Picture of Peter Andrekson.
World citizen and Chalmers professor Peter Andrekson values many other things in life besides the research. Photo: Michael Nystås

Research is not everything for Peter Andrekson

He has lived with fibre optics for 35 years. There have been many research breakthroughs and prestigious grants. But world citizen and Chalmers professor Peter Andrekson also values many other things in life. “In recent years I’ve learnt that you need to be able to do two things: delegate to people you can rely on, and be able to say ‘no’ to things you don’t think are that important,” he says.
It is a Thursday afternoon at Wijkanders’ restaurant in the Vasa area – a stone’s throw from the statue of the first female Chalmers’ graduate, Vera Sandberg. In an adjacent room a small group are lingering. Otherwise the place is basically deserted. It is an hour to closing time and staff are trundling past with their rattling washing-up trolleys. A piano starts playing in the room next door.
 
Andrekson sends off his last email and straightens himself in the sofa he is sitting in. He has chosen the meeting place for our interview for purely practical reasons.
“I don’t have any special relationship with Wijkanders but didn’t want to meet in the office. It feels a little too work-specific,” he says.
 
Andrekson was born and grew up in Gothenburg. He reached the age of 60 in May 2020, but for completely understandable reasons, the party was postponed indefinitely.
“Yes, it was cancelled just like the Olympic Games in Tokyo,” he says with a crooked smile.
His sights are now set on celebrating in summer 2021 instead.
 
His roots are in Estonia, something that Andrekson cherishes. His background includes a very dramatic family history. His father came to Sweden escaping from Estonia by boat in 1944. He was only 13 years old at the time and fled together with his sister who was a few years older than him. Their father died before the war and their mother, Andrekson’s grandmother, was deported to Siberia, where she was imprisoned for almost 30 years. She was only released in 1970 and was then reunited with her family in Sweden.
“Of course, it affected me a great deal. It has given me great respect for the ability to build up something new, which Dad had to do. But he didn’t talk much about his escape,” says Andrekson.
 
His father was very single-minded and managed to create a new life in Sweden, against all the odds. He studied and eventually managed to obtain an MSc in engineering at Chalmers.
“He arrived empty-handed; he had no money, no parents, nothing. But he still managed to work at night and study at Chalmers during the day. I’ve a great deal of respect for that,” Andrekson says.
 
He is a Chalmers graduate himself and graduated in Electrical Engineering in 1984.
Did your dad inspire you to apply to Chalmers?
“Not particularly. I was given a free hand as a child and considered several different courses, but it wasn’t so important that Dad had gone to Chalmers. I’d long been interested in technology. In my teens I tinkered about a lot with electronics – for electric guitars, for example.”
Instead, Andrekson mentions his teachers as being more crucial to his choice of education:
“Yes, I had a really good physics teacher at secondary school and at Burgårdens Gymnasium, where I went. They were more of an inspiration than Dad when it came to what to choose. That and the fact that I just thought physics was interesting. It’s quite common for teachers to turn out to be important for your choice of career,” he says.
 
He describes his childhood as good, calm and safe. Andrekson and his younger brother grew up in Kallebäck, but moved to a house in Örgryte later on.  He spent his primary and secondary school years at the Estonian School in Johanneberg.
“I felt more independent than the children of today, and even as a seven-year-old travelled alone by tram.”
Peter is married to Marianne, and has a 23-year-old son and a 26-year old daughter, who are studying cognitive science and psychology respectively at the University of Gothenburg. Marianne comes from Estonia, where the couple also have an apartment that they travel to regularly. ‘Headquarters’ is, however, the apartment on the main boulevard, ‘Avenyn’, in Gothenburg.
 
It was mainly by coincidence that he ended up specialising in electrical engineering:
“First, I enrolled in Physics, but I thought those on the course were a bit too nerdy for me, so I switched to Electrical Engineering after a month. Their student social committee – the Donald Duck Committee – seemed to be much more fun, with much more enjoyable parties! But I still chose to take a number of Physics modules. My electrical engineering course was a hybrid between Physics and Electronics, just like MC2 is,” Andrekson says.
 
After he obtained his MSc in July 1984, the future was as yet unwritten and Andrekson did not really know what to do then. He had done his thesis in the then Department of Electrical Measurement Technology, where they were working on laser physics. Professor Sverre Eng, who started optoelectronics activities at Chalmers in the 1970s, was also there. One day when the rain was pouring down, they met by chance outside the ‘Kopparbunken’, a building that is a well-known landmark at Chalmers and was previously used as a Faraday cage. Andrekson talks vividly about the occasion that set the direction of the rest of his career.
“He stood under his umbrella and I stood beside him – without an umbrella! The rain was pelting down, but Sverre didn’t think about that. ‘You should start doing your PhD with me,’ he said. ‘I know exactly what you should do.’ I was desperate to get away and thought it was raining far too heavily, so I said ‘OK’. That’s what happened at the time; Sverre took me by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘you’ll fit in well as a doctoral student with me, this is what I think you should do’. And it worked out pretty well!”
 
Picture of Peter Andrekson.Since then Andrekson has ‘lived with fibre’ as he expresses it. Fibre optics have pervaded his working life for 35 years, and in 1992 it was he who started fibre optic activities at Chalmers.
Consequently, it is an optical fibre he is holding in the photo taken in Henrik Sandsjö’s studio at Röda Sten.
 
Andrekson publicly defended his doctoral thesis in less than four years, much faster than normal. After that he wanted to travel abroad on a postdoc, but Professor Eng wanted him to be involved in arranging the European Conference on Optical Communication (ECOC), a major international conference, in 1989. With 800 participants, it was regarded as a highly successful conference. It was the first time that the ECOC had been arranged in Gothenburg, but it has since been held here on a further two occasions. The last time was in 2017, when he was joint Chair of the Technical Programme Committee. ECOC had by then really come of age and become Europe’s largest conference in optical communications, and one of the world’s largest and most prestigious conferences in the field.
“It was a great job that was really enjoyable for a period of 3–4 years. It was a great success with 5,000 delegates from all around the world,” Andrekson says.
 
His first conference abroad is an enjoyable memory. In 1985, one year into his PhD studies, Andrekson had the chance to take part in the ECOC Conference, which had been arranged in Venice that year. He travelled there by car through Europe together with two older colleagues.
“At that time, you had time to drive to conferences, and that meant that you got to know colleagues in a different way. Nowadays, it’s just rush, rush, rush... We drove all the way to Italy and had a fantastic conference in an old monastery that dated from the 1600s. On the way there, we stopped off in Salzburg, Austria and did some skiing at Kaprun, an old glacier. You could ski there in the middle of September! Afterwards I took the train to a PhD competition in Madrid, which I won! Then I travelled home to Gothenburg by train via Paris. It was a fantastic trip which will always stay in my memory,” says Andrekson.
 
He explains that he always tries to combine work with pleasure when going to a conference.
“Sometimes I take along a member of the family and take the opportunity to visit friends and colleagues.”
 
He spent the period from 1989 to 1992 at the American research company Bell Labs, which was world-renowned for its research into telecommunications.
“It’s the most important and perhaps the best period in my career, and it sowed the seeds of what we are doing at Chalmers today. They have a world-class research lab and there are several Nobel laureates among the researchers. Thousands of top-notch researchers worked there. If you had a query in the world of physics, you could be quite sure that the answer could be found in the building. It was a fantastic period in all ways, it was incredibly instructive and inspiring to work there,” he says.
 
After his return to Chalmers in 1992, his academic journey really took off. Andrekson started as an Assistant Professor, became an Associate Professor in 1994, a Professor in 1995 and a Full Professor of Photonics at the age of 40 in 2001.
 
Andrekson has been the Director of the Fibre Optic Communications Research Centre (FORCE) since its creation in 2010. In 2019, he also became Head of the Photonics Laboratory at MC2. He conducts research and supervises doctoral students. He is currently an examiner and principal supervisor for ten doctoral students.
 
Despite his many tasks and commitments, Andrekson makes a point of emphasising how important it is to have a good work-life balance with time for time for relaxation, and that as a manager you have to have the courage to delegate and ask for help.
“In recent years I’ve learnt that you need to be able to do two things: delegate to people you can rely on, and be able to say ‘no’ to things you don’t think are that important. If you can’t do that you won’t survive. You need to be able to prioritise and must be able to say ‘no’. We are not all Superman, we can’t do everything all the time,” Andrekson says.
He talks about a colleague who had a deadline for a grant application when operational planning work was at its height at Chalmers, and was faced with a choice: should they finish writing their application or take part in the operational planning work?
“My colleague decided to prioritise their application. That’s what you have to do sometimes. There are plenty of administrative processes that have a life of their own at Chalmers, but unfortunately the result is often just a sheaf of papers.”
 
Over the years a number of prestigious prizes and appointments have been bestowed upon Andrekson: these include becoming a Wallenberg Scholar (2012–2017), being awarded a Distinguished Professor grant by the Swedish Research Council and becoming a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA). One research grant he values highly is the ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for 2012–2017.
“It’s some of the best research funding you can get throughout Europe and it’s hard to top,” he says.
 
But he thinks that a Distinguished Professor grant counts for even more.
“Yes, especially since it’s a 10-year project. I don’t know any other projects that extend over such a long period, it’s absolutely amazing. It allows you to work undisturbed over the longer term so that you can aim higher.”
 
Andrekson is also proud of having served on Chalmers board for seven years, from 2009 to 2016. It gave him the opportunity to influence the direction taken by the university at a senior level.
“It was a useful experience. I was involved in ensuring that we now have a new faculty model in place. I was a strong advocate of this and pushed to bring it about.”
 
He has twice been an Expert Evaluator for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Andrekson has to be secretive and terse when talking about it because of the 50-year long confidentiality requirement. He cannot even mention the years in which he was involved. But he ‘worked on various evaluations’, as he says.
 
Andrekson explains early on in the interview and in this text that fibre optics have pervaded his entire research career. But how would he describe his subject area?
“Fibre optic systems are what keep the internet going. We can’t use our mobile phones and all their services if we don’t have a backbone network which is supported by fibre optic systems. For example, Facebook’s data centre is full of fibre-optic links – thousands of connections using fibre and technology that we worked on in a project with the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation which ended last year and was aimed at enhancing the energy efficiency of such systems,” he says.
Andrekson is currently involved in a workshop on the subject in collaboration with IVA.
“We are talking about data centres through metropolitan networks and on to transoceanic fibre systems. I was involved and took part in the work on developing the first transoceanic fibre link with optical amplifiers. Prior to that you could not transmit data on several wavelengths, it was really expensive – it was necessary to detect and retransmit every 30 km for each wavelength,” he explains.
 
Instead, optical amplifiers could amplify all wavelengths simultaneously. Using this technology, you could increase the capacity significantly in a cost-effective way.
“It was a real breakthrough that we were working on back at Bell Labs in the early 1990s. We were ordered to keep it secret until it came out in a press release. When our competitors at British Telecom and France Telecom got to see what we had done, they completely abandoned their activities and realised that what we were working on was the right way to go. Our work has made a significant difference to transoceanic systems.”
 
His current work involves free space communication among other things. A press release announcing that Andrekson’s research team had built the most sensitive receiver ever in all categories received a lot of media attention.
“It’s a hot topic now. We would maintain that it is the best solution for transmitting information from and to Mars or even further. We’ve analysed other conceivable solutions but have still come to the conclusion that our method is the best. It should be interesting to see how the world accepts this eventually. Of course, there are a plenty of challenges left – I wouldn’t say that sensitivity is the only thing that counts, but many other things are needed too. We’re currently working on miniaturising this solution, making it really compact, and have a project that aims to make the receivers really small,” he says.
 
Andrekson has also found the time to run a company. A scientific publication at Bell Labs in 1991 led, 13 years later, to him founding the company Picosolve together with a colleague in the USA and a doctoral student who had just successfully defended their doctoral thesis at Chalmers.
“We built special systems with highly advanced software and hardware in, something that nobody else could build but that people needed. It was a ‘Rolls Royce’ system that you could sell to various research labs around the world – we had customers in South Africa, Russia, Japan, the USA and throughout Europe, so that box can be found in many labs today.”
Demand started to fall around 2010. In 2009, Picosolve was sold to the Canadian company EXFO, which set up an office with four employees in the Imego building in the Chalmers area.
“It was closed in 2014 and our technology is now available in Canada. It was a high point that a scientific paper could result in a company that existed from 2004 to 2014,” Andrekson thinks.
 
In the last decade the focus has mainly been on noiseless amplifiers. In 2010, his research team had a breakthrough when it succeeded in demonstrating that amplifiers could actually work with a low noise factor.
 
What do you enjoy most out of all the activities you divide your time between?
“Being able to work with smart young people! I also think it’s great writing applications and scientific articles. I think I’m quite unique in that respect, but perhaps it’s because I write applications so rarely. Many people complain that it takes a lot of time, but I see it as an opportunity to clear my mind. Regardless of whether you get the money or not, you have in any case visualised and described for yourself how you view the future. That’s useful and I think that has a value in itself,” Andrekson says.
 
He regards himself as something of a citizen of the world, and is a great advocate of the need for researchers to look around and have a change of environment now and then.
“It’s partly due to my having lived abroad a great deal, especially in the USA, but also in Estonia and Japan. I also made a sabbatical visit to South Africa, and have a third home in Portugal where we try to spend as much time as possible. Mobility is included in Chalmers’ new faculty model. I would prefer new PhDs not to stay here but to go off and try out their wings somewhere else. A change of environment is incredibly important for your career. We have too much of a tunnel vision mentality in Sweden on the whole – you could call it slow and steady,” says Andrekson with a laugh.
 
That Andrekson practices what he preaches is shown emphatically by the fact that he has spent periods abroad, and been a visiting researcher in the USA and Japan successively. He has also been a visiting professor at Tallinn University of Technology, with which he has formed strong ties.
“We have good relations. Recently I met the new University President, who expressed in an interest in visiting Chalmers,” Andrekson notes.
 
For the past five years Andrekson has been chair of the Alfred Ots Scholarship Fund, which gives a number of young Estonians the opportunity to take a Master’s Degree at Chalmers every year.
“The fund was founded in 1995 and since then has awarded more than SEK 10 million to more than a hundred young people. New students are arriving all the time. We promote the fund during the autumn and receive applications and carry out interviews with applicants during the spring. Then, in May or June there is an award ceremony in Estonia. The grants are equivalent to the Swedish student loan.”
 
He is generally keen to maintain relations with Estonia, and has acted as host for several ambassadorial visits. Andrekson was also involved when the President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, visited Gothenburg and Chalmers in 2018.
 
Text: Michael Nystås
Photo: Henrik Sandsjö
Photo of Peter at Wijkanders: Michael Nystås
 

MORE ABOUT PETER ANDREKSON

Born: In 1960 in Gothenburg.
Lives: Has homes in Estonia and Portugal, but his main home is his apartment on the main boulevard, ‘Avenyn’, in Gothenburg. “It’s the best investment I ever made.”
Family: Married to Marianne, with a 23-year-old son and a 26-year old daughter.
Job: Professor of Photonics at Chalmers.
Career in brief: MSc in 1984, PhD in 1988, Assistant Professor in 1992, Associate Professor in 1994, Professor in 1995, Full Professor of Photonics in 2001.
Leisure interests: “The sea, the natural world and art are important to me; golf, boating, travel. I have been an active golfer since 2004. My son started early and is now an excellent golfer. It’s great to see how he’s grown. I’m toiling away with a handicap of 20 plus, but I think it’s really great and relaxing. You can clear your mind, a bit like when you play guitar. We’ve also got a boat – we have a lot of boat trips in the archipelago. Walks, travel. I love looking at art and have a lot of favourite artists. For instance, we went to the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow and saw Da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. It was fantastic. The picture is displayed in a dimly lit room where it’s the only picture. It’s impressive to be alone with a picture like that, actually much more impressive than the ‘Mona Lisa’. I also love photographic museums, there’s one in both Stockholm and Tallinn. I used to play guitar but I don’t play so much these days. Musical omnivore. I mostly read non-fiction, most recently a really good book about the history of Bell Labs, ‘The Idea Factory’ by Jon Gertner. I’ve always got six or seven different books on the go at the same time.”
Favourite place for inspiration: “The sea, being out in the boat when it’s absolutely calm, the sea with the wide-open spaces. My wife and my family of course. The staffroom at work used to be really central, but it completely disappeared when the coffee machines arrived about twenty years ago. Before that there was someone who set the coffee maker off and everyone gathered together. It was sometimes really inspiring to sit there and discuss various subjects.”
Most proud about: “My family of course, but also that I’ve been able to help a great many people at Chalmers with their careers. I’ve supervised just over 25 doctoral students and a number of postdocs over the years, and it gives me both pride and inspiration.”
Main motivation:  “Curiosity. It’s like being a child – you want to try out ideas and see whether they work; sometimes they can be a bit crazy, sometimes they turn out to be brilliant, but that doesn’t happen that often... In my group we always try to be explorative. We don’t always know the answer but try out different ideas and see whether they lead to anything. In some cases it turns out to be really interesting, in others it comes to nothing. Other researchers can be really targeted and know what they’re after and what they want to achieve. In my case it’s not really like that.”
First memory of physics: “What I think was important were my teachers in secondary school and at high school. We conducted some really great experiments there, which made me want to continue doing this work.”
Best thing about being a researcher: “With hindsight, I have found that I really appreciate the immense freedom. Many of us would certainly have had much higher salaries in industry, but with age you realise that it’s not the most essential thing in life and that you should work on things you enjoy. At a university you get that freedom and have a lot of control over your own time. The freedom and being able to work with creative young people are the best things about being a researcher.”
Challenges of the job: “The price of freedom is that you set your own ambitions. The challenge is to focus on something that can really make a difference in the long term, and to find the right balance in everything you do, not let administrative burdens weigh you down, and instead focus on research and teaching. Being able to prioritise and delegate. If you have the freedom, you must also be able to say ‘no’. I’ve been trying to influence some of Chalmers’ processes without great success. Perhaps we shouldn’t have a dialogue on the Operational Plan every year, for example. It may be enough to focus on it in one year and then on something else the next. A lot of the central operations could be streamlined. I think that the core activities, research and teaching, should dominate.”
Dream for the future: “That what you do in your research should be of use to society, to industry and commerce and to the members of society. It should ideally lead to new companies – Picosolve was really great, it created jobs and more besides. It’s particularly great to see how your own research can lead to new products and new companies. That’s a motivation, the fact that I hope the research will lead to something useful in society.”

Page manager Published: Fri 04 Dec 2020.