Madis Ollikainen: One Should Seize Every Opportunity to Step Up


The first fellow of the Tamkivi Foundation of Natural Sciences, Madis Ollikainen (22) is a graduate student at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, a top tier university topping several rankings and a home base for teaching or studies for 21 Nobel Prize laureates, Albert Einstein among others. Last spring Madis graduated his undergrad studies in physics in Tartu University cum laude.

Madis has been into natural sciences since he can remember. In high school he participated in several olympiads and his best result was winning a bronze medal in an international physics olympiad in Thailand.

Madis does not only enjoy tinkering in his lab but is a far more outgoing type. With a group of other students he founded the Estonian Physics Students Society in 2012. Among other things they are teaching hobby classes to high school students to make them become more interested in the laws of natural sciences.

How did you become hooked with physics?

I guess I’ve always had a keen interest in how things work. I remember being about three years of age when my father was trying to explain me how all things around us are actually consisting of very small, almost invisible, particles: molecules and atoms. I must have been very eager to learn, otherwise I would not have remembered it. I guess I developed a more certain interest in physics over time. Estonian olympiads system and the Natural Sciences School at Tartu University helped develop it.

What did you gain from the olympiads besides the possibility to solve complex excercises? 

Mostly motivation. My sister who is a preschooler has already been to a track and field tournament. With sports it seems kind of obvious that you set a certain goal and chellenge yourself to gain that goal, thereby developing your willpower and stamina. Based on my personal experiences participating both in the olympiads and also break dance tournaments I would say that the effect is the same: it boosts your energy levels and you want to achieve more and therefore try harder.

Another important factor is the community. The olympiads bring together a lot of likeminded young people. I know several of my best friends today from those times.

For the olympiad winners in Estonia there are also the courses and study sessions at Natural Sciences School in Tartu University and the “training camps” and pretournaments for international olympiads. The amount of material on chemistry and physics acquired from these events was quite remarkable. Preparation for the international physics olympiad was an event of its own kind: I spent a week doing the experiments in Finland and another two weeks in Estonia studying theory.

You have studied in schools with an inclination towards natural scineces. How would you assess the basic education in Estonia, and teaching of natural sciences in particular?

Estonian education system is very broad based and provides a rather holistic view of the world. I’m very content with my experiences at Gustav Adolf Grammar School and also the previous schools. Generally the teachers were inspiring and the material taught was interesting.   Of course, there are things in the education system that I would like to change but I gueas most of them are resulting from the lack of resources that bothers all areas of public sector.

Would you agree with the statement that getting kids interested in natural sciences is up to a teacher and the school or would you rather say it’s all in the genes? For example your father Olavi Ollikainen is also a physisist and did his post-doc research in the same university you are currently studying at. 

The natural sciences and mathematics have always been of interest to me. I cannot say if that is because of my genes or kinderstube. My father is indeed a physisist and my mother is a medical doctor and my family has always supported my interests. At the same time I cannot say that the school was not supportive. My chemistry, maths and physics teachers were all very helpful in preparing for the olympiads.

Of course one could say that we cannot compare the olympiads to the science fairs in US school system. They are targeting a completely different idea. It seems to me that the focus is much more on the scientific method and developing fine motor skills as well as overall creativity. Olympiads are more about going deeper into the theoretical knowledge of a certain discipline. Once again drawing a parallel to sports: one is like competing in dance coreography and the other is running a hundred meters.

It would most certainly be splendid if in addition to the olympiads there were events like the American science fairs in Estonia. Of course that all comes down to having enough resources, both the finances and people. I would also like to add that there are actually events like that happening in Estonia already. For example the Estonian Physics Society is in charge of organizing summer camps for those interested in natural sciences, study courses in physics, biology and chemistry and the hows of the Science Bus.

For your bachelors thesis you researched the dynamics of polymer electrolytes. Could you please explain in simple terms what that means and what can the world gain from this research? And when can we see the outcomes of the lab research put into real production?

Developing the batteries that are “greener”, safer and have higher energy density is an active R&D area these days. It’s especially important in enabling electric transportation because energy storage is crucial in electric and hybrid cars. The most basic lithium ion batteries have a theoretical capacity of 300-400 Wh/kg that is too low to allow electric cars to match the driving range of gasoline cars. In order to meet the goals the batteries need new materials for the basic construction, electrolytes and electrodes.

Constructing these materials is a complex process for several research groups and companies. While asking: “Does this material work?” we also need to ask: “What is happening inside this material?”, considering both the academic and practical interest so we do not end up shooting in the dark. My undergrad research was trying to pinpoint this second question about one specific group of polymers. To be more precise, I used computer simulations to analyze how temperature and the length of the polymer chain could influence the diffusion of lithium in this specific polymer.

The question about if or when these polymer electrolytes could be manufactured at scale is out of the reach of my competence.

Who’s more interested in this topic could read the following articles:

R. van Noorden. A better battery. Nature, 507:26–28, 2014.

J. Tollefson. Car industry: Charging up the future. Nature, 456:436–440, 2008.

Are you going to continue with this research in your graduate studies?

Currently I do not think I will continue with the same topic. Being in one of the top universities of the world I can see that it’s worth looking for new fields of research. That would enable me to learn more and also bring more new knowledge back to Estonia.

You wrote in your application that you see your future both in academia and Estonia but until then you’d want to broaden your mind internationally. These are all very nice thoughts but don’t you feel a little scared that one day you might find Estonia “too small” for your projects and lacking necessary resources? You also mentioned that you want to start your own research lab. Could it be deducted that you fancy challenges outside of the regular research and are not afraid of bureaucratic work?

I have to specify that in my scholarship application I also wrote that “I would be a hypocrite to say that I know for sure what I will be doing in ten years”. But leaving this aside, I think that “too small” is a matter of attitude. There are indeed some people who believe that Estonia is a small and shallow pond. I prefer to think of Estonia as a country in European Union that is rich in forests and bogs. Of course the resources are always a problem and this issue has been raised quite often in the recent years in Estonian academia. But it’s too early for me to address this issue now. All in all I see challenges as something very motivational but every issue has its specific place and time. Currently it makes more sense for me to spend more time on learning and gaining practical knowledge. I will tackle the bureaucratic problems when they need to be tackled.

You obviously enjoy organizing and socializing since you founded the Estonian Physics Students Society and also taught physics classes in highschools. Have you done those things out of some social pressure or just because you’ve enjoyed doing it?

Everything about the Physics Students Society has been one big positive source of energy and experience. I don’t think anyone did it out of some social pressure. It was more about the common need and joy of doing things with other physics students.

You mentioned that you were active in break dancing as a teenager. You also played a lead in “Röövlirahnu Martin”, a movie about a 10-year-old boy who meets a cat who turns into a boy who helps Martin to solve his problems. Would you say these experiences have helped to form you to become who you are today?

I’m sure these hobbies helped a lot in creating the person I am today. I would even say that one should seize every opportunity to step up (on a stage).

What is the effect of the scholarship of Tamkivi Foundation and the likes for you and other young researchers? Would you say the amount of time you spend on sending out the applications is proportional to the financial outcome? Or could an opportunity to participate in an inernational conference sometimes be even more useful (for example Jaan Tallinn supported your trip to a seminar in Australia)?

Any sort of financial support is always welcome for students. There aren’t actually that many options of scholarships available. And it’s hard for parents on an average salary in Estonia to support the studies of your child abroad. Considering the time I spend on the applications and the financial gain, I do not have enough data for an adequate assessment.

I would not compare Jaan Tallinn scholarship to any financial scholarship because the formats are just too different. This one was aiming at a completely different goal: it offered me a new experience and not to fulfill specific plans. It did meet its expectations to the max because the training broadened my horizons a lot.

Photo courtesy of Piia Ereth Kasatkin

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