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Maarit Käpylä turned her childhood hobbies into a living

As a child, Maarit Käpylä was interested in the stars and coding, and now she researches the activity of the sun, which could not be done without computer science
Nainen seisoo ja katsoo sivulle hymyillen kädet puuskassa. Hänellä on päällään musta paita ja sininen huivi ja aurinko värjää taustaa vaaleaksi.
Associate professor Maarit Käpylä studies the sun and its activity. Photo: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Maarit Käpylä researches a field few are familiar with. In other words, she is an astroinformatics specialist. When you google ‘astroinformatics specialist’ or ‘astroinformatics’ in Finnish, hardly any search results come up.

‘An astroinformatics specialist is a researcher who uses data processing methods in order to understand an astrophysical research subject. My own, current research topic is related primarily to the sun and its activity,’ says Käpylä, who started working as an associate professor at Aalto University’s Department of Computer Science at the start of the year.

Käpylä studies magnetised plasma, i.e. matter that has become ionised for some reason. These matters are interesting, as the magnetic field makes objects behave differently than they would without one.

‘All activity of the sun derives from the magnetic field. Similarly in galaxies, the magnetic field plays a major part in the birth of stars and pretty much everywhere. It involves major research questions: what is the role of the magnetic field and why does it make the sun burst, sometimes more and sometimes less?’ Käpylä says.

As a student, Käpylä studied astronomy, physics as well as mathematics. Methods of computer science help in processing the vast observation data of both astronomy and space physics. ‘If we don’t harness computer science methodology in our research, we are trumped by the amount and complexity of data.’

From shy and nervous to a highly-featured researcher

Käpylä says that she has always treaded a path of her own. As a child, she found coding more interesting than social engagements. ‘I was a very shy and withdrawn geek girl. I spent more time with Commodore 64 than with other people – or I would go out and watch the stars in the evening.’

Already at an early age, Käpylä learnt the different constellations from Tähtitaivaan opas (‘Guide to the starry sky’). ‘It was actually the first book I read.’ On sunny days, she would wait for the evening, when she could observe the starry sky from her sleeping bag. Her parents would sometimes join her, and Käpylä was often accompanied by her dog.

If we don’t harness computer science methodology in our research, we are trumped by the amount and complexity of data

Maarit Käpylä

At school, her classmates would keep their distance. The older Käpylä grew, the more others considered her to be uptight. During upper secondary school, she would spend her evenings with the hardest math problems, because solving them was fun. ‘I didn’t think I wanted to be the best in the class or make it on top. That type of thinking has always been really uncharacteristic of me.’

A researcher must be on display, and that is a skill which Käpylä has taken a long time to learn. She is grateful to her parents that they encouraged her to also pursue, for example, piano. This forced her to practice performing at a young age.

‘I got nervous easily and was terrified of performing. Yet somehow you learn that being a researcher includes going to places and explaining your own work to your colleagues. It also comes very naturally, when you’re enthusiastic about a solution you’ve discovered.’

Modelling galaxies sparked her enthusiasm

Nearing the end of her university studies, when all that was left for her to do was her master’s thesis, Käpylä was provided with an opportunity to carry out a project on astrophysics. She jumped at the chance immediately.

‘It involved modelling galaxies on the computer. I was able to do research that was clearly new and unusual and to develop methods that help obtain new information on modelling galaxies. It was terribly rewarding, and that is the path I stayed on.’

Käpylä’s dissertation was in 1999, and she became an Academy Research Fellow only six years later. ‘I had been a postdoc for just a few years when I was already placed in charge of a research group. It was a place of growth: it made me think I wasn’t alone any longer now that there was also a postgraduate student I didn’t want to abandon.’

Käpylä is in charge of an astroinformatics research group with members from a variety of different backgrounds. Multidisciplinary phenomena would be impossible to study if the group consisted only of computer scientists or astrophysicists. Leading a cross-disciplinary group is ‘challenging but highly rewarding’. ‘It nearly always calls for inventing something new. The work requires new visions, and therein lies the reward. The challenge is that old methods usually have to be discarded.’

Discussion on quota for women

When working as a postdoctoral researcher, Käpylä noticed that female- and male-dominated fields and quotas for women became an increasingly covered in discussions in Finland. She considered it a good thing that matters of equality and research by women were highlighted, but:

‘Not many people think about what quotas caused for women and how it influenced e.g. applying for jobs. Colleagues could say that you’re in this interview because of this quota for women thing.’

Not many people think about what quotas caused for women and how it influenced e.g. applying for jobs.

Maarit Käpylä

A bit over ten years ago, Käpylä was interviewed for a series of articles presenting research of women working in male-dominated fields. She did not think anyone would have something bad to say about it. ‘Then the first comment from a well-known senior researcher was “oh, so you’ve become a mannequin.”’

Unpleasant experiences have left a mental scar. But Käpylä is not a big fan of certain events only featuring women either, of taking photographs of only female participants or denying entry from men. She considers it discrimination to leave a part of the group on the outside on the basis of any gender. ‘I have seen both extremes, and I don’t like either of them. This is why I want to discuss the subject.’ Käpylä will speak about this topic at the Mentoring & Diversity event organized by the Department of Computer Science on 25 September, 2020.

‘I appreciate the way Aalto is run’

Käpylä recently moved back to the Helsinki metropolitan area from Germany, where she worked for the Max Planck Institute. Her big family followed her in the summer. Käpylä is happy to be back in Finland and at Aalto where she has worked as a coordinator, leading the Dynamo team of the Academy of Finland’s ReSoLVE centre of excellence at the same time.

‘Aalto has a very low hierarchy, but the community can still be managed and with good results. I’ve returned to Aalto with very warm thoughts and I now appreciate the way research is conducted and the university is run here, even more so than before.’ She may miss the amount of light in Germany and the earlier arrival of spring. Yet one does get used to Finland’s climate quickly, she believes. ‘Finland’s spring and summer are but short sprees, but you learn to enjoy them in a new way.’

English translation: Annika Rautakoura

Lähikuva Maarit Käpylästä. Hän katsoo kameraan hymyillen hieman ja kädet puuskassa, päällään musta paita ja sininen huivi. Taustalla on vaaleanharmaa seinä.
Photo: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Maarit Käpylä, Associate Professor

Education: Doctor of Philosophy (astronomy) from the University of Oulu

Has spent most of her life in Sievi, Finland

Currently lives in Helsinki

Greatest professional achievement: ‘For me, the most rewarding achievement is the fact that we were the first group in the world to produce, on some level, the sun’s cycle based on a direct computer simulation.’

 

Is also

Having hobbies ’similar to exercising’. ‘My hobbies resemble running, cycling and swimming. I bike and run to work as well.’

A mother of a large family. ‘I have six children, the oldest of them already an adult. Running our household calls for compromises from the children as well as adults. We have agreed, for example, on the times for doing homework and eating. Everything happens on a schedule and you can look at the shared family calendar to see where everyone is at any given time.’

Used to optimise everything. ‘I always consider ways to do something the fastest and with the least effort, starting from the little things. I always buy black or brown clothes, for example, as they don’t show dirt easily. I do things side by side. If I get stuck thinking about a formula or work issue, I cook, do the laundry or clean while I wait. Once I figure it out, I leave everything else or put my idea into writing.’

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