaching students. It's important to have strong centres of excellence in the School of Electrical Engineering so that expertise is not just in the hands of a single person. This will increase effectiveness and stability, making both research and teaching more successful.

Where do you think impact comes from?

For a research organisation to be successful, people need to have fun at work. Nothing is achieved by gritting your teeth. We can also increase impact by training talented people. Furthermore, it is important to attract international talent to Finland – international talent is very valuable in our field.

I've had the same car for 25 years – I bought it when I graduated from my master’s studies. The best part is that I don't have to talk to it.

Jussi Ryynänen

How do you make sure people have fun at work?

Going forward, we need to make huge changes to meet the challenges of the future. But when the challenges are interesting, they add meaning to work.

It's also important to know how to prioritise. Then you don't have to do 70 things at once, but you also have the time to have fun.

What do you see as the challenges of the future?

Electricity will play a big role in future energy solutions and sustainable development. Will we use new types of materials that save resources, or can some things be recycled? In our school, we are working on IT solutions that reduce energy waste, such as green code.

In my own field, it has become quite clear that microelectronics is central to our lives. It would be good if people somewhere other than East Asia knew how to do it.

What’s it like to walk in Jussi Ryynänen's shoes?

It's meetings, drinking coffee and being busy. A lot of my work time is spent talking to different people, either in my role as dean, with my research group or in a lecture. I deal with a variety of things during the workday and only then do I gather my thoughts.

I'm in the process of recruiting new people to my research area, but it takes time. Fortunately, I have a couple of very competent and experienced people on my team with whom I have worked for a long time. I also lecture with them, and I can get help from them if I'm needed elsewhere in the dean's role. Without them, I would have no chance of doing the research.

Jussi Ryynänen fixing the car. Photo: Jussi Ryynänen.

What do you think could be improved at Aalto?

I would like to see even better use of the multidisciplinary campus – we should be able to bring together people from business, arts, and technology. New things are easily created at the interface between different disciplines.

The challenge is that a lot of research is quite narrowly focused, and you don't necessarily have time to sit down and talk to, for example, someone in business. I used to do experiments with different types of research groups. But if you think about the classical scientific metrics, new kinds of things are often criticised because they happen somewhere in between the disciplines.

What inspires you about meeting people?

When I'm on my way to a PhD graduation party, I often think about our shared history and all that has happened. There may be a clear moment in our journey together when a PhD researcher hit upon a significant idea. In retrospect, it's easier to say at what point understanding was awakened – and then everything went smoothly. Of course, growth can also happen steadily, and then there are no clear moments of realisation.

What do you do in your spare time, and why is it important to you?

I meet a lot of people, and I have a finite social battery that gets drained during the workday. When I want to clear my head of the day's thoughts, I go and lie down under the car to fix it. This way, I can get something tangible and visible done right away. I've had the same 1970-model for 25 years – I bought it when I graduated from my master’s studies. The best part is that I don't have to talk to the car.

Interview and text: Tiina Aulanko-Jokirinne

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Walk in my shoes

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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