Raili Kajaste-Rudnitskaja: chemical engineering studies opened up an international career in the oil industry and investment banks
Why did you want to study chemistry engineering?
I was 12 years old when the Typpi Oy factory exploded in my home town of Oulu. One winter morning, I woke up in our city centre family apartment with shattered window glass in my bed. This got me interested in chemistry. In upper secondary school I was in the mathematics programme, and I also participated in the inspirational activities of the chemistry club. I started my chemistry studies at the University of Oulu in 1969.
How did you end up studying in Ukraine?
I wanted to become an oil engineer. My professor encouraged me to go abroad, and one of the best universities in the field was located in Kiev, Ukraine. I first studied Russian in Leningrad for a year, after which I went to the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Technological University of Kiev to study oil-chemistry process engineering. After graduating, my first job in Finland was as a project engineer at PI Consulting. After a year, I became the laboratory manager for Polttoaine Osuuskunta Aspo Oy.
What kind of career did your chemical engineering studies open up for you?
I was quite young when I was appointed as the manager of a laboratory where there were many more experienced people. I fixed a broken pump there during an evening shift – after that they stopped calling me a girl. Later, in the 1980s, I was on a work assignment at the ENSO Gutzeit factory, which also had a problem with a pump. Diagnosing the installation error increased my credibility as an engineer. I am still grateful for my experience repairing pumps during my studies.
I have broken through many glass ceilings in working life, but I had to have the assets that could propel me upwards. One’s core competence in one’s field must be solid, meaning that you can effectively manage the processes and equipment. For example, we lived with our family in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for 2.5 years. I was setting up a chemistry and process engineering department at that university.
I have carried out a number of projects for the World Bank and the EU, including several relating to environmental legislation. In addition to Finnish, I speak four other languages fluently, so my career has in many ways been an international one.
What does education mean to you?
The competition was tough in the 70s, just as it is now. Many things have changed though, such as the study grant now provided to all. During my studies, it was customary to take a student loan, the payment of which was made easier by inflation. For young women, working life presented its own special difficulties because there were no day care places for children. Today, it is instead made difficult by temporary employment. However, my education has provided me with a truly rewarding and rich career which has included many challenging tasks. I have also highlighted in my workplace matters such as pay issues. I completed my doctoral dissertation after retirement because I felt that I still had something to offer to my field.
What is the most important finding from your dissertation?
I surveyed greenhouse gas emissions in the production of cement, plastics and methanol. I also examined the potential of future bio-refineries for emission reductions. I found that if the cement and chemical industry were to implement the proposed improvements and partially shift to renewable raw materials, the potential emission reduction would be equal to 25% of the EU's 2017 emissions load. The results should spur on efforts for climate change management and emission reduction.
What would you like to say to students who are considering chemical engineering studies?
I would like to encourage everyone to study engineering. A Master of Science in Technology is able to find work across a broad spectrum of fields. The more multidisciplinary one's approach, the more interesting the job opportunities are. I would also urge students not to be discouraged by setbacks. I had a brain tumour removed when I was 47. After that, I had to relearn a lot of things. Life can be tough at times, but it's always worth pushing onwards.
Raili Kajaste-Rudnitskaja defended her doctoral dissertation on 21 May 2021 on the topic ‘Abatement of industrial greenhouse gas emissions’.