September 23, 2023
Finlandia Hall: overview of railing

Renowned Aalto Distinguished Professor Olli Ikkala Receives Finnish Science Award for Pioneering Cross-Disciplinary Research

Helsinki, Finland – In a momentous event at the Science Forum 2023, Aalto Distinguished Professor Olli Ikkala was honored with the prestigious Finnish Science Award. The distinguished accolade, worth €100,000, was presented to Professor Ikkala by the Minister of Science and Culture, Petri Honkonen. Recognized for his groundbreaking contributions to the fields of chemistry, physics, biology, and materials science, Professor Ikkala’s career has garnered international acclaim.

The Finnish Science Award, presented every other year to researchers or research groups working in Finland, celebrates excellence in scientific research and its impact on society. Professor Ikkala’s multidisciplinary approach, combining expertise from chemistry, physics, biology, and materials science, has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of complex materials and their applications.

The Ministry of Education and Culture, responsible for presenting the award, commended Professor Ikkala’s exceptional cross-disciplinary expertise, adept networking skills, and his remarkable ability to mentor and inspire young researchers. His career has been characterized by deep cross-disciplinary knowledge, extensive collaborations, and a talent for nurturing new researchers.

Expressing his gratitude for the recognition, Professor Ikkala said, “It feels good to receive the award, of course. During my career, I’ve suggested different awards for various researchers; this time it went the other way around – I thank the Ministry and also those that have nominated me for this, whoever they are.”

Professor Ikkala’s journey began in the field of low-temperature physics. After completing his PhD at the Low Temperature Laboratory of the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) in 1983, he spent a decade working in the chemical industry, specifically at Neste Ltd. There, he focused on developing conjugated polymers with electrical conductivity or semiconductive properties. Although the envisioned applications were initially in areas such as antistatic materials and anticorrosion coatings, these polymers eventually found their way into popular technologies, including flat-screen displays.

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Reflecting on the challenges of predicting practical applications in the early stages of research, Professor Ikkala said, “We researchers are often asked too early on what the groundbreaking applications of our work will be. In the basic research phase, realistic applications are often impossible to guess at.”

Driven by a desire to explore the full potential of his research, Professor Ikkala made a pivotal decision in his forties. He left his secure job in the chemical industry and returned to TKK, embarking on a new chapter in academia. This leap of faith allowed him to delve into nanotechnology and biological materials, forging a path towards interdisciplinary collaborations and groundbreaking discoveries.

Professor Ikkala and his research group began investigating the self-assembly of materials, aiming to understand the mechanisms that drive the formation of nanostructures. Through their research, they discovered fascinating parallels between these mechanisms and those observed in biological systems. This realization led to close collaborations with biologists, with the goal of developing materials that mimic the unique properties and functions of biological materials.

One notable focus of Professor Ikkala’s research has been the development of artificial nacre and nano cellulose materials. These materials seek to replicate the remarkable combination of hardness and toughness found in nature’s biological materials. By mimicking the principles observed in natural systems, Professor Ikkala and his team have made significant strides in creating innovative materials with enhanced mechanical properties.

Continuing his exploration of materials science, Professor Ikkala has recently shifted his focus to developing programmable materials inspired by learning processes. While acknowledging that these materials do not possess true learning capabilities, they can be chemically programmed to exhibit specific logical behaviors. This approach aligns with the principles of artificial intelligence, where computer code is used to program complex algorithmic reasoning. Professor Ikkala envisions potential applications ranging from soft, independently acting micro-robots to other forms of responsive materials.

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Throughout his career, Professor Ikkala has received numerous accolades and grants in recognition of his exceptional contributions to scientific research. He has been awarded two Advanced Grants from the European Research Council and has conducted his research within two Centers of Excellence, including the current LIBER Center of Excellence, under the Research Council of Finland. In addition, he has been appointed as an Academy Professor on two occasions.

With over 300 peer-reviewed research articles published in esteemed journals and approximately 20 patents to his name, Professor Ikkala’s impact on the scientific community is substantial. He was bestowed the title of Aalto Professor in 2018, a distinction reserved for professors of exceptional academic merit. He is also a distinguished member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters and the Technology Academy of Finland. In 2019, he received the renowned Humboldt Research Award, further solidifying his reputation as a leading figure in materials science.

Professor Ikkala’s groundbreaking research and pioneering spirit continue to push the boundaries of materials science. His cross-disciplinary approach, coupled with his passion for innovation and collaboration, serves as an inspiration for researchers worldwide. As he explores the exciting possibilities of programmable and biomimetic materials, the scientific community eagerly anticipates the transformative impact of his work on various fields and industries.