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Faces of HPC: Minna Palmroth

Minna Palmroth is a Professor of Computational Space Science at the University of Helsinki investigating near Earth space. With the help of supercomputers Minna and her team are able to understand how small-scale physics influences the entirety of near Earth space.


Minna came to HPC after realising that traditional magnetospheric physics simulation tools were too limited. Having achieved two prestigious funding awards Minna has developed what many of her colleagues thought was impossible: Vlasiator uses larger scale simulation to simulate the weather in near-Earth space, showing how aurora and solar wind occur. 


Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m from Sahalahti, Finland, which is a tiny village near Tampere. I always wanted to understand how the world works, so I started studying physics at the University of Helsinki, Finland. I worked for several years at the Finnish Meteorological Institute in several positions, but from Jan 2017, started as a professor in computational space physics at the University of Helsinki.

Space physics is an incredibly fascinating and demanding field of research. You can study fundamental plasma, which is the fourth state of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Or you can apply to space weather and investigate what the blasts of plasma from the Sun do to our current infrastructure. I’ve done both, but my home field is magnetospheric physics. This is a field that investigates the near Earth space and its dynamical phenomena, which e.g., lead to the beautiful aurora.

I always thought that the models that are used in magnetospheric physics are a bit limited, but to develop more accurate ones was deemed impossible for decades. I wanted to renew the models, and proposed Vlasiator – a Vlasov-based simulation of the entire space (http://www.physics.helsinki.fi/vlasiator/index.php). People laughed at me! But in the end – with the help of two most prestigious European awards (European Research Council Starting and Consolidator grants), here Vlasiator is, and it gives a whole new picture of the near Earth space! We can see how small-scale physics influences in the large scales, and vice versa. This has never been done before, and could not be done now either, was it not for Moore’s Law and modern supercomputers. We’ve discovered new mechanisms and explained some old questions that have not been answered because the observations are sparse and the existing models are inaccurate. We use the latest HPC technologies, and PRACE (the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe http://www.prace-ri.eu/) is invaluable to us.

HPC is a tool to me, but the community is great! It’s fantastic to learn about new technologies being developed. We’ve also served as a pilot code for vendors testing their machines. Not everyone can provide a perfectly scalable code and fill any given machine.

Outside of work we have a summer cottage, where we spend all our extra time. It’s a wonderful change to live with limited power and internet and just enjoy the quiet unspoiled nature. I also grow vegetables in a greenhouse.

As part of this project we want to celebrate the diversity of HPC. Do you feel an affiliation with this matter, and if so how has this interacted with or impacted your job in the HPC community?’

I have always felt both advantage and disadvantage from being a woman physicist. People notice women physicists, because they are fewer. But there are still old stereotypes out there. I think women bring more viewing angles to physics. This is increasingly important in the future, because all things are really connected, and we need people that understand complicated entities.

As a woman I also found thatmaternity improved my skills as a physicist. I used my maternity leave (which is 9 months in Finland) to write up my first ERC grant. Some people complain that I have “sacrificed my family”, but it is the contrary. My kid finds my research fascinating, and what could be more important during this post-factual era than to bring the children to love science. Being a mother also brings discipline and a sense of priorities to the work, you are much more efficient and productive when you only have a certain number of minutes to perform.

What’s the best thing about working in HPC?

The combination of application people like me, and the HPC experts. We don’t often understand each other, but when we leave the other to do their magic, it’s a win-win. They can drive towards exa-scale, and we get unprecedented physical results.

What’s next for you in HPC?

I was awarded a particular honour, as of Jan 1 2018 I’ll be the Director of Finnish Center of Excellence in Research of Sustainable Space. This is a concept and strategy I devised, gathered a consortium and finally won this extremely high status in Finland. Space debris is a massive threat to the society, and we’ll be developing methods to prevent new debris. We’ll build and launch three spacecraft, develop new software-based radiation shielding technologies, and new debris removal technologies. The science part is to look at the harsh and dynamical radiation conditions in the near Earth space, and in this we need even more computational power, as we will be simulating the radiation belts based on first principles, in 6 dimensions and using physical conditions as input. Our fleet will validate Vlasiator results as well. I don’t know does this Center make me an admiral now? A captain is for a ship, but we’ll develop a fleet…

Minna Palmroth was interviewed by Toni Collis on 2nd August 2017.

Last updated: 02 Aug 2017 at 13:31