The dissertation award of the Finnish Society for Computer Science was presented to Dr. Miika Aittala in the Annual Symposium of Computer Science in Finland on September 1st, 2017, in Otaniemi. Dr. Aittala’s doctoral dissertation "Computational methods for capture and reproduction of photorealistic surface appearance" was already chosen as one of the three best dissertations of 2016 in the Aalto University School of Science. NVIDIA has licensed two of the algorithms produced in the thesis and the developed methods are directly usable in applications including, for example, games and virtual reality. After graduation from Aalto University, Miika went to MIT in Boston to work as a postdoctoral researcher.
How did you end up in MIT?
Professor Jaakko Lehtinen, who supervised Miika’s doctoral thesis, spent a couple of years in MIT after his own graduation, and through Jaakko’s contacts Miika ended up in research collaboration with Professor Frédo Durand from MIT. “As graduation was getting closer, I went to visit the annual retreat of the MIT graphics group to present my work and to meet local researchers, considering of course also possibilities regarding work after graduation. In the end we agreed on the postdoc”, says Miika.
What are you currently working on?
”The big themes are more or less the same, but I’m especially interested in machine learning in this field”, the young researcher describes his work in Boston. The latest developments in machine learning might provide answers to some problems that have been around for long, like the aim to develop human-like understanding of visual observations, he continues. “Of course I want to widen my perspectives and collaboration networks in other ways as well, and for this purpose MIT is an excellent place."
What interests you most in your work?
”My main motivation lies in the interesting problems and especially in the process of finding the answer”, says Miika. What interests him in computer graphics in particular is the fact that each step usually rewards the researcher with impressive visual results. The field is also fascinating because almost anything can be simulated visually. As a consequence, computer graphics cover a huge amount of phenomena from very different fields, Miika comments.
Can you say what is the most useful thing you have learned during your doctoral studies?
Miika has of course obtained technical skills and knowledge during his studies, but in his opinion the most important lesson has been about communicating ideas, whether it be writing, giving presentations to varying audiences or discussing with colleagues. “Even good ideas may lose their true potential if they are presented carelessly”, he summarizes.
Where would you like to be in five years time?
”That is a good question”, answers Miika. The postdoctoral period is a good opportunity to see what an academic career looks like without closing the door to the industry. In his field both academia and industry offer rewarding possibilities in research. “Until now my career has been the result of following my own interests quite freely. I hope I can continue doing the same.”
Can you give advice to someone just starting her or his career in research?
“You should aim at main international forums, be social at conferences and get to know people”, Miika hints. People are usually open to different kinds of collaborations and visits, as long as you present good work and the necessary contacts are established, he assures. “I could not have foreseen myself to be in this situation five years ago, but this is how things have arranged themselves.”
Finally, Miika tells about his own attitude towards doing research: ”My strategy has been to learn the techniques and tools I use a few levels deeper than needed, sort of “unnecessarily” well, and to also become familiar with neighbouring fields of research. For example, I have studied lots of so called heavy mathematics, most of which I’ll maybe never need, but as a result I’m able to place the concepts of my own field into a bigger context and therefore it is much easier to understand and expand them”.
Dr. Miika Aittala