Many practical issues are related to questions of theory – this steered Jara Uitto’s interest towards theoretical computer science

Even though theoretical computer science is – as its name suggests – theoretical, its connection to real-life questions is easy to draw, says Assistant Professor Jara Uitto
Jara Uitto sitting at Computer Science building, looking at the camera and wearing an orange t-shirt with a panda on it
Jara Uitto started working as an Assistant Professor at Aalto in October 2019. He returned to Finland from Switzerland. Photo: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Assistant Professor Jara Uitto did not always know that he would become an academic. When completing his bachelor’s thesis on computer science at the University of Helsinki, his instructor Jukka Suomela familiarized him with theoretical computer science and distributed online algorithms in particular. Although questions of computer science are theoretical by definition, drawing can help to perceive them.

Uitto noticed that drawing pictures made research on distributed algorithms more approachable and that it does not require superhuman abilities to understand research questions of this kind; you simply need to go the extra mile. Now he works as a professional researcher of theoretical questions related to communication networks, i.e. networks attached to several computers.

Uitto brings up a couple of practical issues he can direct theoretical questions on in his work.

The Skype caller wants the video image and sound to be of good quality, and for these to be efficiently conveyed to the other party of the conversation. Someone needs to design how these work on the iron and software level, along with the related theoretical questions.

Huge data clusters of major corporations, in turn, keep churning numbers at a steady phase. ‘Someone has to work out how it happens. I’m also thinking about such a computing theory in my work,’ says Uitto.

Unofficial meetings help in networking

Uitto’s did his basic studies at the University of Helsinki and now works as an Assistant Professor at Aalto University, but in between he spent eight years in Switzerland. He worked on his doctoral thesis at ETH Zürich, which was followed by a year in the industry and two years as a postdoc researcher.

During his postdoc years, he built extensive networks in the field. Mohsen Ghaffari, who headed Uitto’s research group, started as a professor at the time when Uitto began his own work. The professor often invited guests for a visit, allowing Uitto to get acquainted with new people and to network with them.

Aalto is a university of just the right calibre.

Jara Uitto

Arranging networking opportunities, particularly for new employees, is important. ‘Any unofficial activities should work well. Parties by invitation always include a great number of people, but don’t make it easy to look for individual people, especially when there’s only so much time.’

Uitto finds meetings with a maximum of ten people in the same space to work best: in this group, they go over matters pertaining to the research. ‘If you can drink mulled wine or beer, or eat pizza – which does in fact work best – it must be a good way to create contacts.’

‘Childcare is arranged better here’

Uitto who started working at Aalto in October 2019 does not consider himself to be 'particularly patriotic,' nor did he feel any notable home sickness when in Switzerland. He applied for work around the world. The return to Finland took place, when an offer received from Aalto topped almost all other offers as a whole. ‘Aalto is a university of just the right caliber. Here I can continue with the same level of academia while surrounded by high-level students and personnel.’

Of course, the typical Finnish balance between work and leisure somewhat tipped the scales, along with personal reasons. ‘I have two children whose grandmother lives here. This made the decision easier. Jukka (Suomela) who researches similar topics is here, and so are my relatives. Helsinki is also not 12 hours away from Europe by plane.’

Adjusting to the change, apart from the bad weather, has been smooth. Everyday life for the family of small children is now easier than before. ‘In Switzerland, childcare is nearly ten times as costly as here, and we weren’t able to place both our children in full-time day care. Here people can take their children to the same place every day, allowing the children to spend time with the same, familiar faces.’

Uitto’s children are multilingual, but in Switzerland their German came more naturally than Finnish. ‘I became slightly worried that language could be an issue. But my older child, now four, began to speak fluent Finnish within two weeks.’

Uitto points out that the perks offered by employers to those with families arriving from abroad may be an important incentive when it comes to selecting a work offer. In Finland, day care has been arranged well, but it also means literal day care: the child has to be taken to care and always picked up at the same time. This is sometimes not a great fit for an academic’s working rhythm. Those moving from abroad often do not have a support network in the new country to help with childcare.

‘It would be convenient if, for example, the university would be able to arrange some afternoon activities, especially for smaller children. It wouldn’t need to be every night, but every now and then.’

Jara Uitto standing in the midst of bean bag chairs and smiling
Photo: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Jara Uitto, Assistant Professor

Education: Doctor of Science from ETH Zürich

Lives in Helsinki

Born in Kerava

Greatest professional achievement: Developing a solution for a problem that had long been on his mind. During his master’s studies, Uitto became interested in a game where the cops and robbers moved by turns from one node of the network to the next, with the cops winning when they reach the same node as the bandit. This involved a research problem: if the game includes one robber and two cops, how many rounds do the cops need in the worst-case scenario in order to catch the robber? ‘While it was an interesting question, solving it seemed unlikely. In 2017, we did manage to find a solution together with my co-writers! The result was published in a well-known conference, which also secured visibility for it.’

Has also

A bouldering hobby. 'In Switzerland, climbing was somewhat mandatory. I became immediately hooked on bouldering. I had never imagined it would be as cool as it is.'

Been an enthusiastic StarCraft II player. ‘As a young boy, computer games were a big thing for me. When I moved to Switzerland, another researcher who also enjoyed playing started in my research group. We ended up playing StarCraft together. Later as I started a family, we began to arrange weekly meetings. My friends would come over and we would make food and play as a group.’

Many characteristics untypical of a Finn, according to his friends. ‘They say I’m too extroverted! I’m an open person, but the downside is that I may also talk too much sometimes. However, breaking the ice comes naturally for me and I am able to make new friends easily.’

English translation by Annika Rautakoura

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