Being the only girl in research team: what is it about?

Today I decided to introduce you a really cool person I’ve met at our department. Her name is Petra Vasko and she is the only girl in Prof. Heikki Tuononen research team.

How do I know Petra? Well, at the  Inorganic Chemistry Department there are only 3 girls doing their PhD. Plus we were sharing same office for a while and I should say she is a great office-mate.

She is the first and only PhD in her family. I’ve been to her PhD thesis defense, but also I interviewed her just a week before the defense to know how she feels about it and then took couple of pics at her defense. So welcome to meet lovely Petra!SONY DSC


What did you want to be when you were a child?

I wanted to be a vet, then at some point I realized that I have to cut animals, so I changed my mind. At high school I didn’t really know what my profession would be like. Chemistry was so easy and interesting to me so I thought “Why not?”.

Why did you decide to be a chemist? And why did you decide to become a PhD?

I was torn between studying English and chemistry in high school. My chemistry teacher was really good, so I did my exams with really high scores and was accepted to the University easily without any additional exams.

I did my Master’s in inorganic chemistry with  Manu and I was interested in research. Manu didn’t have funding that time and I heard that Heikki was hiring PhD students. I thought: “Well, that’s a paid job!” and decided to join his team. The research was really interesting for me because I didn’t really know much about main group chemistry that time. So it was something new and curious. I graduated my Master’s October 2011 and same week I’ve started my PhD.

–  What are your hobbies?

I like to exercise, but even more I like to hang out with my friends. Well, they are chemistry friends.  (she laughs) I like rock music, my favorite band is Muse.  I like to watch Scandal, Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother.

– Have you ever had any accidents in lab?

Not big ones, but I set fire couple of times when I worked with air sensitive materials. But nothing too bad ever happened.

What was your project about?

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I’m studying main group chemistry (13-14 groups, especially indium, germanium and tin). I’m interested what do they do with small molecules like hydrogen or ethylene. The goal of my research is to make main group-based materials that will be used in catalysis and hydrogen storage.  Now transition metals (platinum, palladium, iridium) are used for this purposes and they are quite expensive while main group-based materials are cheap. So it’s ambitious projects that can give great results and give industry a lot.

– Do you worry about the defense?

I am actually nervous because it’s a big event in Finnish educational system. Even the biggest. I’ve never met my opponent, so I have no idea what kind of questions he will ask. Plus I’ll be the first PhD in my family.

– What were the difficulties you faced doing your PhD?

Performing chemistry was new. I didn’t have experience in air sensitive chemistry, so I had to learn it from the basics. Writing had always been difficult for me and being a PhD student I had to write a lot. I had to write articles in English using certain style and sometimes it was tricky. But Heikki is really good at writing so he helped me a lot. 

 – What are your plans for the future?

Heikki has agreed to hire me as a postdoc for 1 year. I love doing research and I think I will be bored with office jobs. So I’m going to apply funding for myself and maybe try to launch my own research career.

Give an advice to ones who just want to become chemist?

If you’re interested in chemistry – just go for it! Have an open mind and try to reach as much as possible and see what is actually out there. Don’t go and stay  just with one professor for the rest of your career. Try different areas.

Also chemistry can be frustrating. At my first year nothing really worked. The key in this case is to have several projects same time, so if one doesn’t really work you can have something else to focus on, and maybe results in other project. So you’ll not struggle with the same problem. Be patient and purposeful. Go ahead and develop!


At the day of defense Petra was nervous: great step in her academy career was going to happen so soon. More than 40 persons in lecture hall were waiting for her to present results of several years of hard work. A professor came all across the ocean to be her opponent to critique and comment her thesis. So I can totally understand her being a bit stressed.

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Petra’s first minutes of defense

In Finland there are 3 persons participating in defense: candidate,  opponent and  chairman( chairman’s role is to open and close defense and take care that it’s not taking too long).

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Chairman opens up PhD thesis defense

The defense started with Petra giving a remarkable presentation of her work. And then her opponent – prof. Eric Rivard from the University of Alberta – had a great laudatory speech about Petra. What a speech: I really wanted to hire Petra immediately!  He mentioned Petra has publications in such a high rated scientific journals that even some professors don’t their publications in there. And Petra had it being a PhD student: isn’t it a brilliant achievement?

During the defense Petra staid calm and cautiously picked words for her answer. She and her opponent had great discussion and even the backboard participated in it. I should say that prof. Rivard was brilliant: he asked interesting questions and made really funny jokes to relieve the tension of this official procedure.

Defense moments: tension and fun at the same time

After the defense Petra was officially announced a PhD, and she kindly invited audience to celebrate this event with coffee and cake at the university cafeteria. It felt like she was still a bit stressed, but pretty soon stress was substituted by a big happy smile.

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So congrats Petra and good luck in future research!

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