Romet Peedumäe

Driven by Chemistry, from Estonia to Berlin. Eneli Monerjan

Why did you decide to study chemistry?

This might sound strange, but my initial interest in chemistry sparked when I watched Formula 1 tire changes. I watched it every Sunday because I was curious about how, for example, one tire compound promotes driving on wet asphalt, while another does not. Although chemistry seemed like a complete mystery to me in primary school, I felt a curiosity and wanted to understand it more and grasp the connections between chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

Did you feel in university that you had a clear vision of your future?

Absolutely not. I see everything in life as a flow; I don't feel the need to carve a separate path for something. I learn things on the go, things that I'm interested in, break them down to the smallest details for myself, and move on. I would compare it to climbing the top of a Spruce tree: you start from the bottom, reach the top, but from there, you see other tree tops in the distance – new perspectives that require descending, being flexible, broadening your horizons, and learning. So, I've never firmly decided what I should achieve for myself.

What do you for work now?

I am a senior researcher and instrument scientist at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin Institute for Electrochemical Energy Storage. Specifically, I work on connecting electrochemistry and structure description, analyzing batteries containing carbon material. When I came to Germany almost ten years ago from Estonia, I had no idea I would stay here. I came for a postdoctoral position, as certain conditions needed to be met for funding, and I lacked experience working in a foreign laboratory. Interestingly, this opportunity arose almost overnight: a colleague at the time couldn't go, and I went in their place.

I started as a visiting researcher at the institute, and a few years later, the institute's director suggested I pursue a second postdoctorate in Berlin. It seemed fantastic to me because it offered the opportunity to work on a small-angle neutron scattering instrument – an offer an electrochemist rarely gets. Small-angle neutron scattering involves a tremendous amount of physics knowledge, which meant I had to delve into an entirely new topic. Also, research methods that allowed the real-time observation of structural changes in batteries and fuel cells became very popular. This way, I could combine electrochemistry with neutron characterization of materials.

Are you satisfied with your current job, or are you looking for the next interesting position?

If education systems in both Tartu University and Germany were more conservative in the past, keeping university and industry separate, it has started to change. Collaboration between industry and the university is much stronger in Germany. In short, I see myself continuing to work in Germany because more and more exciting challenges and opportunities are emerging here. Besides, learning has never been a separate goal for me; it's a natural progression driven by curiosity. If I'm interested in something, I learn and continue exploring until the topic is exhausted for me. That's the only thing I fear in life – losing that curiosity.

What has been your journey to your current job?

I have been very stable and consistent. At Tartu University, I was in the institute of chemistry the entire time under the same supervisor. This has benefited me because consistency is highly valued here.

After defending my doctoral thesis, I tried working in a private company dealing with the development of models supporting the registration of chemicals for describing data properties. This helped me develop communication skills in different areas, and as a result, my perspective expanded in everyday chemistry. I then created a new course at Tartu University – "Legislation and Handling of Chemicals." It was exciting and helped me understand how to influence young people. I enjoy working with young people; their curiosity and self-discovery motivate me immensely. After that, my plan was to put together my research group, but the postdoctorate lured me to new hunting grounds.

By emphasizing consistency, I don't mean that students should not change fields, they should definitely look for what motivates and interests them. Actually, the path to becoming a scientist is usually not a straight one – I think I was just lucky.

How does a chemistry education benefit someone in their everyday life?

I think it gives a person free rein. For example, knowledge of chemistry is useful in implementing new technologies. Where does our energy come from – solar panels, batteries, transportation, and fuel use? What could be changed to reduce our carbon footprint? A chemistry education helps create a solid and coherent worldview and understand its constant evolution. Also, you can work anywhere, such as an evaluator or advisor in European Union commissions, development manager for an energy storage conglomerate, or start your own startup. The education given at Tartu University is so sound that, for me, it's impossible to imagine an unemployed chemist. In Germany, In my own field alone, electrochemists are incredibly high in demand.

What are the best memories of studying at the institute of chemistry?

I loved studying at the institute of chemistry because, before any exposure to chemistry, you get a strong foundation in physics and mathematics. But my brightest memories are of my course. We celebrated everything we could and always together. We organized various events, such as a football tournament between ths students of pharmacology, chemistry, and physics. I also remember an incident on Shrove Tuesday, where we made soup and had to transport it all the way from Ropka area to Pepleri Street. The soup was scalding, but we were in a hurry, so we tried to drive as carefully and as quickly as possible. With my course it was always all fun and games.

Author: Romet Peedumäe

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