"Mathematics is a bridge between different disciplines"
Silja Sormunen has an interest in many things. So many in fact that she managed to study psychology, medicine, philosophy, comparative literature and aesthetics before her master’s studies at Aalto University.
“Through my philosophy studies, I got more into mathematics and physics. This got me thinking that it might be interesting to study something more mathematical. After all, mathematics is a bridge between different disciplines,” Sormunen says.
For her master’s studies, she wanted to find a programme where she could combine different interest areas while learning something new. She was browsing through master’s programmes at Aalto University when she came across the field of Complex Systems in the multidisciplinary Life Science Technologies programme. “It felt like just the thing I had been looking for.”
Now Sormunen is in her second year of studies in the programme. The Life Science Technologies programme focuses on biomedical research, offering six different major subjects for students to choose from.
Sormunen’s major subject of Complex Systems focuses on complex networks and the studies also include network science, statistics, mathematics and programming. The objective of the studies is to provide students with a strong computational and theoretical understanding of how complex systems – say, e.g. the human brain or biological or social systems – work. The studies can either have a focus on the theory of systems or data science.
The understanding of complex systems acquired in the master’s studies can later be applied to several different fields, such as neuroscience and social networks. “I think it’s wonderful that the same tools can be used for very different projects. I am currently involved in a joint project on immunology together with the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Medicine.”
Professor Jari Saramäki heads research on Aalto’s side. Researchers are looking into how, for example, the T-cells necessary for the immune system are different in diabetics and in healthy controls as well as the types of processes through which T-cell receptors are produced in the thymus.
Everything you study leaves you with an understanding and viewpoints that can be used in different ways.
Different minor subjects and voluntary studies can also be included in the master’s degree. Sormunen is studying a minor subject called Systems and Operations Research at the Department of Mathematics and Systems Analysis.
Finding new insights in everything
Sormunen’s interest towards different things became apparent in school. She was particularly fond of mother tongue and writing, mathematics, languages and history. Then again, no subject really felt like a constraint, either. “I enjoyed almost every subject and studied practically everything I could get my hands on.” Music was an important hobby already as a child. “I play the violin and piano and still do classical singing rather actively. I also read a lot.”
Sormunen’s parents have always encouraged and supported her to study what feels right for her. “I’m sure many others would have already applied some pressure on me to decide on what it is I want,” Sormunen says and laughs.
“Everything you study leaves you with an understanding and viewpoints that can be used in different ways.”
Sormunen has found it interesting to see the different ways in which questions of the brain, for example, are approached in the fields of psychology, philosophy, medicine, and network science. “Different disciplines have very different ways of defining the types of questions that can and should be asked, and the answers that can be considered acceptable.”
The doctoral track combines master-level and doctoral studies
Research was an area Sormunen found interesting already in upper secondary school. She is currently in the doctoral track programme, which combines master’s studies with doctoral studies.
In the programme, studies are tailored in such a way that they support doctoral studies. Students gain research experience as early as the first semester. “First, students become research assistants in different research groups. Gradually they start choosing their own topic and shaping it into a diploma thesis and doctoral thesis.”
In addition to Saramäki’s project, Sormunen has worked in Assistant Professor Mikko Kivelä’s group where she researched human mobility and social networks with the help of Wi-Fi data.
Sormunen is planning to graduate as a Master of Science in Technology in 2020. She hopes to find herself as a postdoctoral researcher at the university in a few years. “It has been a nice and safe, long-term task to work on my master’s and doctoral thesis at Aalto University. Previously, I have worked on so many things that the programme and location have been different almost every year.”
Sormunen’s favourite things at Aalto University include her pleasant research group and the green, harmonious campus area near the water. “Walking to the Laajalahti birdwatching tower is one of the things I enjoy doing.”
Silja Sormunen, MSc student and research assistant
Education: BA in psychology (University of Helsinki), pre-clinical studies in medicine (Uppsala University), bachelor-level studies in philosophy completed except for thesis (University of Helsinki)
Lives in Helsinki
Greatest study-related achievement: “I have boldly tried a range of different subjects and been able to combine these different areas of interest.”
An interest in operas. “I like Puccini, La Bohème in particular.”
A friendship with trees. “I have always been very fond of trees. In different cities, I often look for a tree that I can climb and study on. In Uppsala, I had a certain tree for doing my homework assignments. I haven’t yet found a tree in Aalto’s surroundings, but I’ll keep looking.”
Dreamt of being a bass singer, confectioner and farmer as a child. “Although all bass singers are men, I held on to this dream for a long time. Even before the age of ten, I was a fan of the great opera singer Jaakko Ryhänen. As a confectioner, I could have made some fine creations. Baking was an activity I enjoyed as a child, and still do. The farmer thing is a reflection of my desire to be out and about in nature. My grandparents grew up in the countryside and their stories have been passed on to me.”
English translation by Annika Rautakoura