Netta Karjalainen wrote an internationally acclaimed bachelor’s thesis

University of Helsinki student Netta Karjalainen has won the global category in mathematics and physics in the Global Undergraduate Awards competition. This makes her the first Global Winner in this competition from the University of Helsinki – a pretty outstanding achievement, don’t you agree?

The Global Undergraduate Awards is an international programme that recognises top work by bachelor’s students. Netta Karjalainen and the other participating University of Helsinki students were in good company: participating in the programme are over 400 higher education institutions from around the world, including the universities of Cambridge, Harvard and Hong Kong and the Swedish Karolinska Institutet.

The annual competition highlights bachelor’s theses and other written work in 25 categories, with a global winner and regional winners selected in each.

The last time the University of Helsinki achieved success in the competition was in 2021 when Tuija Schmid’s bachelor’s thesis was selected as the best in Europe in the linguistics category.

Winning thesis co-supervised at Aalto University and University of Helsinki

Karjalainen graduated this spring from the Bachelor’s Programme in Chemistry. In her winning bachelor’s thesis Inferring underlying Heisenberg Hamiltonian from a spin spectral function for a quantum spin liquid by a neural network, she examined whether machine learning and neural networks can help in predicting spin–spin coupling constants from computationally generated data. She completed her thesis, co-supervised by Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, in the former’s Correlated Quantum Materials research group, receiving the highest possible grade.

“I decided to enter the competition when Student Services sent a message about it to students who had received an excellent grade for their bachelor’s thesis,” she explains.

“At first I had no idea what the competition was about, but as I’d written my thesis in English, it was easy to enter, so I decided to give it a go.”

The submission of entries ended in early summer, but the entrants had to wait for the results until autumn. Over the summer, international discipline-specific expert panels assessed all entries. When the winners were announced in mid-September, Karjalainen was in for a pleasant surprise.

“I thought it would be cool to make the top 10 percent in my field. I definitely didn’t expect to win,” she says.

Summit provides a break in daily routine

This week, Karjalainen will travel to Dublin for a three-day summit associated with her win. In addition to a gala, her schedule will include excursions and other activities.

“I’m most looking forward to talking to and networking with the other winners,” she says. “And the photos from last year’s gala look amazing!”

For now, though, Karjalainen is continuing to focus on her studies. This autumn, she began to study in the Master’s Programme in Theoretical and Computational Methods.

This meant turning her attention from chemistry to theoretical physics. She is particularly interested in quantum mechanics and quantum technology.

“Because I completed my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, this year I’m acquiring the necessary basic information on theoretical physics and taking master’s courses that don’t require as much previous knowledge,” she says.

Karjalainen praises the wide range of courses available in the master’s programme. In addition to the ones offered by the University, the programme includes teaching coordinated by the Finnish Quantum Institute (InstituteQ). The InstituteQ collaboration between Aalto University, the University of Helsinki and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland brings together Finnish research, education and business in quantum technology.

“Right now, I’m taking two courses at Aalto and one here. It does get a bit chaotic on occasion when you have to attend lectures both here and in Otaniemi,” Karjalainen says with a laugh.

Interest in machine learning as a research method in quantum mechanics

To achieve a balance with academic commitments, Karjalainen spends time with her friends and engages in sports such as pole dancing and aerial acrobatics. As yet, she is uncertain about her future plans. Although the focus of her studies has shifted increasingly from chemistry to physics, she remains interested in her bachelor’s thesis topics.

“My thesis was about machine learning as a research method in quantum mechanics, which is something that still interests me a lot,” she says.

“The thesis was like a scratch on the surface of an extensive field. Master’s studies will allow me to delve deeper and consider in detail what things I would most like to focus on in the future.”

Karjalainen is hoping that her future job will allow her to explore the research topics that interest her.

“I’m curious about tech apps and their use in practice, for instance. A doctoral thesis is also an option. But my bachelor’s thesis supervisor reminded me that for that, I’d have to find an infinitely interesting research topic,” she says, chuckling.

Karjalainen recommends the Global Undergraduate Awards competition to other bachelor’s students too, especially if they have written their thesis in English.

“You can have your thesis translated into English, but many people would probably find it a bit of a hurdle,” she notes.