The Secret Places of Toome Hill

The historical centre of the University of Tartu is located on and at the foot of Toome Hill. A main building of the university had been built here already in 1632, but in the 19th century Toome Hill evolved into a true “Mount Parnassus” when architect Johann Wilhelm Krause designed here the new iconic main building with its pillared portico, the Old Anatomical Theatre, the Old Observatory, and rebuilt the ruins of Tartu Cathedral to house the University Library.

The story of Toome Hill is also the story of the city of Tartu and the changes of powers that it has witnessed. Many people and their ideas have shaped the vistas of present-day Toome Hill. We invite you on a tour through the secret spots on Toome Hill, some of which can be traced only in memories and on photos, others have been buried under layers of soil, and yet others can be seen even today.

The water tower above the cathedral’s northern tower

Tartu Cathedral through time. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

In 1889–1979, there used to be a water tower on top of the northern tower of Tartu Cathedral. Over the years, the water tower was expanded when needed and reconstructions were made until its wooden structure was destroyed in the 1979 fire.

As there was no central water supply system in Tartu before 1929, the water used on Toome Hill was fetched from the nearby river Emajõgi. In the second half of the 19th century, the water quality no longer fulfilled the needs of the clinics situated on the hill, and the university built a water system to supply the buildings with ground water. Reinhold Guleke, the university’s architect at the time, found the cathedral’s northern tower as the most suitable place for the required water tank and, in 1889, designed a wooden pavilion in Gothic style around the reservoir (the original pavilion can be seen in photo 2).

To satisfy the growing water demand, in 1913 the building was expanded to accommodate also a second water tank (see photos 3 and 4). In 1934, the pavilion in Gothic style was replaced with a simpler construction (photo 5). The latter remained there until the 1979 fire, after which the water tanks were ultimately demolished.

Tartu Cathedral nowadays. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

A medieval grave slab and a human skeleton

In the medieval period, Tartu Cathedral used to have a graveyard. According to the Christian tradition at the time, the dead were buried both inside and around the cathedral. While there are no written documents about the cathedral graveyard, human bones and objects found in the course of construction works and archaeological excavations are proof of its existence. Two of such archaeological findings are on display in the foyer of the cathedral – a medieval grave slab and a burial chamber.

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Career in science offers new knowledge and freedom

One of this year’s 6,000-euro young talent awards of the L’Oreal Baltic For Women in Science Programme was granted to Mari-Ann Lind, University of Tartu doctoral student in animal ecology.

Mari-Ann Lind in her workspace.
Mari-Ann Lind. Image credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Lind reached her doctoral studies quite by chance – she had no such plans when she started her bachelor’s studies. At one point while pursuing her master’s degree, she even ruled out doctoral studies as a future possibility for her because the scientist’s career seemed difficult and insecure. “More doctoral students graduate from the university than can get a job here,” she explained why she had such thoughts.

However, if life in science still seems exciting enough, taking up doctoral studies is the way to go. Today, Lind is very happy with her choice because doing research suits her very well. For example, the researcher’s job involves a lot of freedom and she can study topics that are closest to her heart. “I learn something new every day,” says Lind. There are also other positive aspects: researcher’s life gives enough flexibility to choose your working hours. As Lind is a night person, this is very suitable, and so she works at the time when she is the most productive – at night.

Currently, her main focus is on writing her doctoral thesis titled “Internal constraints on energy processing and their consequences: an integrative study of stress, digestion and antimicrobial defenses in greenfinches”. This covers ecology and physiology and their different subfields, which are usually studied separately. One research problem of the thesis concerns the birds’ feathers: whether increased yellowness of feathers in greenfinches is associated with more parasites on the bird. Yellow feathers are important for greenfinches because they are a signal for the opposite sex of the bird’s high quality as a mate. Yellow plumage is inherited, but the intensity of coloration may be affected by both genetics and the environment.

Greenfinch. Image credit: Oldiefan from Pixabay

Lind explained that the importance of her doctoral thesis lies, for example, in that the family life of people and birds is actually more similar than generally thought. By studying how greenfinches find a mate, we can make conclusions about people. Although people do not have colourful feathers to attract a partner, the opposite sex is often attracted by fancy cars, big muscles or good education. And while mammals generally do not have monogamous relationships, it is a rule for most birds. This is another similarity between people and birds.

In spring Lind received an award of the L’Oreal Baltic For Women in Science Programme. With the help of the fellowship, she plans to study the impact of anthropogenic pollution on flounder in the Baltic Sea. She wants to find out whether, as a result of long-term pollution, fish have got evolutionary cancer defence mechanisms, for example, whether their gut microbes help them better cope with carcinogenic pollutants.

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Three ways in which the University of Tartu changed my life

Graduation day. Image credit: private collection

Just a few weeks ago, I graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Tartu. I was lucky enough to attend this year’s ceremony in person, an event that felt truly special after spending three out of four semesters of the master’s online. Walking home with a diploma in my hands, I couldn’t help reminiscing about these two years and asking myself, “Where did this time go?” It didn’t actually go anywhere; it stayed in my memory and will be there forever. This time brought many events, friends, experiences, and life lessons that altogether did no less but change me completely. In this article, I’ll talk about three main benefits of completing a master’s program at the University of Tartu. 

Professional growth

Upon seeing this subtitle, you may think, “Well, what else is new? It’s a university, after all?” and you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so. It’s quite expected that when applying to the university, you envision yourself in a couple of years as a much more knowledgeable and skilled professional. That was roughly the case for me, too, but my imagination of my master’s program was rather vague. I knew I liked its name, and the courses seemed interesting, but that was all the adjectives I had for it before coming to Tartu. What I couldn’t imagine was how diverse and full-fledged my program would turn out to be.

The thing I like about studies at the University of Tartu the most is how discussion-heavy they are. There is almost no place for out-of-the-book questions and answers at the lectures, quite the opposite — the lecturers always expect you to find arguments for your thoughts, and so can you. It is very inspiring to see your lecturer, the person who’s supposed to know it all, go “Let me think about it” and engage in an equal discussion with you. Coming to the classroom and knowing that your point of view can and will be acknowledged always felt like a privilege.

Another remarkable quality of the studies is an excellent fit between theory and practice. I never thought a student could say this, but I liked taking most of the exams during my program. Of course, there always was a place for pre-exam panic and post-exam existential crisis. Still, during the exam, you could actually see everything that you learned in the course being applied to the presented cases. The projects and exams at the University of Tartu challenge you to think, and this is what makes the studies so effective. 

Sunset views from my dorm room were pretty enchanting. Image credit: private collection

I could keep rambling about all the certificates, papers, Github pages, and other somewhat tangible outcomes of the studies you can receive here. Still, to me, the most important perk of attending any university lies in a different dimension. University lets you learn instead of being taught, it brings you a unique opportunity to master your skills of finding the correct arguments, and it encourages you to think. I’m beyond grateful that the University of Tartu excels in all three.

Personal development

“Could it BE any more obvious?” you may think again. It probably can’t, but nevertheless, I deem this change equally important to the previous one. The uniqueness of the University of Tartu is that you can still have time for yourself while studying full-time (given that you’re somewhat familiar with time management, of course). I would be lying if I said that I could watch Netflix every evening and always had time to rest on the weekend, while coping with all the deadlines and preparing for all the exams. As for any other student, there have been more challenging and more demanding times for me when even having time for breakfast felt like an outstanding achievement, but on average I could maintain some hobbies and even restart long-forgotten projects.

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Raising awareness through art

Photo exhibition at the University of Tartu Delta Centre.
Photo exhibition at the University of Tartu Delta Centre. Image credit: Helari Hellenurm

This is a story of art, self-development, mindfulness, and mental health.

A couple of years ago I was a student living in the University of Tartu campus dormitory. While living there I had this weird quirk – I constantly found myself thinking what the lives of my fellow dormmates were like. Were they stressed with exams? What were their hobbies and challenges? What would they like to change in our university system? Were they happy? How had they decorated their rooms?

In Tartu we have this well-known dormitory called Mordor that is situated at Narva mnt 89. It was built in 1968 and it has this mystical and bohemian vibe. For me it represented the true student spirit (tudengivaim). And this is the exact place where our story begins. As I said before, I really wanted to find out more about the people living with me in the same building because I believe that a home says a lot about a person. I always felt like even the corridors and walls there had stories to tell. However, as a shy Estonian I was too afraid to go and just ask random students to show me their rooms, to show me their lives. But then came the sad news that this dormitory (Mordor) would be renovated, and we must move out (temporarily). This was my time to act. I decided to make a post in the dormitory’s social media group and ask if maybe someone would let me take photos of their rooms that would soon be demolished and rebuilt.

Dorm room.
444. At times better than a real home.This girl was determined. She removed the old linoleum and renovated the original wooden floorboards. Image credit: private collection

To my surprise, nineteen students opened their doors and gave me a chance to photograph their temporary campus homes. The idea grew into a photo exhibition that was shown at the University of Tartu Delta Centre, Narva College, and in the University of Tartu Library. Every art piece was a collage of the photos of the actual door and dorm room at Narva mnt 89. Some lived alone and some shared the room with a friend or a stranger. The photos were printed on plywood to give a better idea of the atmosphere in Mordor. This project got funding*, positive feedback, and was also introduced in an Estonian television news program. However, of course the pandemic also influenced this art project, and it was much harder to organize everything. You can see all the photos from the exhibition here.

It is important to mention that this project has not only been about the dormitory’s rooms and doors. For me it represents capturing student history and art, capturing the lives of our students. For example, the titles of the photos were also special. I asked every student who participated in the project to think about what this dormitory and this experience meant for them. For some it meant a “feeling of community”, “cave-home”, or “mandatory campus experience”. Overall, Narva mnt 89 was like an enormous DIY (do-it-yourself) project where habitants could express their creativity in various ways.

Dorm room.
339. Pink, warm and inspiring Image credit: private collection

This project showed me that it is important to think about and to talk about students’ well-being. Of course, it is necessary to renovate and improve the safety of our buildings. However, students also need to express their creativity, because engaging in creative activities is beneficial to our mental health. Hence, the representatives of the campus could increase dialogue with the inhabitants of dormitories to better address the needs of our students.

It is inspiring to see that the importance of mental health is being talked about more and more. Now that I am an alumna, postgraduate, and an employee of the University of Tartu, I can see firsthand the efforts our university makes to care for the mental health of our university family (ülikoolipere). Of course, it is difficult, as our society sometimes still has outdated values and beliefs, and due to that mental health can still be a kind of taboo topic.

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Graduating the remote way


As an aspiring master’s student, I had all the dreams and hopes that my semester abroad would yield fruitful results for my master’s study at the University of Tartu. However, as it occurred, humankind was struck by an event that compromised all travel plans. While steps were taken in the direction to curb the pandemic, the repercussions hit a setback to all plans for my thesis development and further learning.


I had heard from others that a supervisor plays a very important role in the development of a student’s technical skills. However, in my case, the support I received from my supervisor was not only technical but also the concern about my social and mental well-being, especially about keeping myself sane while being indoors. I was privileged to have experienced it first-hand.

The situation quickly dawned upon us that remote working was the way to go. Transitioning to the digital framework of meetings and development was fairly a new way to continue working. Exploring the different verticals of sharing knowledge online, accompanied with the tasks of maintaining a discrete work schedule, came with their own challenges.

Savio's work station.
Staying connected while physically apart. Image credit: private collection

The simplest, yet the most consistent, of the cases were dealing with the obvious introductory questions: “Can you hear me?”, “Can you see me?”, “Can you see my screen?” … and the list goes on.

Weekly meetings ensured that I stayed on track with my progress and to be honest, pursuing a topic in space technology required regular brainstorming sessions along with visuals that could appeal to scientific viability. Staying indoors with less distraction definitely gave me more time to think about the approaches that could make it possible, for in that closed room, I was exploring my own space.

Of course, as most of us suffered from the lack of social presence, I too felt cramped up sometimes within the same walls. Apart from the academics, it also became essential to stay active from the regular ‘eat-work-sleep’ routine. In-house exercises and regular breathing breaks helped me to maintain a healthy cycle. (Reminder: drink water!) This became increasingly beneficial during submission days when work hours inadvertently extended in order to finalise thesis writing.

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Do international students watch Estonian films? What to watch and where?

While I am working at the University of Tartu as Head of International Marketing, I am actually a student as well. An opportunity to connect my studies and my work came this spring when we had to conduct a pilot study on a freely chosen topic. I chose, of course, international students and connected it with my other great love – films. I asked current international students of UT whether they have watched any Estonian films and the results may… not surprise you. In the second part of this blog, I will try to fix this by giving you a list of films to watch and an overview of the channels where you can watch them.

Estonian films are not popular among international students

The survey was conducted among 17 international students via Google Forms, which turned out to be a surprisingly useful and easy survey tool (I’d definitely recommend it). Most of them were master’s students, about a quarter PhD students, and there was only one bachelor’s student. In total, 13 nationalities were represented, with the most popular countries being Ukraine (3), the US, and India (both 2).

Almost 60% of students said that they had not seen an Estonian film. They mentioned that they did not know any good ones, did not know where to watch them, and they believed that they had no access to them. Lack of time, perceived low quality of Estonian films, and a dislike of reading subtitles were also mentioned.

“I want to watch (Chasing) Unicorns, but it is not available on streaming services.”

Here you go – you can rent it here.

Ükssarvik (Chasing Unicorns). Image credit: Eesti Filmi Andmebaas
Ükssarvik (Chasing Unicorns). Image credit: Eesti Filmi Andmebaas

Most students who had seen an Estonian film had done so already in Estonia. The most-watched films were “1944” and “Seltsimees laps”. Watching “Seltsimees laps” is actually mandatory in an Estonian language class. The most popular channel which the respondents had used to watch an Estonian movie was to download it from the Internet.

Wikipedia was the most popular information source for Estonian films, followed by friends and family, fellow students, lecturers, cinema websites, social media, and IMDb. There is a serious lack of information on the Wikipedia pages of Estonian films, though, for example, most films do not even have a summary written on their page. Surprisingly, the university does not provide information about Estonian films either, with 60% saying that they had received no information from the university.

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Teachers and technology: a love story yet to be seen

“Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster”
Strong words by Jim Wallis. Nevertheless, this has been happening in front of our eyes for more than a year.

Education experienced an earthquake during the pandemic that at some point affected 1.5 billion learners. That number represents roughly 90% of all enrolled students according to UNESCO. In particular, I would like to applaud all the teachers in the world that during distance learning have been doing a lot… with sometimes too little help. 

The tip of the iceberg allows us to see that educational technology has still a long way to go to help teachers and students by taking their best educational interests and health into account. We have learned now that, ideally, these solutions need to be highly portable to work in classrooms, hybrid or fully online settings. 

Don’t get me wrong, researchers have been doing an amazing job to provide meaningful, innovative, and highly portable educational solutions for some decades now. But let me take you one step closer to my PhD research.

Researchers have been developing digital systems that aim to support each student adaptively according to their learning needs. Throughout these years, such systems have been evolving to not only instruct the students but also to support the social, motivational and affective aspects of learning. To that end, researchers came up with the great idea to include in these systems digital entities, or digital agents, that can interact with the student in a social manner while supporting pedagogical needs. You could picture these pedagogical agents as avatars. These digital agents, more commonly referred to as pedagogical agents in the literature, may take the form of text like a chat, voice, 2D or 3D characters, and more human-like entities. 

This is all great and exciting. But there is a blind spot: what role do teachers play in all of this? Why are they not allowed to directly intervene in the pedagogical agent systems?   

This is where my PhD comes in. I want to allow teachers to directly intervene in these systems. And by intervention, I mean taking control of the pedagogical agent to interact with students when the artificial intelligence of this technology is simply not enough. One example of this situation may be when the student needs specific affective or motivational support, but the system is not able to understand the context of the learner’s questions, comments, complaints, etc.  Even more, why not bring these systems to operate at a classroom level where the teacher and the pedagogical agent could collaborate with all students. For instance, to give feedback to certain groups of students while the teacher is assisting another group.

Let us remember that we want technology to help and empower teachers, not to replace them and make them passive in the classrooms. It is well known that teachers play a major role in the learning process. Their ability to make, adapt or evaluate in-situ pedagogical decisions, considering the social and motivational context of students, makes them indispensable.  

We don’t want to have a digital disaster to deal with a new social disaster. Instead, let’s revolutionise the interaction between teachers and technology. We could start by designing pedagogical agent systems that employ artificial intelligence to support and help teachers to better orchestrate classroom activities. But this is a story yet to be seen.  

Image credit: Eric Roa Roldan
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