Pauliina Ilmonen: The scientific community is like my second family

In the ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview, Pauliina Ilmonen, professor of statistics, talks about her feelings from the Ceremony week, her plans to do zombie calculations, and her love for mathematics, teaching and legos.
Pauliina Ilmonen on the left and Kurt Melhorn on the right, photo by Heli Sorjonen.
Pauliina Ilmonen (left) ja honorary doctor in technology Kurt Melhorn (right), photo: Heli Sorjonen.

You were a master of ceremony of the conferment and part of the conferment committee for about a year. Now that the ceremony week is over, what are your main feelings?

Everything went well, and the conferment was very touching, although it was a busy week.

On the day before the conferment, we had the honorary doctors’ presentations and we chaired different lecture halls with Arno Solin, also a master of ceremony. The moment when the new doctors receive the hats is the one that gets me particularly emotional. There is plenty of work behind each new doctoral degree and that work has a huge societal impact.

Masters of ceremony Pauliina Ilmonen and Arno Solin interviewing Jubilee doctor Iija Pietikäinen
From left: Pauliina Ilmonen, Arno Solin, Iija Pietikäinen and her daughter Iia Hyvönen. Photo: Heli Sorjonen.

I was also particularly moved by the interview with Jubilee doctor Iija Pietikäinen. She talked about her path to doctoral studies and her career since then, and I was very impressed. She is over 90 years old and graduated 50 years ago from the then department of textiles at the Helsinki University of Technology. Pietikäinen ended up in Savonlinna as a professor of handicrafts. It was great to see her and to learn how science was done 50 years ago.

Pauliina Ilmonen, Lauri Viitasaari and Jouko Lampinen in the front (from right). Photo by Mika Levälampi.
Pauliina Ilmonen married her husband Lauri Viitasaari, a professor at Uppsala University, only a few weeks ago. Photo: Mika Levälampi.

What other memorable things happened during the celebrations?

I was quite anxious before the ceremony, and I had slept and eaten poorly. After the procession, I was very hungry, and my newlywed husband and I went out for early dinner. When we got back to campus and I got out of the car, I heard a horrible noise. I had accidentally stepped on the hem of my evening gown, and it ripped badly. I had intended to wear the same dress day and night. And there was hardly any time left.

But as it happened, I had another long black dress in my office, my emergency-dress, which I changed into. I told everyone during the evening that I tore up my evening dress. These things happen.

What's it like to walk in Pauliina Ilmonen's shoes?

My work week is usually pretty busy. It includes research meetings, teaching, administrative meetings, Bachelor’s and Master’s thesis supervision, and for example school visits. The previous week I attended the centennial celebrations of Finnish Statistical Society and the week before that the Statistics Finland's advisory board meeting. I always think that the following week will be easier, but there is always something special, such as preparing a speech for the conferment.

I recently had a call from a science journalist at Yle who is doing a science podcast and wants to examine how quickly and widely a hypothetical zombie infection would spread in Finland. My team and I are doing our first zombie calculations for August. We have about ten people involved in this zombie project as everyone got excited about the topic and wanted to take part in it. We plan to write a scientific article about it at the same time.

My group and I will calculate how long it will take for entire Finland to be zombified, if the first zombie appears in, say, Ivalo, central Helsinki or Haaparanta, or if a zombie army enters Finland from the East. We calculate this with slightly different parameter values, and at the same time see whether, for example, building moats could slow down or otherwise influence the zombies' advance. Of course, we also need to include a zombie counter-army that will hunt zombies. We are doing fancy simulations and designing map graphics.

We do a lot of research in my group, and the purpose of the zombie project is to boost the team spirit. But my main research is not about how fast zombies will take over Finland.

As for shoes, I often lecture in teddy bear slippers or woolen socks. I get cold easily and they feel comfortable. Over the years at least a few thousand Aalto students have seen my teddy bear slippers in the lecture halls.

How do you feel about your work?

I care about our students, and I love teaching. Our students are talented, interested and ask excellent questions. I can sometimes see things from a completely different perspective through our conversations.

Research is important to my brain. The world is complicated, but math is clear. Conducting research is a creative process, it's very much who I am. Research results are, naturally, submitted for publication, but the process of doing research is just for me. I enjoy my work.

My main research area is mathematical statistics. I develop new methods and I also examine properties of different statistical methods. I enjoy supervising theses on topics related to mathematical statistics. Sometimes I also supervise computational works. And applied theses open doors for me, and I can learn new things, for example, about optimising power plant practices, analysing sleep, predicting the demand of wind power, analysing textual data or about bioreactors. I'm interested in so many things that it's hard to focus on just one. While I have no time to do all this myself, supervising theses gives me a broad view of this wonderful world around us. Statistics is everywhere.

I love people, but sometimes I lose my energy when I meet a lot of people. Then it's very relaxing to walk into my office and shut the door. I take out my papers and pens, I'm alone and I think about mathematical formulae. It charges my batteries. Those moments are the highlights of my job.

If Pauliina Ilmonen had her way, what would change in society when it comes to mathematics?

Children would be given time and peace to learn. Less is more. In math, the focus would be on the basics, rather than requiring self-direction and independence too early. It kills enthusiasm. I don't think that we should have more mathematics lessons or learn things earlier. It is perfectly acceptable to learn some things mechanically at first, and only later understand the deeper meaning. For example, I learned how to conduct induction proofs mechanically at first and only later did I understand the concept in depth.

Pauliina Ilmonen, photo by Nita Vera.
Photo: Nita Vera.

You are well known for your Lego hobby. Do you ever have days when you don't do something with Lego bricks?

I'm surrounded by Lego bricks every day at work and at home, but they take up too much space in my luggage. Therefore, I do not take Legos with me when I travel. 

I have a shelf at home where I collect Legos. When I turn 50, I will get 50 new Lego boxes. I should point out that in addition to these 50-year birthday Legos, I do buy for Legos for myself just because and I get Legos as Christmas and birthday gifts as well.

At home, our kids have their own Lego bricks, and they know to stay away from mine.

What else do you do in your free time?

I have two children and my husband has three. The oldest one is 16 and the youngest just turned 10. Sometimes we have quite a hubbub. We have a big house in a small village Inkeroinen, and we are renovating it. I like to spend time there, painting the walls and hammering. I also enjoy spending time with my tortoise, Konnis.

Tech promotion 2023, photo by Heli Sorjonen.
In the front row, from left: masters of ceremony Pauliina Ilmonen and Arno Solin, Dean Jouko Lampinen, President Ilkka Niemelä and Provost Kristiina Mäkelä. Photo: Heli Sorjonen.

Finally, can you describe the Aalto community?

I am privileged to be in this job. I have a wonderful research group. The members of the group encourage and support one another. And we, at the Department of Mathematics and Systems Analysis, care about our students.

I have always found the scientific community to be open-minded. There is a diverse community of people with different personalities and backgrounds at Aalto. Science is what brings us together. The scientific community is like my second family, and I call my PhD students "my children in science".

Read more about the Ceremony week:

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