Three Aalto postdocs to pitch their bold research ideas in Slush

Anand Tatikonda, Anna Stöckl and Tommi Himberg are competing for the Skolar Award at Slush.

Since 2015, science pitching has become part of Slush. Within a week, these three enthusiastic postdocs will face the Slush audience and present their novel research proposals in a three-minute pitch. We asked the postdocs to describe the core of their research ideas.

Revolutionary e-waste recycling with bacteria

Each year hundreds of millions of tons of electronic waste (e-waste) is generated from electronics such as mobile phones, computers and washing machines. Anand Tatikonda intends to develop a new and sustainable way to recycle complex metals:

‘Current techniques for metal recycling uses harsh chemical processes which are not cost-effective and damage the environment. I’m proposing a new bioprocessing technique to handle this e-waste. The idea is to use a special kind of bacteria that digests complex metals into very simple types of metals, which can then be easily recycled. The metal is put into a microcontainer with a certain type of bacteria that uses the metals as nutrients and breaks them into simpler forms. The bacteria can be easily controlled, and they are also sustainable. These techniques are already being used for example in nickel extraction, but instead of a conventional five-year process, by using microfluidics we can do this in a few hours!

Taking advantage of a bioprocessing technique integrated with microfluidics principles metals can be brought quickly to be reused. It is not just the recycling industry and the countries producing rare metals that benefit – the developing countries benefit as well because the e-waste load decreases. The basic understanding and the science is already there, but bioengineering the bacteria – isolating a specific bacteria for a specific method in the process – is the challenging part. Highly skilled microbiologists will be needed there indeed.’

Revealing the secrets of brain with the help of four tiny neurons

How does the brain work? Anna Stöckl is going to reveal part of this mystery by studying the interactions of four neurons at an unprecedented physiological accuracy:

‘A good understanding of single neurons and their activity already exists, but now we intend to find out how several neurons work together in a network to process information. So far researchers could only measure one or two neurons simultaneously at the high physiological resolution that is required to track the neuron’s interactions – so our attempt to target four could be a world record! We are working with neural circuits in the retina—the sensory tissue of the eye—which are widely used as a model for brain circuits. In our experiments the neurons are attached with microelectrodes and stimulated by light, and the cell’s responses are recorded. As a result, we get rich information on the interaction between the neurons, as both the input and output of the neurons can be measured. In the end, we will be able to improve the current models for the activity of larger networks.

Later on, the technique developed here can be applied to different cell types and circuits in the retina and the brain. This way we can help find answers to other basic questions like how vision in the retina works, as well as more applied ones relating to retinal diseases. Technically the experiment – controlling the four neurons simultaneously and mastering the art of recordings – is quite challenging. Luckily, I get great support from other team members in optimizing the technology to make this project work.’

Group Improvisation Games for schools and workplaces

Collaboration as well as conflict resolution and prevention are important skills that are especially critical during group scenarios. Tommi Himberg is interested in finding out how movement improvisation can be used in e.g. classrooms to help improve sense of community and learning:

‘In our project, our researchers and artists study creative interaction through creative interaction. We're developing group improvisation exercises that need to be creative, inspiring, measurable and able to develop one's interaction skills, all at the same time. The things that we measure include the movements, emotional states and brain activity of our subjects as they dance together, play rhythm games, or build marionettes. These games can be used in e.g. schools, educational institutions and workplaces.

What sets our research project apart is that we tackle interaction problems from the perspective of the group, instead of focusing on just individual participants. It takes a lot of fine-tuning to be able to combine a frictionless and natural interactive situation with precise measurements. And in addition to art and science, our pre-existing pillars, we also require a third, i.e. pedagogical skills, and that’s why we’re looking for partners in the school sector.'

Skolar Award is a science pitching competition that aims to promote postdoc researchers’ innovative ideas and top-quality research. The award is a 100 000 euro grant for advancing their groundbreaking research. The competition culminates in Slush where each finalist presents their research idea in a three-minute pitch.

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