12.9.2017

Skolar Award winner Virpi Virjamo: Being a postdoc is a dream job and an uncertain rollercoaster

Skolar Award 2016 gave Virpi Virjamo a boost of confidence and made her realize the importance of her work during a time when research funding is difficult to obtain.

The last thing Virpi Virjamo thought she’d end up doing was a photoshoot for a women’s magazine. But after the big win at Skolar Award, a science pitching competition for postdoc researchers organized at startup event Slush in 2016, things turned upside down for a moment.

Virpi Virjamo studies compounds found in spruce and pine that could help create new medicine. She’s a postdoc researcher at the University of Eastern Finland and more used to conducting field work in forests wearing wellies and a windbreaker than being in the spotlight. Although Slush felt like a parallel universe with its dimly lit stages and background music, it made her realize the importance of her work.

“I’ve studied the compounds in coniferous trees for a long time. It’s very difficult to find people who are interested in my research. The tables really turned at Skolar Award because people genuinely wanted to hear about my research. It felt amazing,” she recalls.

Acquiring funding is a continuous rat race

Skolar Award embraces young postdocs’ original, bold and even wild research proposals and encourages them to carry these ideas out. That’s a rare opportunity for postdoc researchers who sometimes have to fight tooth and nail with funding application forms. Getting rejected is an essential part of the game.

For that reason Virjamo’s jaw dropped when she was crowned the winner of Skolar Award in 2016. You could tell she had trouble believing what she’d heard. When Virjamo stepped on stage at Slush to accept the huge cardboard cheque she looked happily flustered – like she was ready to shoot through the roof with excitement.

“It felt confusing and surreal to win. Applying for funding as a postdoc is constant trial and error. You get so used to trying your best but always missing the jackpot. The only thing I could think of back then was ‘can this even happen’,” she says.

The fact that she is still incredulous about winning, almost a year later, speaks volumes about being a postdoc or a researcher in general. It’s an uncertain profession, to say the least, with long workdays and low salaries. No matter how much potential your research has it might not warrant enough funding.

Skolar Award gave a confidence boost

Virjamo’s work forms a firm basis for future researchers to build on. There’s little research conducted on the compounds of spruce and pine, which means she is doing groundbreaking work. But still she sometimes feels like her career is on the line.
“I’m a researcher now, but I can’t say for sure that I will be in a few years’ time,” Virjamo sums up.

“However, without the constant uncertainty this job would be exactly what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was a child. I get to study interesting things independently but within a group. There’s a lot of freedom in being a postdoc.”

When the continuity of your job isn’t set in stone it’s good to receive a confidence boost every now and then. That’s what Skolar Award gave to Virpi Virjamo. She knew her pitch by heart and could’ve recited it in her sleep. Standing on the stage in front of a curious audience and an esteemed jury, both interested in her work and understanding its merits, felt invigorating.

“The competition made me realise how important it is to be able to compress a research idea into a short pitch. It helped me understand what I can do better in my future funding applications. Skolar Award was a big leap forward in my career,” Virjamo says.

Text: Kristiina Markkanen