August 3, 2023

Elin Lavonen, Professor of Practice, Aalto University

Professor of Practice Elin Lavonen: ”A thriving field of water technology research will significantly impact our health”

Whether she’s doing her research, teaching, or working in a corporate setting, Lavonen has a clear goal: people need to trust that water is safe to drink.

Seeing that water is an elixir of life – two thirds of our bodies is water – it takes an incredible amount of work to keep it from becoming a health risk. Swedish researcher Elin Lavonen is no stranger to this work. 

Lavonen will work as a Professor of Practice at Aalto University’s Department of Built Environment from 2023 to 2028. During her five-year stint, she has three main objectives: teaching master’s students, advising doctoral students, and establishing collaboration with international universities and the water industry. She sees this position as an excellent opportunity to meet and encourage young researchers that the field needs. 

”A thriving field of water technology research will significantly impact our health, the economy, and the environment. Investors need to fund the investigation of water and its optimal treatment to maintain water safety,” she says.

 As is fitting for a newly minted Professor of Practice, Lavonen will split her time between business and academia. While raising budding water scientists at Aalto, she continues working as a water specialist and sales and marketing director at the research-based company BioCell Analytica in Uppsala. She feels at home at this cross-section between theory and practice. 

”We need the practical perspective of water treatment plants because sometimes you get lost in the details in academia. Communication between research and the industry is vital,” Lavonen says. 

Bangladeshi groundwater helped find a calling

Lavonen has a Ph.D. in environmental assessment from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. In her dissertation, she studied the impact of natural organic matter on drinking water production. She continues this line of work in her position at Aalto University.

Before Aalto, Lavonen worked as a drinking water and water technology specialist at Veolia Water Technologies and the municipal drinking water producers Norrvatten and Stockholm Water and Waste. Whether she’s doing her research, teaching, or working in a corporate setting, the bottom line of her work is that people need to trust that water is safe to drink.

It wasn’t until traveling to Bangladesh as a master’s student that Lavonen found her calling. The country’s groundwater was contaminated with arsenic, and millions of people were at risk of drinking poisoned water. It has been called the largest poisoning of a population in modern times. 

Arsenic in Bangladesh’s groundwater is an extreme example of a risk to water security and safety. Yet there are lesser threats that can have severe consequences: toxic compounds, both natural (such as algal toxins) and man-made (such as synthetic chemicals). The human body doesn’t care whether the cause of its illness is natural or not. That is why, according to Lavonen, researchers need to adopt a holistic approach to all the compounds in water and treat it accordingly.

Elin Lavonen

A new wastewater directive brings technological opportunities

The topic of current research subjects brings us once again back to water quality. Elin Lavonen lists two important endeavours: finding organic contaminants in drinking water and wastewater and optimising their treatment. Going forward, she thinks researchers and actors in the industry have to start looking at using different methods of analysing water.

”If we worry that water contains dangerous contaminants, then that’s exactly what we should measure,” she says. Lavonen demands a holistic method that captures the complex mixture of all the pollutants in the water. Otherwise, there’s a risk of not solving the actual issue but just solving what is measured. 

Lavonen also brings up the European Union’s new wastewater directive that would focus, among others, on more advanced processes aiming at removing organic micropollutants from water. When implemented, the law could lead to greater investments in new technologies. 

”Developing efficient technologies that can remove compounds from water while maintaining the ones you want to keep is a priority — and then make them feasible to use on a large scale,” Lavonen says. 

Maybe one of those technologies is already bubbling under among the future water scientists she will get to work with during the next five years.  

The professorship was donated by the Erkki Paasikivi foundation, which supports Finnish research and education projects in clean domestic water and building services engineering, as well as related national and international co-operation.