Reflecting on research: insights from two professors

Two newly tenured Aalto professors talk about their research journeys
Two images in a diptych showing the professors. On the left, Koen Van Leemput is standing in front of an MRI machine, hands in pockets, smiling at the viewer. On the right, Tiina Nypelö is riding a bike down a corridor towards the viewer.
Koen Van Leemput (left) and Tiina Nypelö (right). Photos: Mikko Raskinen/Aalto University

How does progress happen in research? How do professors see the process from the inside, and how could it be better? At the Tenured Professors' Installation Talks, collected in this playlist, newly tenured professors share their story. For this article, we asked two of them to tell us a bit more about their journey in research.

Koen Van Leemput, Professor, Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering

'Doing my research is a bit like playing with virtual Legos: expanding systems that work,  one step at a time. Looking back over the years, the progress we've made is astonishing. But there’s still the challenge of bringing the tools we have now into daily clinical use, with all its real-world messiness and variability.

I find it fascinating to reflect on how the amazing progress we've made has been achieved. On the one hand, I don't think there’s anything about the techniques we're using now that my 25-year younger self wouldn’t have understood. On the other hand, the concepts did take time to mature and develop inside people's heads, and new ideas always seem trivial in retrospect. And then, of course, there’s the role of dramatically increased computing power: you can't really explore new ideas if testing them takes two days! 

There’s a lot of attention in science policy given to grand visions and promises of "fundamentally new" approaches with big budgets, but in reality scientific progress is often quite uneventful, driven by small groups of researchers making incremental improvements and sometimes getting lucky. It would be good if this reality was reflected more in today's ultra-competitive academic landscape.'

Tiina Nypelö, Associate Professor, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems

'There are two ends to the spectrum: doing new things in new ways or sticking to old things and old ways. The challenge comes from trying to integrate new ideas into existing processes. It’s tempting to go crazy, but there are always some boundary conditions.

You cannot be a lonely cowboy in this field, as nobody can master everything. You can either specialise in one thing or be a generalist with details about a lot of things, and I'm the latter – always going for something that’s somehow new but related to what I already know.

Being from a part of Finland where paper manufacturing is big, I’ve always known that the forest industry employs lots of people and contributes to the economy. But besides the fibers that go into paper products, there are other materials generated from trees. My research focuses on finding circular and efficient ways to use these materials.

There’s a lot of knowledge to master, especially on the technical side, but we also need to make sure that we have the skills to use that knowledge for relevant things. Regardless of their career path, everyone should have a touch of entrepreneurial spirit, with the mindset of creating value through their skills.'

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