Tuukka Petäjä describes his experiences as a Principal Investigator. To create a scientific career, one has to instigate international projects.
It is not your publications list nor your first appointment as a university researcher — it is the initiatives concerning global projects that make the difference.
Physicist Tuukka Petäjä knows that the leadership of such a multinational undertaking may turn out to be a real acid test of a scientist — no matter how experienced or competent one otherwise might be.
Petäjä works as a Professor in the Department of Physics, University of Helsinki. He has specialized in atmospheric physics, and since his student times, he has participated numerous projects, not to mention the articles he has coauthored.
But this time is different. At the moment Petäjä, 39, leads a research project called BAECC. This is his first time as a Principal Investigator and as the one who had the initiative and launched the project.
The acronym BAECC means “Biogenic Aerosols Effect on Clouds and Climate.” The abbreviation is revealing; Petäjä and his colleagues unravel the microphysical processes of the atmosphere that are connected to global climate.
— In order to understand macro phenomena like weather and climate we have to find out how molecules behave, explains Petäjä.
— There are tiny particles suspended in the air, aerosols. We want to know profoundly how they are formed, and how they interact with each other as well as with clouds.
Part of the aerosols have their origin in boreal forest areas. This is why Petäjä and his colleagues spend a lot of time in Hyytiälä, Finland, where one of the observational stations of Helsinki University is located. The station consists of laboratories, maintenance buildings of the instruments and, of course, the residences for the researchers.
The scale of Petäjä´s project can be seen during a tour in Hyytiälä. An outsider might be awed by the bulky experimental devices scattered in the woods: radars, high resolution mass spectrometers and aerosol characterization instruments with their associated transformers, cord reels and inlets. All this in the middle of rural landscape looks like a scene from a sciencefiction film. No wonder Hyytiälä has drawn crowds lately — both curious villagers and media people.
Petäjä has over 50 researchers in his project altogether. They are mainly physicists and atmospheric scientists from all over the world, some of them doing remote work and some working on-site either in Hyytiälä, or elsewhere in Finland.
The most important institutional participant of BAECC is U.S. Department of Energy, which has provided state-of-the-art laboratory instrumentation and measurement technology for the project. In addition to this, from two to three technicians and site managers flew over from U.S. to stay in Hyytiälä for a total of 9 months.
The transportation of expensive and sensitive instruments is not an easy task, and, what is more, everything has to be put up and adapted to the local conditions.
— Luckily the personnel has extensive expertise of running their instruments all over the world, e.g. last year in the South Pacific. Next year, the instruments will be transported to Antarctica, Petäjä remarks.
— At the moment everything is fine. The data flows in, and we hope to get some preliminary results in the autumn.
“Share the workload, not the responsibility”
What should, then, a junior or mid-career scientist remember in order to succeed with his or her first initiative? What should they do to meet the requirements of a Principal Investigator?
For Petäjä, the starting point for the whole project was an e-mail he found nearly two years ago. The U.S. Department of Energy was calling for research proposals, the best ones of which it would fund.
— I knew that many researchers and institutions around the world would apply. But I knew as well that it is, for sure, worth trying: even if you are do not get the funding, the experience you get during the application process is valuable.
— The process itself was rather exceptional. Usually, you just construct an application and after a few months you here the result: you either get the money or not.
— But in this case, the applicants were asked to make pre-proposals, after which we got detailed comments. For example, I had a long telephone conference with the technical experts of the Department of Energy. They made elaborated questions concerning our own instruments, the way we are going to use data, of the conditions we have on our field sites, and how we are going to implement certain parts of our research proposal. I found these conversations mutually very fruitful.
— After the conversations and their comments we had the opportunity of augmenting our plan, after which the full proposals were sent in. A typical example: our pre-proposal filled 8 pages, whereas the full proposal after all those comments was 56 pages.
The application process took about six months. After that, Petäjä has divided his time between his BAECC-project, several other projects which he participates in as a collaborator, and administrational duties: he was appointed a professor only half a year ago. He cannot work 24/7, however: he has two kids waiting for dad to come home in the evening.
— I had luck because I have been supported by my boss during this busy period, says Petäjä. He refers to the director of the Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Academy Professor Markku Kulmala.
Kulmala, in turn, is the most cited researcher in the world in the area of geosciences. But a good boss is not enough.
— During a big research project you have to rely on your collaborators — otherwise you are not able to share the workload. Finding a good team is one of the most important qualities of the Principal Investigator.
— Simultaneously, it must be remembered that tasks and duties can and should be delegated. But, on the contrary, responsibility can never be delegated.
text Mai Allo