Matti Kaivola: Top research requires a communality that stretches across the generations

Top research is enabled by good infrastructure that can be utilised by as many researchers as possible. This helps towards obtaining international and competitive funding.
Esko Kauppinen on the left, Matti Kaivola on the right. Photo: Said Elhazzaz.
Esko Kauppinen (on the left) was appointed as the Department Head and Matti Kaivola (on the right) as the Vice Dean. Photo: Said Elhazzaz.

At the turn of the year, Professor Matti Kaivola moved from the position of Head of Department of Applied Physics at Aalto University to that of Vice Dean for Research at the School of Science.

What do you research and why?

Broadly speaking, my research field is optics and I particularly focus on quantum optics, laser physics, nano-optics and photonics. Photonics is the technology of the future: instead of electrons, we will increasingly be moving photons one place to another to send data, and the speed of processes will increase. The development of novel nanomaterials also leads to new kinds of phenomena related to the interactions between light and matter, which opens up completely new applications.

One year ago, a photonics flagship project funded by the Academy of Finland was launched called PREIN, which is a collaborative project involving Aalto, the University of Tampere, the University of Eastern Finland and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. We have been working together for 25 years in different forms, and now we have funding for a total of eight years.

Photonics is an enabling technology in which the distance from basic research to commercial application is very short.

How did you become a researcher and professor?

I got in to university to study both technical physics and medicine. During my first year of studies I decided on a career in physics, more or less by flipping a coin.

During the third year of studies, we were allowed to apply for summer jobs in physics laboratories, and I had two interviews in quick succession. The first was with Olli V. Lounasmaa in the Low Temperature Laboratory, and the second was at the Materials Physics Laboratory. In there, an extensive project which was seeking to bring modern optics research to Finland with government funding was just beginning. This project was being led by Stig Stenholm. Lounasmaa was offering me a place in Juhani Kurkijärvi’s theory group, but he happened to be having lunch when the matter had to be agreed with him. That's why I instead ended up going for the laser research position offered through the second interview. So it was just a coincidence that I first became a physicist and then chose laser physics rather than low-temperature physics.

For a long time, I was a laboratory manager at the Materials Physics Laboratory. When new professorships began to be established at the end of the 1990s, I made it through the application process and started as a professor at the beginning of the year 2000.

What was it like being Head of Department?

With Olli Ikkala, we set up our own small laboratory. The division of roles was clear: Olli Ikkala focused on top science, and I handled the administrative routines. This continued until the beginning of 2008, when the Department of Applied Physics was created through the reorganisation of the Helsinki University of Technology. The department was transferred to Aalto University in 2010, and in 2015 the physics research of the Low Temperature Laboratory was added to it as well.

I was Head of Department at the Department of Applied Physics from 2008 onwards. From the beginning, an important goal was to bring together the dispersed physics research in Otaniemi under one roof and to raise its status. The increase in the significance of physics at Aalto is now reflected in both the number of professors and the results obtained, and in a few years' time most of this research will all literally be under one roof, once our new extension to the Nanotalo building is complete.

As Head of Department, I felt like it was my watch, and I didn’t want to be responsible for spoiling the valuable work done by the previous generations that have developed technical physics in Otaniemi. In addition, I wanted to emphasise a sense of community, an effort to develop together as an entire department, despite the strong competition between individuals. Few people, you see, can succeed in top research with only their own strength and resources.

What do you want to focus on as Vice Dean?

I want to further improve the conditions for research. The promise of Aalto ten years ago included the commitment to being among the best universities in the world, and top-level research is an essential part of this. This, on the other hand, requires good infrastructure in the fields of technology and engineering that can be utilised by as many researchers as possible. Such infrastructure helps towards obtaining international, competitive funding, for example from the European Research Council. Without proper tools, it is impossible to succeed.

Modern research involves a great deal of cooperation. I will work hard to promote research at the school, to develop cooperation, to proudly carry forward the torch of scientific endeavour.

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