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My Career: From Start to Finnish

Ben is helping Finland position itself as Europe’s leading battery hub

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Ben Wilson, UK. Staff scientist (raw materials, metallurgy and electrochemistry)

Ben ended up in Finland in 2007, after jumping at the chance to join an EU NEST project, the aim of which was to make artificial mnemonic memory capabilities. Having also lived in other cities in Europe, Ben eventually settled here and forged a life and career for himself, first as a researcher and now as a staff scientist. With his daily work focusing on raw materials, metallurgy and electrochemistry, Ben is part of a concerted effort by Finland to position itself as Europe’s leading hub for batteries.

But, as you no doubt will have heard, life in Finland is not all about work. Taking up skiing and becoming a connoisseur of Finland’s burgeoning craft beer scene are but two of his hobbies. Finnish summer has also become one Ben’s favourite things about living here, due to the combination of abundant light and the intense colours of nature.

How I got my current job is… I was working as senior researcher in the school of chemical engineering at Aalto University when I saw a position for a staff scientist advertised and thought I would apply. As an Aalto researcher, I had been involved in a diverse range of topics that varied from microemulsions through the creation of cellulose-metal oxide thermoelectric materials to being one of the project leads on an environmental and circular economy project related to battery metals – so, plenty of experience! Fortunately for me, as the demands for a staff scientist require the ability to deal with an assorted array of chemistry and materials-based challenges, the knowledge that I have acquired from numerous research jobs across Europe since graduation proved to be invaluable, and I was luckily appointed in 2017.

Ben enjoys his international working environment and has colleagues from Europe, South Africa and the US. Image: Ben Wilson

The Finnish word that best describes working here is… luottamus’ (trust). In Finland, there is a high level of trust that you can get the job done to the best of your abilities, but also that should any difficulties arise that you will also seek help or advice on how to solve the problem.

Working as a researcher in Finland is… overall a very positive experience as there is plenty of scope to develop yourself either through involvement in different projects that require your own particular knowledge or via the many opportunities for essential career development typically offered by employers, which in my case include pedagogical and project management skills.

Like many places around the globe, the ability to generate research funding is important. Although, superficially, when first getting to know the options for funding in Finland, in addition to the EU there appears to be only two main national sources – Academy of Finland and Business Finland – it soon becomes clear that there are a whole host of foundations that accept applications for everything from small sums to attend international conferences to significantly larger amounts for high-level, ambitious strategic research. For example, I have been fortunate to receive funding from the Future Makers programme funded by the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation and Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation for a project named BioPolyMet, which investigates the use of biorefinery wastes as sources of sustainable anti-corrosion coatings for metals.

According to Ben, the reason Finland is able to attract foreign researchers is the quality of life on offer both professionally and outside the work environment. Image: Ben Wilson

Moreover, as international collaboration is normally an integral component of many applications – both the Academy and Business Finland often have funding calls with international partners – being in Finland I have had the pleasure of working with people not only from Europe, but also further afield including currently South Africa and the US. 

The main differences in working life in Finland compared to other countries where I have worked are… that in Finland there is a generally a less formal but still hard-working approach to everyday work life due to the flat hierarchical structure compared to somewhere like Germany. This type of setup engenders a sense of equality, diversity and inclusivity that encourages more open discussion of research topics as people at any level know that their contributions will be taken seriously. Furthermore, there is more emphasis on being responsible for your own research that allows for the creation of innovative solutions to challenges rather than waiting for some direction from the boss. For me, this was certainly a refreshing change from either the top-down or compartmentalised-by-topic approach that I have experienced elsewhere in Europe.

The flat hierarchical structure of the Finnish workplace engenders a sense of equality, diversity and inclusivity, says Ben (second from left, pictured with representatives of Business Finland and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment). Image: Ben Wilson

Finland has an opportunity to be the leading hub for batteries in Europe because… as the Monty Python song says, “Finland [almost] has it all”. Being that the country has a wealth of primary raw materials (including cobalt, nickel and one of Europe’s biggest lithium mines), along with world-leading technical expertise in materials processing and recycling. The reality is that in contrast to many countries that are considering key parts of the value chain like increased electrical vehicle use or European based battery production, like its Nordic neighbours, Norway and Sweden, Finland follows a more long-term holistic attitude to the whole battery value chain and different battery chemistries.

This circular economy-based approach maximises Finland’s unique combination of strengths related to batteries like more sustainable mining, value-added minerals and metals processing, precursors and active materials, cell assembly, modelling and techniques that can maximise the recovery of battery materials from secondary raw materials and waste streams. A clear demonstration of this in action is the BATCircle project, which has brought together key stakeholders from academia and industry including six universities and research centres, eight large companies, 15 SMEs, and two Finnish cities to create a circular ecosystem of battery metals.

Ben enjoys the high level of trust in Finland that one can get the job done to the best of their abilities. Image: Ben Wilson

This initiative is already demonstrating how the transition to the circular-based economy can be achieved and has resulted in Aalto’s involvement in the EU 2020 project HELIOS, which aims at developing and integrating innovative materials, designs, technologies and processes to create a new concept of smart, modular and scalable battery pack for a wide range of electric vehicles. More importantly, based on such success, Finland has also been selected for a leading role in the planning and delivery of battery-related issues for the European Green Deal through the European Strategic Action Plan for Batteries and Batteries Europe.

The reason Finland is able to attract foreign researchers is… the quality of life that is on offer both professionally and outside the work environment. For myself, the work environment is well funded, has a high-class infrastructure and the studies I am involved are challenging, scientifically meaningful and the locally supported innovation and entrepreneurial culture allows for a more direct impact of the research findings to everyday life. This, coupled with level of communal social benefits like healthcare, social security and education systems, is highly desirable. Furthermore, close proximity to a nature that is constantly changing with the seasons means it is easy to escape urban life at almost any moment to find peace and quiet, whether that is walking in the forest or enjoying the two extremes of the midnight summer sun or winter darkness at our cottage in Lapland.

“The battery research community in Finland is like working in one big happy family.”

The battery research community in Finland is… like working in one big happy family. In Finland there has already been a long history of mutual collaboration between companies and universities for the greater good. This phenomenon has only increased in recent years in areas like the battery community as it has become clearer that the challenges are something that can be solved by working together. Fortunately, one of the beauties of Finland’s size is that there is enough room for complementary specialities to thrive. For example, the University of Oulu and Kokkola University Consortium Chydenius have expertise in precursor and cathode materials, which dovetails with Aalto University’s skills in battery cell testing. Other fruitful interactions include the work between Aalto’s pyro- and hydrometallurgy groups with Lappeenranta University’s ion-exchange separation scientists, as well as the flow cell battery work that is ongoing at the newly established materials engineering department at the University of Turku.

Ben enjoys the two extremes of the midnight summer sun and winter darkness at the cottage in Lapland he spends a lot of time at with his Finnish partner. Image: Ben Wilson

The hobbies that I have really enjoyed in Finland are… cross-country skiing and learning to become a connoisseur of Finnish microbrewery beers. Needless to say, being originally from the UK my skills at skiing were non-existent and, although these days I may not make the British Olympic Ski team, I certainly have enough competence not to spend most of my time lying face down in the snow. As for beer, I have always had an interest in different beer styles having lived both in Belgium and in Germany for some time, and over the last few years there has been an explosion of microbreweries such that there is something for everybody. Luckily for me, my living in Espoo has coincided with it becoming a centre of craft beer production: there are something like 10 breweries in the locality, two of which are only a short walk away.

What I enjoy most about the area that I live in is… the proximity to nature. I am currently living in the Tapiola area of Espoo, which, as one of Finland’s first garden cities, means that there are plenty of parks and open spaces to enjoy whatever the weather! My typical commute involves an almost traffic-free walk to work through some meadows. Moreover, being in this part of Espoo means that the Helsinki downtown, with all its attractions like a wide selection of bars, restaurants and excellent museums, is only a 15-minute metro ride away.

The endless light and colour during summer is much appreciated by Ben. Image: Ben Wilson

The organisations that have supported my professional growth in Finland are… my employer, Aalto University, which has provided countless training possibilities for personal development through leadership, pedagogy and most recently diversity and inclusivity. Additionally, the opportunities provided by different foundations to get funds to attend conferences and outside agencies like Business Finland with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment to be part of trade missions outside Finland has allowed me to enhance my professional collaborative network more than would otherwise have been possible.

Integrating into the Finnish research community has been… relatively straightforward as the majority of my colleagues are happy to speak English and even those who were too shy to talk at the beginning could understand my not-so-Queen’s English. Perhaps, the biggest challenge has been securing a more long-term research position, but this is certainly not exclusively a problem in Finland. Nevertheless, if you are willing to be flexible and have the confidence to apply your knowledge in different fields, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to be found both in academia and industry.

Published on 24.02.2021