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Retired Professor Ari Koskinen encourages chemists to be brave

Professor of Organic Chemistry Ari Koskinen retired in December 2021. Koskinen, who has specialised in research on pure enantiomers, has built a distinguished career both in Finland and internationally.
A portrait of Ari Koskinen, professor of organic chemistry.

Koskinen's path as a chemist began in 1975, when he was selected as a student at the Helsinki University of Technology (abbreviated TKK in Finnish, part of Aalto University since 2010). Koskinen got into chemistry, and in particular the chemical industry, after being inspired by his chemistry teacher at upper secondary school.

Initially, Koskinen majored in chemical equipment technology. However, the change to organic chemistry came about somewhat by chance when people working at Neste Corporation asked Koskinen if he would be interested in writing his Master’s thesis for them. Summer jobs were hard to find due to the economic recession, so Koskinen decided to jump at the chance.

"I accepted the offer, even though my studies were not far enough along and the subject was organic chemistry. My professor at the time, Tapio Hase, said I could complete the necessary courses before the summer and then I could start working on my thesis. So, I ended up doing my thesis for Neste on the anti-knocking agent MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether), which later became an oxygenate to replace the lead compounds used as anti-knocking agents in petrol, and quite a big business for Neste," Koskinen says.

Cancer drugs research took Koskinen to the US

After graduating from the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK), Koskinen became interested in alkaloids, plant extracts that affect bodily functions. At the time, Mauri Lounasmaa, who had been appointed as a new professor at TKK, was studying alkaloids, which had been used to develop the first promising anticancer drugs in the late 1970s.

"I was very excited about alkaloids. I thought, 'This is interesting and it actually makes sense to study them. I started working on my dissertation under Lounasmaa’s guidance, and finished it in two and a half years. I then went to Berkeley in the US to study asymmetric synthesis, or pure enantiomers. It was something that had not been studied much in Finland or even in Europe."

Koskinen studied pure enantiomers for four years while working for a couple of years in the pharmaceutical industry in Finland. Koskinen, who was still in his early thirties at the time, was involved, among other things, in developing computer-aided molecular modelling for the Finnish pharmaceutical company Orion.

Koskinen found his own research direction in England

Koskinen wanted to pursue an academic career. In the late 1980s, he returned to Berkeley and the situation of ten years ago was repeated: the economic recession got in the way of his employment. Koskinen received job offers from the US, including MIT and the University of Arizona, but the recruitment processes were put on hold. 

In 1989, Koskinen ended up at the small English polytechnic Surrey University in Guildford, where he found a definitive direction for his research.

"My local academic mentor said I had lots of good ideas, but I should pick a leading star, something I really wanted to do. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I was particularly interested in how very small energy changes could be used to direct synthesis very selectively to desired targets. Specifically, in a stereochemically correct way. In other words, how to make pure enantiomers with the lowest possible energy differences. That's what I decided to start doing and that's what I've been doing my whole career."

Back to Finland and TKK

Koskinen returned to Finland in late 1991, when he was awarded a full professorship at the University of Oulu.

"At that time there were a lot of educated people who couldn't get jobs in industry. At that time, Finnish ministries were offering money to universities to employ young people. We were able to employ them at the university and train them. I was in Oulu for seven years and during that time I trained dozens of doctoral students, who ended up working in industry when the recession eased."

At the turn of the millennium, Koskinen was appointed professor of chemistry at TKK after the retirement of Mauri Lounasmaa, the previous incumbent. The post is the fourth-oldest professorship in the old TKK.

"I held this position from 1999 until my retirement. I have just calculated that, including my time in Oulu, I have trained a total of 35 Doctors of Science, which is a lot in the field of organic chemistry."

Advice for young chemists

Koskisen urges chemists to take on more far-reaching projects and to have the courage to ask big questions.

"The scientific community today is huge. We constantly measure our competence by the number of publications and citations, but in the end they are irrelevant. We should rather do less but more far-reaching research than publish something that only slightly adds to what we already know."

For example, promoting global energy efficiency is a major challenge for chemists. The chemical industry accounts for around 20% of all manufacturing industry in Europe and over 30% in the US.

"The problem of energy consumption cannot be solved by making small tweaks to current technology. We need to dare to ask much bigger questions."

For today's young students, Koskinen stresses the importance of mastering the basics. An understanding of physical chemistry must be strong in order to build new knowledge. He also wants to encourage young people to be brave.

"The world lies ahead; the world is open. Young people must not settle in their habits until they are at least 35 or 40 years old. Until then, you have to proceed confidently and look everywhere to see what you can find."

Who?

  • Professor of organic chemistry, who retired in December 2021.
  • A guitar player since childhood, he has played a wide variety of music, from classical to rock and jazz. In his youth, Koskinen was an avid runner and tennis player.
  • In retirement, Koskinen plans to write a memoir and learn French, among other things. He plans to continue to follow developments in natural products chemistry.
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