What would it be like to work as a researcher in a large international company? This is what mathematician Siiri Rautio and neurolinguist Aleksandra Dobrego had the opportunity to find out last autumn. They were among those chosen when the opportunity presented itself for University of Helsinki doctoral researchers to spend two weeks at the elevator company Kone.
Both had a clear goal for the visit: it would be great to expand their professional networks. Rautio had known for a long time that she wanted to work in the business world. The idea attracted Dobrego too, and she was looking for variety in her work on her doctoral thesis.
“I was prepared to do something short-term and intensive,” Dobrego says.
According to Erkki Raulo, head of services for doctoral education at the University, similar experiments where doctoral researchers offer their expertise to a company for two weeks have not been carried out at the University of Helsinki before. What was particularly new was that the themes of the 'research sprint' did not arise from the doctoral thesis topics. Instead, the idea was to practise multidisciplinary collaboration with an open mind.
The aim was to keep expectations moderate – after all, a brief visit might not result in anything revolutionary.
“Wow, these people are the real thing”
When the group of six doctoral researchers began working at Kone in November, each was welcomed by a personal mentor. One of the persons who had undertaken to contribute to mentoring was Senior Expert Sanni Siltanen. She was impressed by the expertise of the group of researchers.
“Wow, these people are the real thing,” Siltanen remembers thinking at the time.
The expectation was that unexpected ideas could come about through the collision of different fields of science – ideas that would help, for example, in the construction of sustainable and inclusive cities. In fact, the doctoral researchers had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the themes that Kone is promoting in its Veturi initiative funded by Business Finland.
Aleksandra Dobrego used her expertise in neuroscience and linguistics to consider how to make urban mobility smoother from the perspective of people with disabilities, drawing up a project plan related to the topic.
“I proposed we could utilise neuroscientific tools to investigate how people deal with the currents of urban life around them and what stresses them.”
As for Siiri Rautio, she sought, together with another doctoral researcher, ways to demonstrate the reliability of an elevator simulator. Mulling over formulas, codes and mathematical theories kept the pair glued to Kone’s Keilaniemi office.
Boost to self-esteem from positive feedback
During the visit, it became clear to the researchers that there are more rapid twists and turns in business life than in the everyday life of a doctoral researcher. Concentrating continuously on independent writing for several consecutive days may not be possible, and deadlines pop up quickly in the calendar.
“You need to report on something new even several times a week,” Rautio explains.
What made the biggest impact on Dobrego was positive feedback, of which there was a lot. She was constantly told how well the work was going.
“It was really nice and boosted my self-esteem,” Dobrego says.
Both researchers also commend the contribution of their mentors. For example, Rautio’s supervisor organised a presentation just for her on what it is like to work at Kone as a mathematician.
Research articles and a project plan in the works
The visit ended on a positive note. According to Sanni Siltanen, the results were really promising, and plans for longer collaboration also emerged during the trial, including writing articles and applying for funding for the projects.
The rapid sprint made it possible to test various ideas agilely and without pressure.
“In terms of collecting ideas, I think this works really well.”
Rautio and Dobrego too are happy with the lessons learned. They also identified minor targets for improvement: more time for the supervision of researchers could be allocated to mentors and more quiet space could be provided for working.
Siltanen believes that in the future, company staff could also be offered the opportunity to ask questions about completing a doctoral thesis.
“There are a lot of people at Kone who are considering postgraduate education.”
Not a one-time experiment
The goal is to organise another research sprint after the success of this one. According to Erkki Raulo, this new kind of collaboration offers many opportunities: among other things, it helps international doctoral researchers establish contact with businesses and intensifies cooperation between sectors.
“Since time immemorial, better ties to business life have been sought for doctoral education.”
For Dobrego and Raitio, the importance of interaction skills became particularly clear. Rautio thinks that giving her final presentation was actually one of the highlights of the visit. For mathematicians, it is not always self-evident that others get the gist of the results of their work, but this time the message carried over.
“Someone in the audience commented that they actually finally understood what we were doing here. That was the biggest individual sense of accomplishment.”
A visitor programme tailored for researchers
- The University of Helsinki and the elevator company Kone organised a research sprint trial in November 2021.
- The call for applications was open to doctoral researchers in all fields, and six applicants were selected. The business visit was carried out as part of the studies they are completing in their respective doctoral programmes.
- The researchers focused on four themes: inclusive virtual reality, the verification of the reliability of the elevator simulator, increased transparency of the environmental impact throughout a product life cycle and the smooth functioning of urban areas from the perspective of people with disabilities.
- Each researcher–mentor pair tailored the programme for the two-week visit period independently. Some carried out their interaction online, others on site on Kone premises in Keilaniemi, Espoo.
- Workshops organised by Think Company, the entrepreneurship community of the University of Helsinki, and other joint meetings set a pace for the sprint.
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