Role model blog: Ilona Pohjavirta-Schmidt, Vaisala

I am quite people-oriented and social, what if a career in physics is not for me?

During my time at Vaisala, I have crushed this own bias of mine – I find so much joy and significance in working and helping others, and it’s the people around me that make my daily work feel meaningful.

Getting into STEM

Despite my dad’s career as a math professor, I was never really encouraged to study STEM by my family, or by study councellors either. But, I viewed my dad as sort of a role model; not only did his course materials look cool and pretty, he also had all kinds of quirky tech-related home projects. Because of his career, I got a some real-life insights and better understanding of what STEM could offer and therefore it was easier for me to choose to pursue a career in a technical field. 

My first encounter with physics was at 11 years old. That school class put me in awe – physics truly felt like magic! Throughout school I liked technical subjects more and more; they helped explain the world around me and I saw how science could be used to create cool, fun, useful and pretty things!

Ilona Pohjavirta-Schmidt

After high school, I started my studies in engineering physics at Aalto University, also taking a variety of other courses on the side. During my studies, I worked as a research assistant in the fields of chemistry and physics, and the practicality of these experiences supported my study path nicely.

Throughout my life, I have also been really keen to arts and even considered a career as an architect! I decided to keep arts as a hobby – I am pretty good at visualizing things, so now I let my artistic side shine through various presentations of my work. It’s sort of funny – I take my PowerPoint presentations seriously -, but actually I also consider it a strength too, to be able to present and explain my work clearly to other team members as well.

After graduating with a Master of Science degree, I started working at Vaisala as a junior scientist. That was about 3.5 years ago, and I have since moved onto a new position as a Research Scientist. Vaisala is a Finnish tech company specializing in weather, environmental and industrial measurements. We develop and manufacture solutions for demanding measurements within a wide range of different industries.

Working at Vaisala

We have many teams in product design & development, and our team, focused on thin-film sensors, consists of 16 employees – and by the way, we have about 50-50 gender balance which I think is awesome! Research and development allows me to implement many skills on a daily basis: maintenance of equipment and building instrumentation, searching and reading scientific papers, measuring and data-handling, lab work, programming for automating instruments, reporting and documentation… Also, as a scientist, I have some supporting tasks within our factory production.

In general, my job is problem-solving and creation of new to its core, which means I am constantly trying to figure and try things out and a part of that is failure as well.

It’s not about if we fail – it’s when we fail. I have become comfortable with trying new things without being scared of looking stupid or failing.”

Like any job, there are struggles and setbacks sometimes. In the beginning of my career I had to learn the importance of prioritizing: to realize and accept that everything cannot be done at once, and also learn to recognize the tasks that need to be prioritized. 

In general, my job is problem-solving and creation of new to its core, which means I am constantly trying to figure and try things out and a part of that is failure as well. It’s not about if we fail – it’s when we fail. I have become comfortable with trying new things without being scared of looking stupid or failing. We will never get forward if we fear the failure! A good team spirit plays a huge role in this as well: it is so important to be surrounded by an open atmosphere and people who you do not need to try to impress.

The importance of team work

You can probably already tell this by now, but my absolute favorite part of my job is the people. Throughout the years I have noticed that I am very people-oriented and social. At first, I found myself thinking if this career path was wrong for me – and that’s one stereotype I had about STEM field that was very soon crushed. I have proved my own biases wrong, as working with others and being part of the team is what I love about my job the most. Of course, solving a problem successfully is fun and rewarding at any time, but doing it with a team makes it 100 times better! When you are solving the same issue, trying to come up with solutions together, bouncing ideas back and forth, and finally being equally excited when you figure it out – it really makes work feel special.
But again, it’s during failures that a good team really makes all the difference. You can share your accidents and setbacks, joke about them and laugh at them together, and it feels a lot lighter that way. At best, the shared failures even build team spirit! 

Apart from working with a team, helping others makes my job feel meaningful. In my role as one of the admins in the Vaisala Humidity Lab, I get to use my expertise to make sure that everyone’s measurements run smoothly on our custom test stations. It’s a great feeling, being able to help others and use my skills to make their life and work a tad bit easier. Helping others and physics? I know those are not the first two subjects people automatically link together, but working in the field has completely changed my perspective on it.

Work that matters

While helping others is something concrete that makes my work meaningful on a daily basis, Vaisala being such a responsible employer really matters to me as well. Vaisala is in the top 5 of European Climate Leaders, a list conducted and actively updated by The Financial Times. Our products and solutions are used to save people’s lives and tackle global challenges: our measurement solutions are utilized in urgent evacuation situations, in measuring climate change, and to minimize energy consumption and waste. We are building solutions and products that will protect our future generations and create a better world!

The scope and importance of our work may not cross my mind every day, but knowing the bigger picture – I can be part of the positive change with my every day work – is so essential to me as well.


Ilona Pohjavirta-Schmidt, Research Scientist, Vaisala