11 March 2020

Professor and tightrope walker: Riikka Rinnan finding balance amidst global climate chaos


Climate scientist, tightrope walker and prize winner. Last week, 44-year-old professor and biologist Riikka Rinnan reached the top of the Danish researcher universe when she was awarded the EliteForsk Prize 2020 (Elite Research Prize) and DKK 1.2 million for her outstanding work in Arctic climate research. While she does not have climate anxiety, she thinks that we ought to do more for the climate than we are now.

Professor Riikka Rinnan. Foto: Emilie Thejll-Madsen, SCIENCE

Last week, 44-year-old professor and biologist Riikka Rinnan reached the top of the Danish researcher universe when she was awarded the EliteForsk Prize 2020 (Elite Research Prize) and DKK 1.2 million for her outstanding work in Arctic climate research.

Since 2006, the Danish-Finnish researcher has spent most of her time increasing her own and global awareness about how previously overlooked gases released by tundra plants and permafrost affect climate. These gases, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are released primarily by trees, soil and plants in nature. A small amount of VOCs are also released by humans.

"When we began, hardly anything was known about these gases in the Arctic. Furthermore, their release into the Arctic environment was not taken into account by climate models. Through our measurements, we have been able to prove that earlier models were severely flawed," explains Riikka Rinnan.

Understanding the release of VOCs within the climate context is important because their release by nature increases at higher temperatures.

"VOCs create particles called aerosols that have a cooling effect on climate due to their solar reflectivity. The extent of this cooling remains unknown due to its overall complexity," explains Riikka Rinnan.


Riikka Rinnan

Born 1975 in Finland

Lives in Copenhagen with her husband and three children

Education: PhD in environmental biology

Job: Professor and Head of Section at the Department of Biology and Head of Rinnan Lab

Hobbies: Running, cross-country skiing, snowboarding and circus tightrope walking

No climate anxiety
Today, Professor Rinnan heads up the 'Rinnan Lab' at the Department of Biology, where along with her roughly 10 employees, she is a global leader in her field. Becoming a researcher wasn’t a given for 20-something Riikka as she worked towards her master's degree in environmental science at the University of Kuopio, Finland. At the time, she thought that the life of a researcher might be too lonely for her and imaged herself working in a more social context instead.  

“I'm not that much of an extrovert, so I don't know why it scared me. But I had the impression that researchers worked alone and didn’t have all that much contact with others. Fortunately, research life is very social and includes many collaborations and conferences," says Professor Rinnan.

With her knowledge of climate and insight into the future of planet Earth, one may wonder what she thinks. Is she burdened by a constant fear of how climate change will affect us? 

I don't suffer from climate anxiety. Oddly enough, I do not worry about it all the time, even though I know that we must do much more to address it than we are doing now. I believe that political discussion is tremendously focused on a narrow range of issues that only represent a small part of the problem. Sure, flying less makes sense. But what about the concrete industry, agriculture or other areas? This can really get on my nerves.

Riikka Rinnan
Foto: Emilie Thejll-Madsen, SCIENCE.

Somewhere between a loud Dane and quiet Finn
Rikka Rinnan is from a small town in southeastern Finland, a four-hour drive from Helsinki. She left Finland in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since. Today, Riikka feels more Danish than Finnish and sees her homeland thorough the eyes of a foreigner.

"Finns are very quiet compared to Danes. I've really come to notice that. When I’m in Finland now, it feels like being abroad. One could be in a meeting where no one says anything. And when teaching, very few students raise their hands to ask questions."

Before settling down in Denmark in the field of terrestrial ecology, Riikka worked with greenhouse gases, soil microbiology and plant ecology in several countries.

"I've definitely changed research fields more times than most people. There is plenty of evidence to show that doing so is a bad idea as it can hamper one’s ability to create a name for oneself in a particular area. Beginning my work on VOCs so late has most likely impacted my career. As a result, I've been a relative unknown," she says.

Her curiosity in a breadth of research areas can probably be attributed to the fact that she enjoys new challenges. Like when she decided to learn Spanish, or began going to circus school with her youngest son and learned how to tightrope walk. Rikka has been walking tightrope for three years now, and draws comparisons with her research.

"I get sacred when on the tightrope. I'm afraid of heights, and it's absolutely terrifying to take the first step. It's the same with research. There are many things that can seem chaotic, but it all works out when you take one step at a time in the right direction."

Meaning and freedom of the work
Riikka's research team has monitoring stations in various cold weather locales around the world, including Greenland, Norway and northern Sweden. Here, they continuously take measurements and monitor their tests. In the past, Rinnan spent extended periods of time in the field, but today, most of her travels are geared towards getting her PhDs up and running with new projects in the Arctic.

"Sometimes, we wonder why we didn’t opt to work with something in the tropical rainforest, but it's an exciting job and I’m surrounded by young people and others who are passionate about their work," she says with a smile.

Do you have a dream of achieving something specific as a researcher?

'Now, I should probably say something fantastic, but I actually don't. I do think that it is extremely motivating to work on something as important as climate. As a researcher, one often works under conditions that are not necessarily as nice as they are in the private sector. But for me, work must be meaningful."

Have you ever been tempted to get a great and well-paid job in the private sector?

“Fortunately, there aren't that many companies working on this type of research, but I also enjoy the freedom that we have at university. So no, I have never considered doing so.”