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Meet our female PHYS professors

In honour of the International Women's Day on March 8th we interviewed our female faculty at the Department of Applied Physics, Professors Laure Mercier de Lepinay, Andrea Sand, and Päivi Törmä.
Laure Mercier de Lepinay

Laure Mercier de Lepinay

What is your scientific background?

I am a physicist: I have a master in theoretical physics, in which I took a lot of field theory and particle physics options, although I did not continue in that way afterwards. Then I did a PhD in (experimental) nanophysics and optomechanics. I am still working more or less in this field.

Why did you choose to become a scientist? Did you have an inspiring model?

I am not sure why I choose to study science. I have always liked science as far as I can remember. My parents have done scientific studies, maybe this helped? They are geologists, my father is a researcher and my mother used to be an expert geologist. Later in life, as a PhD student, I looked up to my PhD supervisors, who were really the best supervisors one could hope for.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I have been working on microwave optomechanics for several years in Aalto as a postdoctoral researcher: the idea is to be able to detect motion with a really, really good precision, avoiding all kinds of technical and fundamental limits on the sensitivity of the measurement. This is a whole research topic of its own, but eventually, one reason why it is interesting is that sensitive displacement measurements allow to detect a variety of forces which exist because of some subtle physical phenomena. Now, I am very motivated to realize the potential of these ultra-sensitive displacement probes to measure, for example, the Casimir force, which is a force related to quantum fluctuations, or forces due to small material defects, or even forces due to topological defects in quantum fluids.

I already feel myself the additional pressure of having to succeed not to exemplify the failure of women in science

Laure Mercier de Lepinay

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Right now, the most challenging is that I am starting a group and that I am therefore basically alone in this group as of now, although I conserve some ties and responsibilities with my previous group. I also have to learn a lot of new things all at once.

 

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures? How do you define success in your career?

Probably the most visible success in my career is an award from Physics World that we got last year with my co-authors, for a paper in Science. However, I think what I find most satisfying is understanding something new and explaining it to somebody else. I am not sure what was my biggest failure. Of course, in my work, I have more than once lost time doing something that made no sense before I realized. Sometimes I have broken equipment, but maybe not too badly or more than average. My highschool had a motto which read in Latin “I will not count hours, except the happy ones”, so maybe I forgot the biggest failures?

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings? 

I sure have doubted my abilities as a scientist, when something, even small, failed. As a PhD student, I doubted all the time but my advisors were always very supportive. I can also always count on my parents, my sister or my friends to support me.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times? 

Personal life is very important in difficult times. I try not to stay isolated when things go wrong. Moving to a different country was hard because of the isolation that expatriates almost inevitably face when first landing in an unknown country. It became better but eventually the pandemic hit and lead to more isolation. I tried to take on new hobbies, but for me nothing replaces talking with friends.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science? 

Well, there are many moments that were really very funny but in a way that is far too nerdy for me to dare tell. I did dissolve a sample that I had painfully elaborated, by putting it in the wrong chemical. I must have looked funny looking for it in the beaker… During my PhD, I was working with a dielectric nanowire, a very small needle, suspended in front of a camera. One day, I looked at the camera feed and the poor nanowire looked all folded. As I took a step back in surprise, the nanowire slowly unfolded came back to its usual shape. Each time I approached, it folded again. Of course, I knew it was because of static electricity (I wore a fleece and thick shoes), but it still felt like being in a cartoon. Actually, I think it is important to say that getting to understand the physical reason for things does not make them less magical or less funny. On the contrary, it multiplies the number of funny things in the life of the physicist (hence the nerdy story I just developed).

If you weren’t in science, what would be your dream career? 

I think I would be a teacher.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?  

The scientific system is being questioned and improved, and I think we are on the right tracks. My mother told me how she struggled with lack of credibility in her first job after she got her PhD, as one of the first geology experts in industry that she had herself heard of. So we have certainly come some way, but there are still very few women in some scientific fields. I wish that senior female scientists were more visible, although I already feel myself the additional pressure of having to succeed not to exemplify the failure of women in science. I think that the prospect of an equal environment would probably help attract new scientists, both female and male.

What advice would you offer young women considering a career in science?

It is an incredibly interesting career, and not reserved to anyone in particular.

Andrea Sand

Andrea Sand

What is your scientific background?

I have an MSc in theoretical physics and a PhD in physics, both from the University of Helsinki.

Why did you choose to become a scientist? Did you have an inspiring model?

I enjoy the thrill of discovery involved in scientific work, as well as the freedom of academic work. I did not consciously decide to become a scientist until I started my PhD studies. By that time I had tried a number of jobs, and found that only research really inspires me.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I study radiation damage in materials using computational methods. I enjoy working with computer simulations, as they supply a tool to address the challenge of building bridges between basic physical theories and the complex behavior of real systems. A proper understanding of radiation damage mechanisms provides the possibility of tailoring materials for radiation-intensive environments, which is where I hope to make a difference.

I have learned to accept that I could always be better, but also that in the end we all just muddle through

Andrea Sand

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

There are many challenges, which surface at different times. Picking the most challenging aspect is difficult. Perhaps, the most challenging aspect is also the main source of inspiration. Namely that one must constantly grow, learn and develop oneself in many different respects. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. A job that doesn’t require this would become boring very quickly.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures? How do you define success in your career?

My biggest achievement is attaining the position that I am currently in. I do not believe there are failures, aside from giving up. Unsuccessful endeavors are not failures, they are learning experiences. I define success in that I continue to learn and grow.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

I doubt my abilities as a scientist almost every day. I have learned to accept that I could always be better, but also that in the end we all just muddle through.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

I have never really lacked motivation. Self-confidence has been more the thing I have lost in difficult times. There has then always been a colleague, supervisor, or senior, who has given me renewed strength to keep fighting, sometimes just through a casual comment, sometimes a deeper discussion.

What were the biggest obstacles (personal, social, structural) you had to overcome? Did you benefit from mentoring?

The biggest obstacle for me has been combining family needs with the requirements to obtain international experience, and the very few positions available when geographically restricted. Mentoring does not help with this issue, only luck does.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

I’m probably far too serious, because I cannot think of anything funny that has happened while working!

If you weren’t in science, what would be your dream career?

When I was younger I dreamt of becoming an astronaut. That turned out to be even more difficult than becoming a scientist, but in the end I’m thankful that it didn’t work out (although I applied to ESA in the previous call some 15 years ago, and ended up in the top ~130 out of 10 000 applicants), because the challenges of location would have been even more serious than with a research career. Since becoming a mother, I would never choose a career that requires being away from my family.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?

I think this is probably different for every woman, so my answer to this should not be taken as general. For me, a more family-friendly solution to researcher career development would be helpful. As it is, a career as scientist, at least in the natural sciences, requires a period spent abroad, or at the very least at a different University than one’s “own”. This was probably not much of a problem some decades ago, with mainly male scientists, and when women were inclined to accept being a “stay-at-home” mom. But how many men would be happy following their wives abroad, leaving their own careers and possibly staying at home to care for the children if no other solution is found? The two-body problem is statistically much more challenging for women in science than for men.

What advice would you offer young women considering a career in science?

Believe in yourself.

Päivi Törmä

Päivi Törmä

What is your scientific background? 

I studied theoretical quantum optics and quantum information in my PhD. During my postdoc years I went more towards condensed matter theory because I started to work with ultracold fermi gases, superfluidity, and superconductivity. When I came to Finland as a professor in Jyväskylä, I started also experiments and have done a few things including nanoelectronics and plasmonics. Plasmonics and nano-optics is what I still continue.

Why did you choose to become a scientist? Did you have an inspiring model? 

I wanted to become a writer in high school but I thought one cannot live on it, at least immediately, so I thought I need a job. I always liked mathematics and physics in high school, they were both easy and interesting to me. Then I became gradually more and more interested in the physics I am doing. I have always been writing as a hobby until my children were born, but it never took off. Instead I ended up in a scientific career.

I decided it’s not crazy so I will try to become a professor but it is not guaranteed, so I should not be disappointed if it didn’t work out

Päivi Törmä

About role models, I had an excellent physics and mathematics teacher and he very much encouraged me to do physics and he was also inspiring as a teacher. I remember that some older female scientists were inspiring me, of course Marie Curie, then also some Finnish scientists like Paula Eerola who is now the head of Academy of Finland and Cecilia Jarlskog who served as a chair of the Nobel Committee of Physics. I also very much admire physicists that are wonderful physicists but also very nice, kind, and fair persons. For instance, the Nobel laureate Bill Philips and Tilmann Esslinger, with whom I have collaborated.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference? 

In our group we have two main research lines at the moment. One is the theory of flat band superconductivity which is conceptually fascinating. Our group has made quite important and original contributions, which could lead to superconductors at higher critical temperatures, even room temperature. The second line studies light matter interactions in the nanoscale, where we have for instance seen Bose-Einstein Condensation and topological physics. And this can make a difference because the interactions of light and matter are very strong in these length scales so we can bring interesting quantum phenomena to room temperature in systems that are easy to build. So this can increase our understanding about light matter interactions and quantum phenomena and in a general sense they contribute to developing new optical devices. With the grand goal to have effective interactions between photons that are strong enough for processing information.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? 

If I think of a challenge in a positive way, it’s that I never know what will come up. We are really going to the unknown and dealing with things that no one knows about and that are very complicated and sudden. And then the things that are very very difficult, but hopefully could be avoided, is if people do not feel good about their life. If there are some people around you that are either unhappy about something or might be misbehaving. These kinds of problems with humans are everywhere in every workplace. But by investing by making a good atmosphere one can avoid them to a large extent.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures? How do you define success in your career? 

In the ultra gold fermi gases research we proposed a new type of spectroscopic method which was actually used and turned out to be a very useful technique and helped to reveal fermionic superfluids. Then the fundamental results on flat bands are important, that we have shown that we can have superconductivity in flat bands and therefore the promise of high critical temperature is reasonable and that it has a connection to topology. Then in experiments, our work on lasing has been very influential, a lot of people have started to study these systems, and strong coupling where we made the point that one can use dye molecules for this, which are very easy to use. And then most recently the observation of the first plasmonic BEC.

I am also very proud that in general people from my group have done excellent careers. There are many great scientific and industrial careers that came from my group.

How do I define success? Whenever I end up in the situation, where I feel that this is the best thing in life I can be doing, then I am successful.

The biggest failures are the very few cases were there have been some personnel problems, when I think that retrospectively I see that I could have avoided them by acting somehow differently. It doesn’t mean that I did anything bad, but I did something that was unwise. This I consider as failure, but I have learned from my failures and when a similar situation came, I did not do the same and it turned out better. The learning experience from my failures has been the biggest learning experience.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings? 

I think on a microscopic scale those doubts come very often, at least once a week or once a month. Like I’m so bad, every time you try to understand something you don’t.

Let’s say in a bigger scale, during my PhD, I had many times these doubts about whether I would be good enough. And my boyfriend at that time and my friends, they were really important. I think that PhD students need to have a private life with people who support them.

Then after the PhD, when another postdoc suggested I should become a professor, I started to laugh. It was a very strange idea and thought I would not be good enough. But then I started to think maybe I could be good enough, so you see, there were self-doubts there, but maybe not so negative because I didn’t have big ideas about myself. I had big ideas about myself as a writer but in physics I was very realistic. How did I handle this? I am a very systematic person, so when I got this idea, maybe I’ll try to be professor, I made a survey about how many positions there are in Finland, and who will retire soon. And then I basically knew who are my age group scientists and looked at their publications. At that time there was no Google Scholar, and I counted manually and this took me one Saturday afternoon. Then I had an estimate about my prospects and I could see it is realistic but will not be easy. I decided it’s not crazy, so I will try to become a professor but it is not guaranteed, so I should not be disappointed if it didn’t work out.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times? 

This has always been the life partner and closest friends. Also when I became a leader, I had a bit of mentoring by much older, much more experienced people. I would also suggest this, at a later phase of the career it’s good to have a mentor. Somebody who is benign to you but quite detached, because they can tell you truths of life in a very honest way.

What were the biggest obstacles (personal, social, structural) you had to overcome? Did you benefit from mentoring? 

I think in the early part of my career from 20-30, at that time in the 90s it was really very uncommon for a woman to do a career. So there was a lot of saying that you won’t or can’t do it. Sexual harassment was completely normal but it was a taboo to talk about it. How I managed with that: I thought I won’t give up and I refused to think about it. It’s also one of the truths of life, sometimes you are in a situation and it is better not to think about it.

In the later parts from 30-45, combining childcare, family and career was very tricky, just because it’s so time consuming, both of the sides. My husband has the attitude that we share everything. This is absolutely necessary. It also helps that I am very systematic and organized, good time management and managing everything kind of comes naturally to me.

And now, I am so old and experienced that I don’t think that I have obstacles in life anymore. It is the world that is suffering, people in Ukraine and so on. I am trying to help other people now, but my life is fine.

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science? 

Oh, this is difficult. There are so many funny things that happened. If you want to have an example of a memorable thing, I cannot say if it is the most memorable thing, but I remember it very well. You know, normally these important scientific results emerge very gradually, but at that time it came very sudden. When Tommi (Hakala) and Antti (Moilanen) had observed the first indications of plasmonic BEC. And I remember we had lunch at Micronova and Tommi showed on his mobile phone the real space pictures of the thermalization going “look” and I immediately knew what it was. That was cool.

If you weren’t in science, what would be your dream career? 

My dream career when I was young was to be a writer and I would enjoy writing. Then again I don’t know if it would be the right thing because it is so lonely. I really enjoy this creating things together, it is extremely fun for me to do the science together with other people, group members and collaborators, and reach this level at which both understand what the other one is saying by just showing a picture. Now I’m thinking that being an entrepreneur would be a good career. Making start-ups from a new idea, which has the element of going to the unknown. And then this requires a team, collecting a team, then together with the team make it big. Then you can sell and start from scratch again. That sounds the best to me. That would be fun. I think that would have been my alternative career.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?  

Somehow the image of scientists to school children has to change, that there are more female role models to make women more visible. Then in science itself it would be this kind of understanding that really it is best for scientific outcome and best for people's wellbeing that there is true diversity, that there are people of different types of characters. Because if we think of an ideal form of scientist that tends to go towards the traditional male and somebody who has certain typical male characteristics. That narrows, also among men, that there is only one type of person one should be to be considered a good professor or scientist. Maybe by giving somehow visibility to different types of people this change of attitude could be implemented.  Then, that the conditions are such that you can actually combine childcare and career and this would be taken into account. This is not only a question about scientific environment but across the whole society. For instance in Finland I have benefited enormously from the fact that kindergartens and schools function so well here.  

What advice would you offer young women considering a career in science? 

That they should definitely go for it if they are interested. And if they hear some rubbish they should completely ignore it. They have to choose their husband well, who does without any problem half of the housework or childcare. Of course if he is willing to do 100 percent that is fine but 50 percent is minimum. And then try to avoid fears because they are very consuming. One should think I have my goal A and plan B and plan C. It's good to think about alternative routes that are still nice.

Department of Applied Physics Diversity Team

The Diversity Team of the Department of Applied Physics aims to build an inclusive, diverse and welcoming work environment

Read more about the Diversity Team at the Department of Applied Physics
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