Q&A: What’s your average work day like?

There are never really average work days because there is a good number of tasks I need to cover as part of my job. That said, I do have a job that is 95% not field-based.

I have always been a very early morning person (one of the reasons I love Finnish summers is that it gets light very early and I can cycle to work at 5-6am wearing sunglasses), so I tend to show up to work early but also leave work early – my brain needs a long break after 3-4pm. Although I can connect into my work system remotely and we can always connect into meetings remotely, I tend to prefer going into the office as I find it helps me keep a better work-life balance.

At work I could be doing quite a few things – catching up on emails (I try to always have fewer than 10 in my inbox), reading literature to build up parts of articles, working on my models, meetings, administrative tasks, grant writing to get more funding. Mainly though I try to keep it to (slowly, I am so slow at this) building up publications, working on my models and exchanging ideas with colleagues. My field work requires me to go meet with companies and discuss with them to see how I can make my models better to help them achieve sustainability and find ways to bring in added value to their products.

Of course, as a scientist, you are also expected to participate in conferences and symposiums, contribute to peer reviewing and even eventually sitting on editorial boards or organising committees. One of my previous jobs also included teaching and student supervision, which I enjoyed greatly, and I am hoping to add some teaching/supervisory tasks to my current role in the upcoming months. On the side I also work with outreach programs to encourage girls and women to join STEM fields and to bring scientists into classrooms to show students of all ages that working in a scientific field can be fun and rewarding.

I tend to try to and keep most work-related things to what I call my “working hours” (roughly 7am-4pm) but it’s not always possible. There are times when I do need to finish an abstract or article during my holidays or the weekend, there are meetings that are scheduled during the day in other parts of the world (therefore evening/night for me) and so I will have to participate from home, there are work trips that do not follow a strict schedule. Those things happen but since changing jobs I have tried my best to finish things before deadlines (the first deadlines, never hoping for extensions – 27yo me would be so impressed) and to tie all loose ends before the weekend hits.

Q&A: What’s the best part of being a scientist?

For me, one of the best part of working in research is that no two days are alike, I get to spend my time on subjects that interest me and I get to work with equally passionate people from whom I can learn a lot. As we, as a species, are always making new discoveries and finding new techniques for doing things, being a scientist requires you to  be very interested in anything and everything – always reading up on the latest results, following what’s happening in the world, trying to figure out if this or that can be used in one’s own work. It’s can be a daunting task but always being ready to learn new things is also very rewarding!

Of course, having all this freedom does come with some down sides – I currently don’t have a permanent position so I’m always looking for new sources of funding and I am in charge of setting my own deadlines and making sure I meet them. Sometimes it can also happen that you’ll spend months on a research project that leads to nothing and that can be quite upsetting, it’s important to see that as a learning opportunity rather than a complete failure.

Q&A: Where did you learn the languages you speak?

I am quite lucky to have been able to pick up French, English and Ukrainian as a child because of where I lived (and my parents always sending me to the local public school).

Throughout most of my school years (kindergarten to the end of high school) I usually picked either French or English as my main foreign language, depending on where I lived. It was a sure way to get a decent grade with relatively little work although grammar is no joke, no matter when or where you’re studying. I also attended Spanish and Russian classes because of requirements for the baccalauréat exam (two mandatory foreign language classes for a “bac S” and a third foreign language will get you extra points). In engineering school (in France) I continued with English but switched from Spanish to German as my second foreign language on a whim. In hindsight it was actually quite a good move because knowing a bit of German helped me during my first months in Finland, as written Swedish does resemble German somewhat (at least a lot more than written Finnish) and all food packaging in Finland must contain both a Finnish and Swedish description/list of ingredients.

For Finnish, I attended official classes when I first moved here in 2008 but grew frustrated with that class (and having other classes to teach and attend). Sadly most of my current (not very good) Finnish is due to what I can only describe as osmosis – eventually I just assimilated some words… and it’s a very slow process and, in many situations, I definitely rely too much on GoogleTranslate and the average Finn speaking English rather well. That was the case when I first lived in Finland and it’s still the case these days. Every once in a while I promise myself that I’ll start proper classes again but I always have excuses – too little time, too tired, none available when I’m free, I’d miss too many classes because of travels, etc. Excuses, excuses, excuses!

I must also note that during my years in Spain I was lucky enough to have been able to attend Spanish lessons organised by my previous employer – I got up to level B2 there (my work was all in English, the classes were there to make our everyday lives easier). Unsurprisingly, although my high school Spanish lessons allowed me to skip the introductory course, the stuff I learnt in school a decade prior was definitely not enough to get me by in actual Spain!

At one point I also attended a few Arabic lessons as we had a school offering Arabic, Persian and Hebrew lessons close by. While most classes were during my work hours, there was an introduction to Arabic at 6pm… and, boy oh boy, learning a new alphabet as an adult is something! On top of the new alphabet it was also really interesting to learn the actual words on which many Andalusian names are based (e.g. the Guadalquivir river/canal comes from al-wadi al-kabir) and also see the origin of some French words (e.g. a “toubib” means “doctor” in Arabic is also a slang term for doctor in French and, if I recall correctly, made its way into through the military).

Q&A: Have you ever encountered problems/discrimination as a woman in a STEM field?

So far, I haven’t encountered huge problems or blatant discrimination but, throughout my years in school and then later also during my doctoral studies, I have come across remarks thrown my way related to my gender and it gets tiring really fast. As you can imagine there weren’t many of us girls specialising in mechanical engineering so teachers often felt the need to point out when we did well in class/on a test and also point out that we were girls, as if those were supposed to be mutually exclusive. I had one teacher who felt the need to always ask me, in a very creepy way, just what did I do to manage to get top grades in 3D modelling class even though I was a girl. I wish I could say that I confronted him about his attitude but I just dropped his class and made sure to avoid him for the rest of the year. Later on, when I was the only woman on the team for a project, others felt absolutely fine joking about things such as my always being able to babysit the kids when the group went out for drinks, etc. Eventually I learnt to stand up for myself and make it clear that those kinds of jokes were not really jokes.

Over the years and at my previous jobs, I also grew frustrated with the fact that all my bosses/supervisors were men, their bosses were men, etc. Even though there were nice powerpoint presentations about how they were making an effort to have more women in top spots, I didn’t see it happen on the ground. I won’t lie, part of the appeal of my current job was that my supervisor and her boss were women. Of course, if looking at the institute as a whole, there are still more men than women at as group/unit leaders but it feels different to me!

Q&A: Were you a good student in school?

I was a good student in the sense that I generally did my homework and did not disrupt classes. I was also that one student who would sit at the front of the class because I’ve always learnt best by hearing something explained to me rather than reading about it (I get distracted way too easily when reading, even today).

In terms of grades, it was hit and miss. Depending on the subject, the teacher and the difficulty of the class, I could be getting top marks or be failing. Because I had to learn a new language and a whole new alphabet around the age of 6, I remember having some issues with reading I was kept back a grade so that I could catch up with reading but then I skipped a grade because I did manage to catch up and then some. I went through good and bad phases as a teenager, phases where school was a priority and phases where I showed up to class but my mind was elsewhere.

Overall I was average, going with the flow – the French secondary education system made it rather easy, if you’re going for a “general” baccalauréat, you can pick to specialise in science, humanities or economics. Once you choose that, you have a specific set of classes to attend (usually with more-or-less the same 30 people) and eventually you can add a third foreign language and some extracurricular like dance or theatre or music for some extra points. As I was much better in scientific subjects than in literature/humanities (I loved those classes but I just wasn’t that good at them), I picked the scientific “path”, with an emphasis on maths. This allowed me to be in the top half in terms of grades and I even somehow managed to a get a “mention très bien” (= above 16/20, you need a 10/20 to pass) on my baccalauréat (to almost everyone’s surprise, including mine and my parents’). I got a perfect score in physics/chemistry and an almost perfect one in maths but a 4 out of 20 (or maybe even a 2/20) in philosophy even though I absolutely loved philosophy class! I personally thought my essay was rather good but I guess the teacher grading it hailed from another philosophy school – sometimes it takes years for genius ideas to be recognised. At least that’s what I like to think… I mean it’s either that or I’m terrible at writing anything longer than a paragraph.

Q&A: Do you speak Finnish?

I definitely don’t speak Finnish fluently but I do understand enough words to get by. I also have mastered the art of GoogleTranslate!

Alas most Finnish words don’t have the same roots as most Romance, Germanic or Slavic languages so it’s been quite an adventure not being able to rely on etymology to figure out what a word means. Most of the words I do know are basic greetings or related to food! As I live and work in the Helsinki region, it hasn’t been too problematic as most people do speak English (or at least understand enough to help me when I do need help).

Q&A: What does a scientist wear?

The main thing about scientist attire is that it should be appropriate to their setting.

The good news is that when you mainly work in an office, as I do, you can dress pretty much as you like (as long as your clothes are still decent and office-appropriate)!

I have a collection of graphic tee-shirts that feature video game and film themes, most of my sweaters are probably from H&M. I also have loads of scarves because they can make any outfit look snazzier (and they’re great to deal with overzealous A/C). In the warmer months I prefer skirts – somehow I always end up getting skirts with similar checkered designs to the point where it’s a running joke that I can wear a different skirt every single day but it looks like I’m wearing the same one over and over again. In terms of shoes, depending on the season and on the weather, I’m either wearing rainboots or winter shoes or Converse shoes (light blue). Of course with rainboots and winter shoes, it’s important to also keep “indoor” shoes in the office to change into otherwise it would be unbearable.

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When there are important meetings or I have to give a talk, I will usually dress up a bit. I have a few nice dresses but I draw the line at wearing heels – some people are good with heels, I have no problems walking in them but they’re just not as comfortable as flat shoes. I tend to stick to darker Vans, they look fancy enough without looking as casual as Converse shoes.

Q&A: How do I know if I recycle correctly?

Just thinking about how to recycle correctly is a very important first steps towards achieving it! The most straightforward answer is that every single municipality (or whichever entity is responsible for waste management in your area) has specific rules for recycling and you can ask them for guidelines. Those guidelines, ideally, should be based on how the local sorting/incineration facilities handle waste.

Where I live, we are provided with a set of bins for different types of materials with stickers on them explaining what goes into each bin. On the municipality’s website, there are also guidelines as to what to do with hazardous waste (e.g. batteries, light bulbs, ITC equipment) as there are specific collection points throughout the city. Moreover, certain containers can (and should) be returned to the store as you pay a deposit when you buy them.

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From my experience, it’s also sometimes tricky to know what to do with things such as dirty cardboard (e.g. pizza boxes), dirty tetrapak bricks (i.e. cream containers) and such things as those aluminium lids on yogurts because the stickers on bins/guidelines do not make it very clear and waste sorting facilities get better and better at handling different types of waste. About ten years ago, in the area where I was living, anything with grease on it was considered as contaminated and had to be thrown into the general waste – just one greasy paper could result in the contents of a whole recycling bin to be thrown into the general waste during collection. For plastics it was even more complicated because certain plastics went into one bin and others in another!

Overall though, the best way to know what goes into what bin and what can be recycled is to ask the entity in charge of setting up your local recycling scheme!

Q&A: Why did you decide to focus on sustainability?

I grew up with the notion that we should respect our environment because no wants to live on a planet that’s full of trash and where you aren’t close to nature. The older I got, the more I realised that some people just didn’t care about such things and that sometimes even I contributed to making the planet a worse place to live just by being a consumer. Eventually I took a class about materials and saw that there is potential to create products and services that do not degrade our environment but it’s still nowhere near being a perfect science and sometimes it’s downright a guessing game as to whether something is good for the environment or not. This is basically where I decided that being an engineer is great to design new things but I needed to learn more about how to do it in a responsible way.

At that stage I mainly focused on environmental impact because it was a topic that was already quite nicely developed and several tools and models existed to start quantifying impacts. I then realised that many people rejected environmentally sound solutions because they claimed they were much more expensive than their “traditional” counterparts. This is why we need to promote a life cycle costing approach – while historically the lowest purchase price has always been favoured, those low purchase prices tend to have hidden maintenance and end-of-life costs!

Finally, after a while it became more and more apparent that social impacts should not be ignored because, while it’s easy to displace an environmental impact, it’s even easy to displace social impacts. The problem with social impacts is that it’s extremely difficult to quantify them and many people do not seem genuinely interested in anyone’s wellbeing but their own.

So, over the years, I’ve built up on my previous work to fully focus on sustainability and find a way to cover all three pillars. These days I clearly see that they’re all interconnected but we often don’t consider them all when we design new products and services because we don’t have the tools yet to do so efficiently… and so that’s what I’m working on!

Q&A: What kind of degree do you have?

I have an engineering degree (“Diplôme d’Ingénieur“) from an engineering school known as SupMéca (full title being Institut Supérieur de Mécanique de Paris but it’s quite long and a bit pretentious, if you ask me).

I also have a double PhD diploma – from Aalto University in Finland (when I started the degree it was the Helsinki University of Technology then merged with two other schools into Aalto) and Ecole Centrale Paris (now known as CentraleSupelec). The double diploma just means that I have two fancy pieces of paper instead of one, met the requirements for a PhD for both schools and spent at least one year in each institution (in my case, out of the four years of PhD, I spent three years in Finland and one year in France).

Q&A: Have you ever worked in a lab with chemicals?

I spent quite a few hours in labs full of chemicals while in school but these days the labs I work in generally involve mechanical rigs, loads of computers and prototyping equipment more than chemicals in beakers. That said I do have colleagues who also work on sustainability and bioeconomy and who work in labs full of chemicals – they focus on issues such as soil composition, the development of new foods and materials, and new ways of dealing with waste, etc.