Academic Pilgrimage in the Steps of Kristjan and Eduards

Once upon a time, in the 19th century, there lived two young men. One of them was named Kristjan Jaak. He was an Estonian who was born in Riga and died in Riga, but in twenty-one years between those two occasions he managed to contribute so much to Estonian language that his birthday is now celebrated as Estonian Mother Tongue Day.

The other was Eduards. He was a Latvian who could not stand how wrong the socio-economic system of his time was, especially towards fellow Latvians; therefore, he wrote sceptical, pessimistic poetry and ended up studying law to help out the “little people” in general injustice.

flowers for Kristjan

Flowers for Kristjan — we got him “rukkililli” on our way to the graveyard. There was this old man in a completely random place where I have never seen anyone selling flowers in the Riga centre, and he had exactly what we needed — “rukkililled“. Photo from a personal archive

They lived a generation or two apart from each other, but both belonged to the academic family of Universitas Dorpatensis, each in his own time. I had already seen the monument to Kristjan on top of Toomemägi, when in one of my first Estonian lessons we were told that he actually walked from Riga to Tartu on foot to study. “An Estonian version of Eduards” was the first thought that crossed my mind, because even Latvians who have never read the poetry Eduards wrote tend to know that he too tended to walk the route and that for him education eventually turned out to be quite deadly. Literally.

Somehow this connection made me read more about both of them and the thought that I too could walk those two-hundred-and-something kilometres between Riga and Tartu became more and more insistent. After all, religious people make all kinds of pilgrimages for all kinds of reasons – why couldn’t academic people do it too? And what better destination for a Latvian student than the place where Latvians not only went to study but also built up the idea of Latvian-ness itself? After all, one of – if not the first – occasions when someone publicly declared that he considered him a “Latvian” was precisely in Tartu.

The more I fell in love with Estonia and Estonian culture through my weekly visits to Tartu, the more insistent the idea became, and eventually, somewhere in August 2014, I asked my fellow Estophile Lauma whether she would join me in such an adventure, mainly for the reason that alone I would not make it even to the departure point. She agreed without much hesitation. Continue reading

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Summer Interview with Top Ecologist Aveliina Helm

Aveliina HelmAveliina Helm, a member of the Macroecology workgroup at the University of Tartu, belongs to the top one per cent of the world’s most cited ecologists. Her summers are typically busy with fieldwork. This one was no exception – Aveliina spent most of it on the extremely species-rich grasslands of Estonia, observing the whole ecosystem from soil biota to birds.

Aveliina Helm’s perfect summer moment looks like sitting on the terrace, reading, watching children playing, dragonflies flying over pond and sheep grazing in the distance. Her top summer read was a book by the winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics Daniel Kahneman: ‘Thinking, fast and slow‘. Our interview happened on Twitter. Enjoy!

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Genetically Diverse Parents Have Taller and Smarter Kids

We have evolved to become smarter and taller than our ancestors, according to a study of global population conducted by the universities of Edinburgh and Tartu, in co-operation with the Estonian Genome Center.


The global study included genetic data on 350,000 individuals from all continents, including densely populated as well as highly remote areas. Image credit: Stefano Mortellaro/Flickr Creative Commons

The large international study was published in a recent Nature science journal. It concludes that the more genetically different the parents, the taller and more sharp-witted the children. “This means that throughout history the marriages between relatives have diminished the adaptability of humans”, said Tõnu Esko, one of the study’s authors, as well as the Director of Research at the Estonian Genome Center.

This means that for the first time ever, scientists have been successful in empirically testing the validity of general rules described by Darwin more than a hundred years ago. The leader of the group of scientists, James Wilson of the University of Edinburgh, added that it highlights the power of large-scale genetic analyses to uncover fundamental information about our evolutionary history.

The scientists analysed information about health and genes, bringing in over 100 research groups all over the world. The study included data on 350,000 individuals from all continents. This means people from cities, rural areas and groups that remain aloof for cultural or religious reasons, as well as isolated communities located in mountain villages and remote islands. “As we were interested in the effect that the parents’ genetic similarity has as a whole on the health risks of offspring – not exclusively in cases of marriages between relatives – we had to design the study as a truly global enterprise”, explained Peter Joshi, the chief author of the study.

It turned out that the more genetic similarities between the parents, the less the children grow in height, and the poorer mental capacities (cognition, memory, thinking) they have. Descendants of cousins turned out to be 1.5 centimeters shorter than average, with the time spent in education 10 months less than the average.

Despite past claims that genetic diversity is linked to high blood pressure and cholesterol level, the study at hand showed no such connections. Continue reading

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Six Myths Keeping Estonian Girls Out of IT

Awarding Playtech employees

Director of Playtech Estonia Kaari Simson (on the right) rewards long-term employee Kerli Rungi with a travel check. Image credit: Playtech Estonia

E-stonia is running short of IT specialists, the demand for them is skyrocketing, and no miracle solution seems to come to anyone’s mind, except maybe for girl power. Women make up half of Estonia’s labour force, but only every fifth employee in the country’s information technology industry is female. How to develop this hugely needed potential and start closing the gender gap?

To get some feasible answers and directions, Skype Estonia teamed up with the University of Tartu’s Faculty of Economics to explore women’s role and potential in Estonia’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector. Researchers Eneli Kindsiko, Kulno Türk, and Mark Kantšukov surveyed ca. 300 high school students and ca. 100 IT students to gain an insight into their beliefs, motivation, and choices. In addition, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 18 female students, employees, and leaders in the ICT sector.

So what is keeping Estonian girls and women from choosing studies and careers in IT? To no one’s surprise, our choices are guided by cultural beliefs and gender-specific stereotypes. The researchers identified six wide-spread myths that keep IT out of the girls’ lists of dream careers:

IT is for long-haired geeks

‘A guy with a ponytail’ (in Estonian: ‘patsiga poiss‘) is still a strong stereotype of an IT person in Estonia. If ten years ago it could have been almost true, those times are long gone. Even if you happen to be that kind of introverted anti-social guy who spends all of his lonely time in a dark corner behind a computer, that’s a sure disadvantage.

Current ICT students and employees point out that social skills and openness, perhaps more typically associated with being a woman, are highly valued and sought for in these jobs. Continue reading

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Your Personality Shapes How You React to Eye Contact

Owl's gaze

How comfortable are you with this gaze? Photo by Stuart Richards. Creative Commons.

Eye contact is a powerful social signal and plays a crucial role in human communication. You definitely notice when someone looks straight into your eyes, paying attention. When you look back, you two are in eye contact, and a channel for interaction is opened.

Eye contact is known to increase our physiological arousal; however, the nature of this arousal — whether eye contact encourages you to approach another person or, on the contrary, to avoid her — depends among other things on your personality. University of Tartu researchers Helen Uusberg and her supervising Professor Jüri Allik, along with University of Tampere Professor Jari Hietanen, set out to study what lies beneath these observed individual differences.

Firstly, the participants in the experiment completed a standard personality test. Then the researchers recorded the participants’ electrical brain activity while the latter were looking at another person who was either making eye contact or had her gaze averted to the side.

The researchers took care of other factors that also normally influence our reaction to eye contact, such as sympathy for a person, our mood, context, etc., making sure that these would be controlled for and thus would not influence the results of the experiment.

It appeared that people who scored highly for neuroticism in the personality test, which means that they tend to be more self-conscious and feel more anxious than others, reacted to eye contact in a way that is associated with a wish to avoid contact. To be more precise, their brain activity showed signs of avoidance motivation. Facing someone with an averted gaze felt more pleasant for these people. Also, when it was their turn to look straight into someone’s eyes, they preferred to keep it short. Continue reading

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On the Ethics and Philosophy of Sex

Francesco Orsi is a senior researcher at the UT Department of Philosophy. His research interests include meta-ethics, value theory, and the history of ethics. In January, Orsi’s book on Value Theory came out in print.

Sex in art

A naked man and woman in sexual congress on a bed. Coloured process print. Wikimedia Commons.

This year I taught the course on Ethics and the Philosophy of Sex for the third time in Tartu. While this is not my particular area of research, I had long been curious to read what philosophers had written on the topic. Sexuality had been a constant but peripheral concern of philosophers at least until Freud’s theories became popular. But an explosion of interest occurred from the late 1960s on, possibly as an academic output of the so-called sexual revolution occurring in Western Europe and North America.

Philosophers, at least in the Anglo-American academic world, began bringing the tools of rational argumentation and careful analysis of concepts to work in an area where many of their predecessors had let themselves loose (intellectually speaking), probably swayed by personal biases or simply lack of sufficient first-hand experience.

While studying the literature, it became clear to me that launching a course would be a good idea. The topic would attract interest, students would be able to relate to it, and, perhaps most importantly, it could be used as a channel to ease students into learning and practicing philosophical modes of thinking and arguing. Continue reading

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Ken from Singapore: Japanese Are a Bit Estonian

Three years ago, Saburi Ken had two final study choices on the table: one from Finland and another one from the University of Tartu in Estonia. Although Estonians are known to be slow, they still replied faster than the Finns and got this Singaporean on board.

As soon as the confirmation email landed in Ken’s inbox, he bought a plane ticket. Only then did he go and tell his father: “Here’s my ticket to Estonia”. His Dad replied: “Um, okay.” Ken smiles: “My Dad is Japanese. So in certain ways he is a bit Estonian. He is a man of few words”.

Saburi Ken

Saburi Ken in the role of international student ambassador at UT. Photo by Andres Tennus.

Why choose such a little-known and far-away country to study business administration when you live in Singapore, a country with one of the freest, most innovative, most competitive, and most business-friendly economies? All of this was undermined by Ken’s desire to start an independent life off the beaten track (Now he has even forgotten how many kilometers he is away from home: 10,000 or 20,000. Ken, it’s 9243 km).

He also wanted a change after three years of stressful work in the sports industry. In Singapore, it is quite common to work 10–12 hours a day and only get 14–16 days of vacation per year. Ken knows that time is a big asset in Singapore, that everything is very systematic and even, as he puts it, robotic.

When Ken arrived to Estonia in mid-August three years ago, everything felt like eternity — so quiet, so slow. Later, he fell in love with the calmness that Estonia had instilled in him (read more about it in Ken’s post: Embrace The Pace). Continue reading

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