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Women in Research Science: Interview with Senja Leivo

Women in Research Science: Interview with Senja Leivo

As a research scientist, you are always questioning, you always want to learn more and don’t take anything for granted. That has helped me in my work in innovation for the power industry.

Senja Leivo is Senior Industry Expert at Vaisala Oyj. With a background in material science, her focus is developing solutions for transformer monitoring and diagnostics. In an interview with Rachel Linke, Chair of Women in Power Systems Steering Committee, Senja shared the story of her professional journey and her perspective on the position of women in science in Finland and in the power industry.

Rachel Linke My guest today has a background in Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) and she brings a wealth of knowledge and creative thinking to her company and to the power industry. Senja Leivo is the senior industry expert for Vaisala. Thank you so much for joining me, Senja.

Senja Leivo: Thank you.

PC You studied at Finland’s second-largest university in engineering sciences – the Tampere University of Technology (TUT), which became part of the new Tampere University in 2019. In your interview for Transformer Technology, you talked about the importance of your perspective as a research scientist for your current role in transformer monitoring and diagnostics innovation. I would like to know more about your experience as a woman in power systems. Could you tell us about your journey from a materials science degree to developing transformer monitoring solutions for the power industry?

SL During my high school experience, I really didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up. I guess that is what happens to most of us (laughs). But then I got to learn about the University, which had a new program on materials science. I applied, was accepted, and started the journey which led me to a master’s degree in materials science. In Finland, during the first couple of years at a university or college, students are introduced to quite a few general topics from the fields of automation, electronics, industrial applications, and economics.

After my graduation, I became a research scientist for biomaterials used in medical devices. After several years in this role, for some reason I ended up applying for a job at Vaisala and got into the technology industry. One of the first products I was involved with were probes used to monitor moisture in transformer oils. That is where my career in the power industry started.

RL How did you apply your experience as a research scientist to your work in product engineering? Did the things you learned working in a research laboratory help you in your later roles?

SL I think that has really had a big effect on my work and career in Vaisala. Because as a research scientist, you are always questioning, you always want to learn more, you don’t take anything for granted. Within the power industry, and especially as I am focusing on transformers and transformer monitoring and diagnostics, I always want to understand why. Asking questions and looking for causes helps with innovation. It also helps to understand the industry, to understand the application. It is this continuous learning that is at the base of research science that makes you always want to learn more.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, I had a great Math teacher. She made me very interested in the natural sciences, and that was one of the deciding points for my future and my career.

RL I think that is one of the things that we in many people who have really headway in their career, the importance of being a lifelong learner and being always ready to ask questions. I have been in the power industry for about eleven years, and when I first started, I didn’t notice many women within the industry. Over the years I have seen a shift happen, and we are now seeing a lot more women in various roles.

What is your perspective on this shift? And what would be your message to women who may still be in college, or in high school – at that age when, like you said, we are not sure who we want to be or what we want to do?

SL I would definitely encourage them to look at opportunities in the power industry, regardless of their background. But of course, if you have a background in engineering or chemistry, it makes it easier to find opportunities.

All in all, I would say that there are major changes within the industry at the moment – clean energy, changes in energy distribution, photovoltaic and wind power generation, carbon neutrality, etc. These are huge changes and I think there are a lot of opportunities. It may sound boring if you know nothing about it. That would be one of our challenges: to get young students, young girls – even at the primary school level – interested in the natural sciences. Because that is the obvious way to end up in the engineering world and in the power industry.

When I started at the University, there were 6 – 9% of young ladies among all the guys. The situation in Finland has been changing a lot during the last 10, 15 years and it is getting more even. But in the power industry, the majority of the industry are definitely still men.

RL I don’t know too many girls who say, “I want to be an engineer when I grow up.” But the perspective of roles that women play is changing and this is a very exciting time. At Women in Power Systems, we want to encourage and empower women to look at STEM roles, and hearing you talk about it is really encouraging.

You mentioned that students at universities and colleges in Finland can benefit from a multidisciplinary approach to education. What is the situation with women in natural sciences and engineering in Finland? Have you come across challenges?

SL When I started at TUT, we were definitely a minority. There were 6 – 9% of young ladies starting among all the guys there. But the situation in Finland has been changing a lot during the last 10, 15 years and it is getting more even. But the power industry is still definitely a man’s industry. In my work in Finland and within Europe, I see more and more women there. I think that is a good thing. People are starting to realize that it is not just electricity, but there are a lot of different options there.

PC What is your experience with organizations within the power industry dedicated to advancing science and technology, such as IEEE and CIGRE, and what would you say is the position of women engineers within these organizations?

SL I am not part of CIGRE’s Women in Engineering (WIE), but I do join the meetings, such as the main session in Paris. Due to Covid, I haven’t attended for a couple of years, but I am actively involved in a CIGRE working group. There are quite a few very experienced knowledgeable ladies from all over the world there. So, I would say that there absolutely is more balance within the CIGRE working groups.

I would definitely encourage young women to look at opportunities in the power industry, regardless of their background.

PC We have also noticed that there are more and more women kind rising up and taking on leadership roles. I am excited to see that this is happening internationally. Thank you for your encouraging perspective, Senja. Are there any words of wisdom or knowledge you would like to share with women looking at STEM studies and a power industry career?

SL In general, I have never really thought about it as a gender topic. I think it has more to do with how we are brought up when we are children, how we are taught certain roles. As for myself, my parents were supportive about me studying as long as I wish. I think that one of the changing points in my life and for my future career was when I was maybe 10, 11 years old. I had a great Math teacher and she made me very interested in natural sciences. I believe that is the reason I was always interested in technology. Promoting power industry companies to students is very important. That is what we do at Vaisala. During the last ten years we got really talented young ladies to work within this industry, and we are going to keep approaching students at universities and colleges.

PC That really is incredibly important work, encouraging the next generation. With Women in Power Systems and all the networked organizations promoting equality and collaboration within the industry, we are hoping to see a bigger shift in that balance. Senja, we greatly appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience with our community. Thank you for joining me today, it has been a pleasure.

SL Thank you.