Three years as a tenure track professor at Aalto University

Three years ago, I started at Aalto University as professor (associate professor, catalysis science and technology). I started in February 2017, and worked 60% of time for the first half year, being at my former employer VTT for 40%.

In this post, I look back at my three first years as a professor and try to create an overview of the most important things that have taken place. When I had been at Aalto University of one year, I wrote a similar blog post, reflecting on the status then; those who are interested, can access it here.

The past three years have been years of continuous change. After three years, change seems only to continue. I look to the future with an optimistic mindset, advocating (also with this publication) what has in essence become my motto: “more openness in science and education”. Fits nicely in Aalto University’s new strategy, too.

Espoo, Finland, 3.2.2020

Riikka Puurunen

— Puurunen’s three-year professor summary begins —

Among the most important tasks of a professor is – to acquire research funding. Without funding, one cannot hire people to work in the group, and little progress can happen. That professors acquire competed funding is not only important for the functioning one’s own group but for the whole university, as overheads of the projects help pay university-level costs. Most funding applications do not get funded – depending on the call, even less than 10% of applications may get funded.

My major funding applications of three years in a nutshell:

  • Academy of Finland (4+). (i) September calls. Applied in 2017, 2018 and 2019. So far, with no success; the 2019 results are yet to come. (ii) C1 value call. Joint application for COOLCAT project with the computational chemistry group of Prof. Honkala received a positive funding decision in late December 2019. Project just started January 2020. (iii) I have contributed to FIRI calls of Aalto CHEM; Bioeconomy has been successful. [(iv) Postdoc funding application for my group; no success.]
  • European Union (1+). (i) ERC Consolidator Grant applied in January 2018 (at the same time as being responsible for the CHEM-E1130 Catalysis course for the first time, with very limited time to prepare the application). No funding, but encouraging evaluations. [(ii) Participated in one EU call as a smaller partner – no success. (iii) Marie Curie fellowship for postdoc funding in my group; no success.]
  • Companies (1). Proposal within the new Neste-Aalto framework was successful, and the HDN Cat project started in July 2019.
  • (Business Finland: not yet attempted)
  • (Foundations, säätiöt: Doctoral students who pre-dated me at Aalto CHEM, have succesfully acquired funding for full-time work. Additionally, several encouragement grants received by group members.)

Aalto Catalysis group and related people. Currently, Catalysis group ( has six persons working full time: one postdoc, three doctoral candidates, and one M.Sc thesis worker, and of course myself.  (The website is not fully up to date currently, I notice.) Additionally, two lecturers at Aalto CHEM are closely related to the group. We have also had summer student(s) each year.

Furthermore, I act as supervising professor to M.Sc. thesis workers (currently: 2) and doctoral candidates (currently: 8) outside Aalto University. The latter number includes people who have been full time doctoral candidates at Aalto CHEM and now work in the industry. Some, too, have started part-time doctoral studies while working outside Aalto University.

Pedagogical training and support. At Aalto CHEM, tenure track professors are expected to follow pedagogical training worth 25 cr. I have now completed approximately that, with the last course (teaching practice) running this spring.

While sometimes it has been difficult to find time for the pedagogical training (with many other tasks, and sometimes heavily overlapping deadlines with Academy funding calls), I am grateful that I have had to participate in this training. Pedagogical course have greatly helped me to develop as a teacher, and get new to know new people (other teachers/research leaders the Aalto schools, and also pedagogical experts).

I further find that the multi-school pedagogical trainings have helped me to get integrated at Aalto University in general. With the experience that I have gained, I would like to recommend pedagogical training also for more seasoned teaching personnel, who – unlike tenure track professors – are formally not required to participate in pedagogical trainings. I firmly believe that old dogs can learn new tricks, too, and it is never too late to develop oneself.

Teaching and courses. Some notes on the teaching that I am currently responsible for, and its status.

  • CHEM-E1130 Catalysis (MSc level, 5 cr, Period III(+), 50 +students). This course is closely related to the activities in my group, and has been my pedagogical development target. I have been developing the course now for three years, including the contents and order of the lectures, the assignments, timing of the course, and collecting feedback. This course is currently a compact one-period course (Period III), based on lectures on specific topics, MyCourse Quizzes to help continuous learning, one calculation exercise, another exercise (this year: Catalysis Glossary v2.0, as me-we-us work with all participating), and exam at the end. Flexibility is brought by (i) using Panopto lecture capture, making it possible to follow the lectures even if you could not make it to the lecture itself, (ii) MyCourses Quizzes, which are open for three days after each lecture, and (iii) the possibility to take the exam after Period III or Period IV. Plenty of feedback is collected and openly treated; the evolving feedback summary of 2019-2020 course can be viewed in the course’s MyCourse page:
  • CHEM-E1140 Catalysis for Biomass Refining (CfBR, MSc level, 5 cr, Periods IV-V, 20-40 students expected). Continues from CHEM-E1130, with a different type of implementation. Includes (i) lectures + related quizzes, which replace exam; (ii) Individual article summary, with peer evaluation (developed since 2018 as a module that can be moved later to more general courses); (iii) Group literature work with video outcome, with group peer evaluation. Especially the technicalities behind the development of the peer evaluation parts has been challenging; significant progress has been made.
  • CHEM-EV Course with varied contents (MSc level, 5-10 cr). In fall 2019, for the first time, I experimented with a research project in catalysis science and technology, with a 10 cr work for a motivated M.Sc. level students. The experience was good and I will be willing to make these individual projects again. The topics should be directly be related to the research work made in the group and, of course, and an advisor is needed.
  • (Code to come) Research seminar in Industrial Chemistry and Catalysis (doctoral level, 3-7 cr). Not yet once given (because of time limitations and also because there were not sufficiently students who would need it); likely to be started this year for the first time.
  • I have also given, upon invitation, individual lectures on heterogeneous catalysis and atomic layer deposition.

Further, a recent development close to my heart in many ways is an OpenLearning site on atomic layer deposition (ALD), The site was opened on November 29, 2019, when ALD in Finland became 45 years. The purpose is to develop the site (slowly but steadily), in international collaboration.

Publications. Publications are among the key performance indicators of universities. Their number and “quality” (judged in Finland by the “JUFO” class) and also their open access status are linked to the funding received by the university. There have been publications from my group for example related to catalytic hydrodeoxygenation, ALD on particles, conformality analysis in ALD, and on an open science effort. I will not list the numbers here, as overall, I think there is too much attention nowadays just for numbers as indicators as opposed to contents. Those who are interested, can see the full list of publications (and count them if they like 🙂 ) in the portal.

Invited talks. I understand that when my performance as a first-term associate professor will be evaluated, invited talks will be paid attention to. (Especially if they are at “proper” conferences, not the recent commercial ones that seem to invite “anybody”.) When I have been invited to give talks during these three years, I have most often accepted, even if it meant a lot of travelling. During my period at Aalto University, I have given invited talks in: an HERALD COST action event in Riika in May 2017; the AVS64th Symposium in Florida in November 2017; the Nordic Symposium on Catalysis in Copenhagen in August 2018; the E-MRS in Warsaw in September 2018; the ECS fall meeting in Mexico in October 2018; the ALD for Industry event in Berlin in March 2019; the ALD fundamentals workshop in Delft in July 2019; the Catalysis Connected event in Utrecht in August 2019; and the AVS 66th Symposium in October 2019. One more invited talk is scheduled, for the MRS Symposium in USA in April 2020.  The travelling has not been for nothing: at each event, I have made new connections and learnt new things.

Degrees. In the three years, five master’s degrees and two doctoral degrees have been completed under my supervision at Aalto University. Full list of theses I have and am supervising can be found for example through a MyCourses site that I have started and continue to build for thesis supervision: Thesis supervision Riikka Puurunen 2018-.

Service: Aalto University. All professors are expected to contribute to activities at Aalto University and serve in some of the numerous committees. I have served in the following ones:

  • CHEM Academic Committee, KTAK (Kemian Tekniikan Akateeminen Komitea), vice member 2018-2019
  • Degree committee vice member 2018-2019
  • Doctoral programme committee vice member November (?) 2019 on

Shorter-term duties completed:

  • Millennium Technology Prize nomination letter drafter in 2018
  • Dean’s recruitment committee in 2018

Service: Conferences and workshops

Several scientific gatherings have been organized, where I have helped with the organization. At least the following (newest first):

  • 19th Nordic Symposium on Catalysis, August 2020: Scientific Committee chair; lead guest editor of a Special Issue to come in the peer-reviewed journal Topics in Catalysis.
  • November Networking – ALD at Aalto University, November 29, 2019; responsible organiser (first time such event was organized, this was to honor 45 years of ALD in Finland)
  • Finnish Young Scientist Forum on Catalysis, 2018, main organizer (organized within the framework of Finnish Catalysis Society)
  • EuropaCat 2019, participation in the organization via as an EFCATS Council membership
  • International Conference on Atomic Layer Deposition in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, committee member and “social media chair”.

Service: peer review 

  • Scientific articles. Basically everyone, who publishes, should also act as a peer reviewer – that is how the process works. A good target is said to be three times the number that one publishes oneself. Some peer review service done by me during the three years, but not yet getting to the target.
  • Doctoral theses. I have participated in the evaluation of the theses of Taivo Jogaas (Tartu), Aitor Arandia Gutierrez (Bask Country University), and this week to come, Peter Velin (Chalmers Tekniska Högskolan, Göteborg).

Service: scientific organizations

  • Finnish Catalysis Society, boar member, 2018-
  • European Federation of Catalysis Societies, Finnish representative (together with Prof. Karoliina Honkala), 2018-

What next?

The first half of 2020 will be all about teaching, writing publications, and getting the newly started research projects on the right track. Related to projects, we will have at least one open position in the near future; here some pre-info:

  • COOLCAT project (C1 value call, Academy of Finland), on carbon dioxide hydrogenation to methanol. No call text yet to describe the position, but interested candidates (postdoc, doctoral level) may contact me with a CV, motivation letter, and other relevant info.
  • ALDI project waits for decisions of the Academy of Finland September call, likely in May or June 2020. ALDI is to be centred around ALD, if successful.

In November 2020, my tenure track evaluation should likely start. After summer, I wills start preparing the package for evaluation. That will be the next time that I have any time to take a birds-eye view on my activities at Aalto University…

— Puurunen’s three-year professor summary ends —

Posted by Riikka Puurunen

About Riikka Puurunen

Associate professor, Catalysis Science and Technology, at Aalto since February 2017
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