Profile series: Pertti Ala-aho (he/him)

Let’s get the basics. Name, where you are from, and your current affiliation, advisor and profile?

I am Pertti Ala-aho, from Oulu Finland. I am a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oulu, Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering.

What is the research you are currently working on (projects/funding/teaching)?

My central focus is on snow isotope hydrology. I want to understand just how important snowmelt is for ecosystem water use and in recharging our water resources in groundwater and streams. Other important research themes and methods for me are numerical modeling and new snow hydrology measurement technology. My ongoing Postdoctoral Research Fellow project “Where does water go when snow melts” is funded by the Academy of Finland.

Share your experience of recent personal Academy of Finland (AOF) competitive funding you won and what would be your tips for young hydrologists applying to AOF funding.

The basis is a novel research question and a clear impact of your research, which you can articulate The basis is a novel research question and clear research impact, which you can articulate well. The competition is fierce, so you need to have an x-factor that sets you apart from other applicants. For me it was a 2-year postdoc position at the University of Aberdeen Northern Rivers Institute, which gave me a great opportunity to grow my international network and publish with some of the leading scientists in hydrology. You should find, or create, that something to raise the necessary extra interest, whatever that may be.

What do you wish you had known when you started your graduate/academic career?

In fact, I know very little to nothing about academic careers – I had no relatives or friends in academia. So had to learn everything my own way, though not the hard way, because I find academia in general a friendly and engaging environment to work in. I suppose if I had understood  from early on how important it is to know people in the field and make yourself seen, I would have been more active in associations like YHS!

Aside from a lab bench, where has your research taken you?

I have lived in three locations for my research (Finnish Lapland, Scotland, and Alaska) and worked in beautiful (and harsh) field sites. Places I’ve visited as part of my research career include a an abandoned sewage treatment plan in Prague, bridge above which I dropped my phone in the Yukon river in Canada, a Jazz club in Krakow where we got kicked out because our scientific debate got too intense, ice cold river Tay in Scotland for a midnight swim, and a tent in Alaska going to sleep with wolves howling and waking up to -25C!

What got you started on this current research? Was there some epiphany or light bulb moment?

During my postdoc project in Scotland I was set to do what’s called tracer-aided modeling, i.e. combining  tracer(typically water isotope) data with hydrological models. My experience in isotope hydrology was minimal, and I had no idea how to estimate the isotope values in snowmelt over space and time, which were essential for the model. After some research I realized no-one else knew either, so I had to come up with something, and it worked out surprisingly well. This opened my eyes to how our poor understanding of snow isotope processes limits, or even biases our understanding of the hydrological importance of snow, and I’ve been working on it ever since.

What’s your dream job, academic or otherwise?

It sounds a bit naïve, but you need to make every job your dream job. That is, no job is what you expect, and you need to push the limits of the role to make it your own. If only was better at doing that.

Who is your role model in science and why? What makes you admire them?

In 2019 a week-long snow research traverse in the Alaskan wilderness as a part of a team including snow research gurus Glen Liston, Kelly Elder and  Matthew Sturm made them my idols. The way these gents know their stuff in the field, and cope with the most severe conditions like its nothing. AND the way they can bring the data and experience from their field expeditions to their modeling and other high-impact work is something else.

For more information about Perrti’s research, visit his website. Perrti can also be reached via twitter.

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