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International success requires a strong work ethic

Päivi Törmä is an Academy Professor at the Department of Applied Physics and leads the Quantum Dynamics group.
Päivi Törmä, Academy Professor

What are you working on at the moment?

'One of my main research topics is the study of ultracold fermionic atoms. We have done research on quantum phenomena that cause superconductivity, which means electrical conductivity with no resistance. Recently, we discovered a new connection between superconductivity and topology, which helps to understand how superconductivity could also be possible in higher temperatures. This in turn would enable new kinds of applications. My other research field is plasmonics, which belongs to nano-optics and studies how light behaves on the nanoscale.'

Where did you work prior to your current position?

'I worked as a professor of physics at the University of Jyväskylä and I also led the university’s Nanoscience Center. I started my work at Aalto in 2008. I have also been a board member at the Academy of Finland and a member of the Research and Innovation Council, which advises the Finnish government in matters concerning science and technology.'

Can you tell us about your research career?

'My research has mainly concentrated on the two topics that I mentioned earlier: the study of fermionic atoms and plasmonics. In my doctoral dissertation, I studied quantum optics. I’ve also done some research on DNA nanotechnology but I have given that up in order to focus my work.'

'I have worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Germany and Austria, and studied in Cambridge for one year. I have also been a visiting professor in Austria and Switzerland. Altogether, I’ve worked more than five years abroad.'

Magnetic Particle Array

Do the results of your research influence the everyday life of ordinary people now or in the future?

'Advances in the research of superconductivity can help develop computers that use much less energy than current ones. They can also bring about applications that require large magnetic fields and enable the transfer of electricity with much less energy. Of course many research groups around the globe are working on these issues, not only ours.'

'Nanoplasmonics promises interesting results that can be applied, for example, to new light sources that use less energy as well as to nanolasers and other nanoscale light sources.

Bosen–Einstein condensate of light and gold particles

How does the future of your research field look?

'The future of this field looks very promising. The research of ultracold gases has expanded tremendously and collected many Nobel prizes, and there are gifted researchers all over the world. Quantum plasmonics, on the other hand, is a new and rising field, and it is terrific to be able to participate in the research from the start.'

'Aalto University’s Centre for Quantum Engineering broadens our work. Energy research is one of Aalto’s focus research areas, and in the future it should be perceived a little bit more broadly to include physics and quantum mechanics.'

Why did you choose your field?

'I have always had a strong work ethic and thought that one should do something useful with one’s life. In high school, I started to wonder whether the natural sciences could be a useful field because I found physics both fun and interesting. Studying the subject eventually captivated me. Even when your choice of field isn’t prompted by a clear spark, a good work ethic and diligence can stir up your interest and also bring success as a by-product. I am very happy that I chose this field of work.'

Can you mention three achievements in your career that give you pride?

'I theoretically predicted a method that helps confirm that gases consisting of fermionic atoms can be superfluidic. The method was later proven in experiments.'

'Another source of pride for me is that my research group has done important work regarding exotic superconductivity.'

'I’m also happy that we have been able to experimentally find new kinds light-matter interaction phenomena at the nanoscale.'

How does your work at Aalto link to the international research community?

'The international nature of research is a given, and we have extensive collaboration with international groups, for example with Swiss and British researchers. My research group is also very international, as about half of the members are non-Finns.'

Which three characteristics are important for a good professor and for a successful academic career?

'An academic career calls for strong work ethic and routine. One must work a lot and carry on for decades. Work ethic is important because there will be days when enthusiasm alone doesn’t suffice. Furthermore, enthusiasm isn’t enough to create an international career, and that is the only kind worth pursuing.'

'You should be able to face adversity without becoming depressed or bitter – some adversity is inevitable. This is creative, demanding work, in which negativity will not help you forward.'

'You also need intellectual integrity, meaning passion and will to understand things correctly and profoundly. You cannot present haphazard research results. Only high quality standards enable the creation of new information.'

What kinds of students do you wish to see in your department?

'I wish to see students who work hard to reach an international level and to take this country forward. Research, product development and starting a company all require huge efforts. A positive and cheerful attitude helps students endure and think creatively.'

'Students should be willing to think independently and question information. They should contemplate things long enough to really understand them. Independent thinking can help young people come up with entirely new perspectives because they are not yet burdened by many layers of knowledge. The collaboration between experienced and young people can be very fruitful.'

Text: Anu Jussila