Research takes you to strange places

/ March 23, 2015/ Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry, IMAU

According to the Promovendi Netwerk Nederland, 80% of all Dutch PhD students leave academic research after their graduation. I suppose that makes me part of a minority.  When I finished in 2012, I felt like I had only just begun to learn how research works in practice, and I wanted to keep applying what I had learned to scientific questions. Postdoc positions in the Netherlands were scarce, though, so I had to look in a larger geographic area, and eventually found a position at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) in Kuopio.

“What, where?” Yes, I admit that I had also never heard of the place before I saw the advertisement for the position. As it turns out, though, Kuopio is home to an ambitious young research group in Aerosol Physics. A large part of the experimental work in this group focuses on the physical and chemical properties of aerosol particles (fine dust) that are formed indirectly from gases emitted by plants. That means working on questions like:

  • How rapidly do these particles form and grow?
  • How readily does water vapour condense onto them and form haze or clouds?
  • Are these particles liquid or solid, or maybe in some gooey state in between?
  • How do the particles change when they are exposed to reactive atmospheric gases, such as ozone?

These questions may all be relevant to determine how much solar radiation these particles end up reflecting back to space (a climate effect) and how long they stay in the atmosphere (a climate and a public health effect).

Anneke+reactor

My experimental setup and me in the UEF Aerosol Physics lab, by G. Pettinga.

The last two questions are the most closely related to my project. After aerosol particles are formed, they react with gases around them, and they “age” as a result. Usually, aged particles form cloud droplets more easily, so they reflect more radiation, rain out faster, etc. To accurately predict the impacts of the aerosol, it is therefore useful to know how fast this aging happens. The physical phase state of the particle may have an effect on this; if the particle is solid or very viscous (gooey), and the gases are unable to rapidly diffuse into the particle, aging is slowed down. To find out how much, I study the reaction between aerosol and ozone with a reactor in the UEF lab.

Being a postdoc can be stressful. Postdoc contracts usually last about half as long as PhD candidate contracts, and it’s quite a challenge to get results (i.e., publications) within that time, especially if you’re working on a topic that’s not immediately related to your PhD project. On the other hand, this postdoc project has certainly broadened my view of atmospheric chemistry. It’s a fascinating field… but by now the reader would probably rather hear some juicy stories about life in Finland.

It’s absolutely quite an experience to live this far north. Particularly in winter, of course. Kuopio usually has a permanent snowcover from about Christmas until April, and temperatures only occasionally rise above zero during this time. I haven’t learned to ski yet, but I did buy my first car here, and winter driving is already an adventure. Even Finns have their little slippery mishaps – and that is with their metal-studded winter tires on. It’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious.

The language is unlike any language you’ve ever learned in high school. Different grammar, different vocabulary. It has, however, a certain internal logic to it that you can learn to appreciate. After you’ve let go of all your preconceived ideas about how a language should work, that is.

And are Finns really so anti-social? Well, they are a bit reserved for sure. But the longer you stay in Finland, the more individuals you find that will warm up to you a bit.

And no, reindeer do not come as far south as Kuopio.

Anneke Batenburg

Lake Anneke

A view of frozen lake Kallavesi from the UEF campus on a frosty day in January.