Ruben Valbuéna

“Why don’t you just get a PhD from Joensuu?”

In forest sciences, Joensuu’s reputation is without comparison in Europe, thanks to the presence in the city of the headquarters of the European Forest Institute, EFI, and the School of Forest Sciences of the University of Eastern Finland.

Rubén Valbuena recently obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Eastern Finland. It’s his second doctorate, as he also holds one from the Technical University of Madrid. Both of his doctoral dissertations incidentally touch upon lidar scanning, although one focused on the field of remote sensing and the other on forest sciences.

“At some point, somebody asked me: ‘Why don’t you just get a PhD from Joensuu?’, since a degree in forest sciences from the University of Eastern Finland would open up many doors for me. Although my initial plan was to obtain my PhD from Madrid, I knew of important researchers working with lidar at the University of Eastern Finland and I was very interested in collaborating with them. That’s why I finally enrolled at UEF as well.”

Lidar is a remote sensing technology with origins dating right back to the 1960s. Measuring distances by illuminating a target with laser and analysing the reflected light, the technology has applications in a variety of fields. In the forest sector, lidar has spread since the end of the 1990s.

“Research on forest applications of airborne laser scanning at UEF is certainly one step ahead of most other European institutions. That’s why working here for me is like playing in the Champions league would be for a football player."

“Lidar scanning consists of mounting a laser on a plane or a satellite, and using it to scan forest areas in order to obtain information on their entire vertical profile. It has unprecedented capacity for measuring the position of the ground under forest canopies, allowing us to obtain topographic contour maps of very fine resolution. This is why many European countries have developed national programmes for covering entire countries with this technology,” Valbuena explains.


The whole of Finland will be scanned by 2019, while other countries, such as Spain, have already been completed and some smaller countries like Estonia have been scanned twice already. For the forestry sector, lidar scanning has many benefits to offer, but it can help in nature conservation, too.


“Lidar technologies may play an important role in the protection of rainforests, for example. They can provide objective methods for determining the amount of carbon stock in a forest, which is important for the implementation of protocols regarding the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from deforestation and forest degradation. We are also hoping to develop tools that can be used to combat illegal logging in the future.”

Valbuena first came to Finland in 2005 as an exchange student. After working in Spain and the UK for some years in environmental applications, he returned to Finland in 2010 to work at EFI, and later decided to pursue a doctorate at UEF.


“Research on forest applications of airborne laser scanning at UEF is certainly one step ahead of most other European institutions. That’s why working here for me is like playing in the Champions league would be for a football player. Moreover, it’s very easy for me to work efficiently, as everyone around me is efficient: not just my fellow researchers and colleagues, but the administrative staff as well.”


Next, Valbuena will spend two years at the University of Cambridge, thanks to a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship he was awarded. He hopes to return to Finland afterwards, with high expectations of the future of remote sensing education: “I believe that developing a Master’s programme on the forest applications of lidar in particular, or remote sensing in general, would make UEF very popular and attract plenty of funding and students to Joensuu.”