Our understanding of the universe and all modern technology is based on advances made in scientific research over approximately the last 100 years.

The operation of computers and mobile phones relies fully on quantum mechanical principles, and the nature of matter in the universe has been unveiled by studies in particle physics, astronomy and cosmology. New exciting discoveries are constantly made and will affect our future. For instance, studies on quantum information combined with the development of new materials are just about to open up the doors for quantum computing, and the analysis by artificial intelligence of big data will lead to new ways to cure disease.

The Faculty of Science has a strong basic research profile in modern math, statistics, computer science, physical sciences, chemistry, and geosciences. The research is carried out in very close collaboration with numerous international partners and Big Science research institutions, and the departments are regularly ranked within the top-100 ones in the world in their disciplines. At the same time, the faculty has close contacts and joint projects with both major international companies and local medium-sized and startup enterprises.

The teaching in the BSc programme in Science is done by professors and senior scientists who are also all high-level research scientists. Hence the teaching involves examples from the very latest developments in science and technology.

Examples of some of the research projects in the faculty are given below - the full range of projects is very much larger, as the faculty has at any given time hundreds of different projects running.

Un­rav­el­ing the nature of elec­tric sparks in high va­cuum

Have you ever heard a warning: “Do not touch an electric plug!”, “Keep away from this cord as it is poorly isolated!” or “Caution: this device operates under high voltage!” We are used to these warnings and know from a very early age that electricity is not only the source of comfort and entertainment, but also dangerous and offensive to those who are careless around it. Not only ourselves, but also materials, which are exposed to high voltage and high electric fields, may undergo strong damage of the surface caused by tiny electric sparks. Thousands of sparks running between entangled metal wires working under high voltage are seemingly harmless, and often look beautiful and captivating. Let us give a closer look at them from a physics point of view. What are these sparks? They are small local plasmas, which need a lot of energy to feed themselves to exist. In other words, they are small parasites, consuming the energy from the main process. To reduce such parasitic energy losses, we need to understand the nature of origin of sparks, how and why do they appear?

In my group, we collaborate with the physicists from CERN, who aim to build a new linear particle collider to peek into the very heart of the Universe and discover building blocks of Matter.  The Compact Linear Collider (CLIC) is a 50-kilometer machine, which is to be built under the Jura Mountain near Geneva. This very ambitious project is rather expensive. Finding such material properties, which would allow for low probability of sparks within CLIC accelerating structures, is one of the main ways to improve the cost and power efficiency of CLIC. How exactly, the materials interact with high electric fields on atomic level, is a rather new and exciting area in material research. We run massive computer simulations of multimillion atom metal surfaces to bridge the micro and macroscopic phenomena. We identify the processes triggered under high electric fields and connect them directly to the properties of the materials. For this purpose, we develop new methods combining them within a single model and compare to the experiments, which the students do in the Accelerator Laboratory of the Physics Department and at CERN. The largest supercomputers of Finnish infrastructure provide us with computational means to pursue the goal of the project by running our massive simulations and analyze the result. 

By Prof. Flyura Djurabekova, Department of Physics and Helsinki Institute of Physics, University of Helsinki

Cut­ting edge ra­diochem­istry research

Gareth Law has 15 years of research experience in Radiochemistry and Environmental Chemistry. His key research interests include radioactive waste disposal, nuclear accident response, contaminated land management, materials chemistry (relevant to nuclear decommissioning), and nuclear forensics. He has a keen interest in using cutting edge analytical techniques in his research, including synchrotron-based spectroscopies and electron microscopy. 

Gareth studied at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) for his BSc. (Hons.) degree, and then completed his PhD studies at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. His project focussed on metal and radionuclide chemistry in the marine environment. At the end of his PhD Gareth recognised that his chemistry skills may be of use in the nuclear industry. This industry faces major, costly, scientific challenges associated with nuclear waste management, decommissioning, and contaminated land.

Gareth completed two Radiochemistry postdoctoral appointments under the supervision of Profs Katherine Morris, Jon Lloyd, and Francis Livens (2006-2010, The University of Leeds; 2010-2011, The University of Manchester). Gareth was then appointed as a Lecturer and Group Leader at the University of Manchester in Nov. 2011 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2016.

In 2018 Gareth was appointed as full Professor in Radiochemistry at the University of Helsinki. The excellent facilities in the Helsinki Department of Chemistry’s Radiochemistry Unit, its history of excellent research in radioactive waste management, and the University’s integration of radiochemistry into the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programmes attracted Gareth to the post.  At Helsinki Gareth will continue to pursue cutting edge radiochemistry research and will include radiochemistry research in his undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. The aim here is to train a new generation of Radiochemists as this is an area of Chemistry where a skilled work-force is very much in demand.


Un­der­stand­ing the Big Bang

My research aims at understanding the Big Bang: by studying the very early Universe we can test fundamental theories of physics, and trace the history of the first few instants of time.

Key moments in the history of the universe are at phase transitions, where the state of matter changes, and fundamental symmetries of nature are hidden (or "broken"). We can learn about phase transitions from the relics they leave behind: including extended long-lived structures called topological defects, and gravitational waves.

I am currently working intensively on gravitational waves from the electroweak phase transition, when the Higgs field turned on and gave other elementary particles their masses. This could have been a violent event: the whole Universe may have started to bubble at around 10 picoseconds old, emitting gravitational waves at a frequency detectable at the future space-based detector LISA. I am a member of the LISA Consortium, responsible for calculating the expected signals from phase transitions.

Much of my research uses large numerical simulations of processes in the early universe. Here's one from the Cosmic Defects YouTube channel, showing a visualisation of the Higgs field turning on at around 10 picoseconds after the beginning of the Universe. The coloured rings are slices through spherical compression waves surrounding the expanding bubbles of Higgs field. The video was made by my collaborator David Weir (University of Helsinki).

By Prof. Mark Hindmarsh, Helsinki Institute of Physics, University of Helsinki

Gen­ome as­sembly and space-ef­fi­cient com­pu­ta­tion

Genome assembly is the problem of reverse engineering the full chromosome content of a species given a set of short sequenced DNA fragments and possibly other information. For example, if DNA fragments would be ACTT, GGCC, and TTGG, we could imagine ACTTGGCC to be the chromosome in question. Such assembly becomes non-trivial due to the sheer size of data, errors in sequencing, repeats, and the fact that a single string is an overly simplified representation of the genome of a complex organism. Some early contributions to genome assembly were accomplished in Helsinki in the early 80’s by Professor Ukkonen and his colleagues. These included computation of approximate overlaps by dynamic programming and modeling assembly through the shortest common superstring formulation.

Interestingly, Computer Science PhD students Alanko and Norri recently provided a follow-up to the early work by showing how greedy approximation of shortest superstring can be computed space-efficiently. Space-efficient computation has been one of the main focuses of Professor Mäkinen's Genome-scale algorithmics research group, with genome assembly and other genomic applications providing the demand for such solutions; the input data hardly fits the RAM, so providing computation in the information theoretically minimal space is a practical concern - albeit it is also an appealing theoretical framework to study on its own right.  More information on genome assembly related contributions.