Persistence and freedom create the work culture of top science
The first class research of the O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory in Aalto University School of Science would not exist without its unique and deeply rooted work culture. Academician Olli V. Lounasmaa (1930–2002) set already in 1965 a high standard of ambition in his research group, later the Low Temperature Laboratory, and it has not been lowered since.
”No tinkering here”, declared Lounasmaa in his autobiography, and the same philosophy has directed the laboratory for over 40 years now. O.V. Lounasmaa Laboratory still focuses on its traditional fields: low temperature physics and brain research, with nanoelectronics introduced 18 years ago.
Crossing disciplines from quantum physics to brain research
Olli Lounasmaa encouraged his researchers to focus on a carefully selected topic – and be the best in it. For a small country this strategy has proved to be outstanding, say the current Academy Professors of the laboratory.
– Still today we are looking for suitable niche sectors for our research to be state-of-the-art in the world. For instance in nanoelectronics we develop quantum sensors, which also follows the lab’s traditions: research is based on devices developed in-house. This earns us a competitive advantage, says Director of the laboratory, Professor Pertti Hakonen.
– We have reached a fine-tuned balance between application development and basic research. We apply for patents right away when original ideas come about, and we keep our eyes peeled for new start-ups and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.
Basic research in quantum phenomena and electrical nanostructures doesn’t necessarily instantly spawn numerous citations in scientific journals. Lounasmaa valued his principle of researchers creating a field of their own instead of jumping on mainstream bandwagons. Nowadays the laboratory has reached the international top in all its research areas.
– Low temperature physics is also fundamentally an enabling field – for both technical applications and basic science. For instance, we designed and built cryostats for research purposes here already in the 1970s. Today they are available in the market to be bought and used for, say, the design of quantum computers, notes Jukka Pekola, Academy Professor and the leader of the lab’s PICO Group.
The laboratory saw its second prominent field take form when Lounasmaa became interested – alongside the birth of the universe and quantum physics – in the human brain. – In the beginning we focused on brain research methods. Part of the group went on to develop multi-channel magnetoencephalography (MEG) devices, which we neuroscientists could use for more and more complex neural activity measurements. Equipment development and research questions evolved hand in hand, recalls Riitta Hari, Academician and Director of the Brain Research Unit.
Academy Professor Riitta Salmelin, with her background in low temperature physics,”switched floors from downstairs to upstairs” in the laboratory and took on brain research in the early 1990s. Now she leads the Imaging Language Group. – Lounasmaa encouraged me to put myself into brain research, and it had certainly intrigued me for quite some time. I gave myself two and half years to get to know the field, and soon after that our results were published in Nature, she recounts.
The painstaking freedom of doing research
The Academy Professors still feel the ardent spirit of Olli Lounasmaa in the laboratory’s every day atmosphere. Attitudes toward research have however changed to a degree.
– Doctoral students and post doc researchers still have plenty of ambition, but it seems they wish to get results with less effort. Though being in the forefront in science doesn’t take any less work and dedication than before, reminds Riitta Salmelin.
– Olli Lounasmaa’s method of throwing people in cold water and seeing if they start to swim may have been a little extreme, but then again, the more young researchers were forced to get on with and solve problems on their own, the stronger they pulled through.
Riitta Hari believes that scientific adolescence has become longer. – People expect and demand supervision later and later in their scientific career. The outcome may be that fewer and fewer scientists get to blossom in an early stage, Hari believes.
The academy professors encourage young researchers to experiment and to make mistakes. The most prominent results in the laboratory have always been the outcome of persistent experimentation and refining mistakes.
– The tenure track system of Aalto University could provide more positions for assistant professors. This way we could give talented researchers more chances to show just what they are capable of, suggests Salmelin.
– We all have several projects running simultaneously: if one thing doesn’t seem to work out, we can put emphasis on other approaches. Avoiding bypaths only blocks creative thought, reminds Pertti Hakonen.
In the end, the true indicators of a researcher’s competence are international experience and qualification. The professors prefer to send even junior researchers abroad to international conferences to present their work and ideas and to learn from others.
– International networking has been self-evident for us for 50 years, Jukka Pekola stresses.
The laboratory’s traditions are alive and well among the administrative and technical staff also. For instance the cryostats built in the lab’s own machine shop have reached many low temperature records and they have been the tools of decades’ worth of pioneering research in the quantum physics of superfluid helium.
– The dedicated and professional admins and technics in the laboratory make sure that we can concentrate on research – to the extent that is possible in a university environment. We are in profound awe of and appreciate everyone working in the lab, the professors voice in unison.