Why you should study International Law and Human Rights

There are several questions that I have received since the beginning of my journey with regards to the International Law and Human Rights master’s programme at the University of Tartu. Hence, I decided to highlight some of the important aspects that help me answer. The questions can be basically divided into three groups which are related to studying and living in Estonia, content of the courses and the value of studying in the programme called International Law and Human Rights, and the future career opportunities. The following chapters will be a humble try to answer those questions.

The first important type of questions is about how it feels to study and live in Estonia. There are numerous reasons to come and study in Estonia that I could not lay down in this brief writing. However, there are some points that I want to make that have affected me to a large extent when I came to Estonia and started to study and live here. The first one is the location of this programme. It is exceptional as it is taught at the very centre of Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. Tallinn is the greenest, the tidiest, the most crime-free and the least air-polluted city that I have ever seen. It does not have traffic or overcrowding problems. Because of the successful e-governance projects, it is very easy to handle administrative works. People are so polite to each other, everyone is highly respectful of others’ rights. All in all, I can guarantee that living and studying in Tallinn, Estonia will definitely decrease your stress level tremendously.

The second type of questions is mostly about the structure of the programme and the content of the courses. When I first started to search for a master’s programme regarding human rights throughout Europe, I realised that international law and human rights are mostly taught via separate programmes. With the acceptance of the logical background of this kind of division, it should be underlined why the united programme – like the International Law and Human Rights master’s programme at the University of Tartu – is much more efficient and promising. International law and human rights are undeniably related and one cannot be fully taught without the other. This feature of the programme is very important because this way, you can learn several and necessary aspects and subsequently, you may pursue a career in one or both of these areas. Most students have personal interests in either human rights or international law but at the same time there are some areas that can be considered as a combination of both subjects that may draw your attention. With this unique structure, the programme will support you to develop yourself in different areas.

The main building of the University of Tartu.
The main building of the University of Tartu
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Listening to the dialogue between the mother and the embryo

What if I asked you to tell me the best moment of your life? You might tell me about the moment you got your first university degree or the moment of your first job promotion. I am sure, though, that most of you would tell me it was the moment when your child was born.

Allow me now to tell you a story about Julia. Julia is a woman who is 43 years old, and she was trying to have a baby for six years. However, every attempt ended in multiple implantation failures and three miscarriages.

The main problem that she had to face was her age, because at the age of 43, the chances to become pregnant are low and limited in time. For that reason, she had to rely on science, and by science, I mean In Vitro Fertilization (or IVF), in addition to genetic testing, which includes the removal of few cells from the embryo for the testing.

After three cycles of IVF, Julia finally had a chance to get pregnant and give birth to a child. However, misfortune again knocked on her door, since her baby was not growing normally. The doctors claimed that this could be a problem that might have been caused by this cell removal from the embryo during the genetic testing.

My PhD studies focus exactly on this genetic testing, aiming to improve it and minimize any potential risks that might influence the embryo’s health. Now you might ask me, “How are you planning to do that?” I plan to take advantage of everything that happens in real life, since we already know that the embryo is in constant communication with the mother.

Communication between the embryo and the mother
Communication between the embryo and the mother is achieved through Extracellular Vesicles. Image credit: Spyridon Panagiotis Deligiannis

This communication is achieved through extracellular vesicles (EVs), which are possibly participating in the dialogue between the mother and the embryo. EVs are spheroid structures secreted by the cells, enclosed by a lipid bilayer, and carrying a complex cargo enriched in proteins, non-coding RNAs, and DNA. These EVs are believed to be produced by both the maternal and embryonal cells and act reciprocally to influence the biology in maternal-embryo cross-talk. It has been also observed that EVs captured from conditioned culture media of viable human IVF embryos have an important role in the process as to how the maternal reproductive tract senses the viability of the embryos.

So, during my studies, I plan to collect these extracellular vesicles and analyze the DNA which they are carrying in order to get all the information that the embryo freely gives to us. The main goal of my studies is to improve this genetic testing, and by improving this genetic testing, we will be able to make Julia and other women like her happier.

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South Arabian civilization collapses before the rise of Islam

Sometime during the 7th century CE, the first Muslims entered what is now Yemen. Not only did they bring the new religion of Islam, but also the language of Arabic. What they found there were abandoned palaces, fortresses, and temples. On the walls of these ancient structures they saw hundreds upon thousands of inscriptions, written in a script they couldn’t decipher and a language they didn’t know. To them, it must have felt like eons had passed, but it was less than a century since South Arabian civilization had come to an end. 

The map of the Arabian Peninsula
The map of the Arabian Peninsula based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographica

For centuries, Yemen had been the center of Arabian civilization before Islam. But just decades before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, this civilization collapsed. Political and religious tensions with the Ethiopians on the other side of the Red Sea had finally reached a boiling point during the middle of the 6th century, leading to the massacre of South Arabia’s Christian population and a retaliatory Ethiopian invasion followed.

I want to know how South Arabian society changed right before and right after the coming of Islam. Because direct evidence for this time is sparse, I rely on different sources of information: firstly, the pre-Islamic inscriptions, written in a distinct group of languages called “Ancient South Arabian”. These languages, although distantly related to Arabic, were still very different. Secondly, comments by medieval Muslim travelers and scholars who had an interest in this area and its history, and thirdly, descriptions of Arabic dialects spoken in Yemen today.

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Monuments to semioticians around the world

Monuments have both commemorative and political functions. Through them, national elites define what and who is to be remembered of the past – as well as what and who is not. As such, monuments shape and spread dominant worldviews and reinforce political power. However, individuals interpret monuments in ways that can be different or even contrary to the intentions of the elites. 

This is the paradox of monuments: meant to be stable over time in their physical forms, their meanings are dynamic, reflecting changes in culture and views on the past. One example is in the monuments to the leaders and military of the Confederate States of America, an unrecognised republic formed by the secession of seven slave-holding states existing from 1861 to 1865. During the Black Lives Matter protests following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, various Confederate monuments in the US were removed or plans for removal were announced, as they were considered to celebrate slavery and racism. 

In Estonia, controversies over monuments and memorials have been so intense that the phrase “War of Monuments” has been used to refer to a series of conflicts over the interpretations of monuments starting from the early 2000s. Since the regaining of independence in 1991 and up to now, Estonian elites have taken various initiatives to redesign Soviet monuments, while establishing built forms promoting the new society’s rule of play. These practices have often divided the population on political, social, and ethnic grounds.

I spent about two years in Estonia exploring how controversies around monuments originate and develop. During this time, I was visiting researcher at the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu, one of the most important centres of semiotics in the world. Semiotics has proved effective in exploring controversies around monuments: any intervention on monuments can be variously interpreted by different communities. Semiotics helps to consider the multiplicity of the interpretations of monuments.

I was discussing my semiotic ideas on controversial monuments with professor Kalevi Kull, when he came up with one of his brilliant ideas: why don’t you look at monuments to semioticians? So here we are.

There are several statues across the world of scholars that have contributed to semiotics before it was recognised as a formal discipline, such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, and John Locke. Semioticians are less represented in monuments, but there are some interesting exceptions. 

Monument to Juri Lotman in Tartu, Estonia

Opened in 2007, it celebrates the founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School and long-serving professor at the University of Tartu. It consists of twisted steel pipes based on the self-portrait of Lotman, from which water passes into a long basin. Located in front of the main library of the university, the basin of the monument represents for many students a good sitting point for reading or resting.

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Machine learning – the secret ingredient behind the magic

I have always dreamed of living in a world where I wake up to find everything I need ready in my smart house. I go out and take one of those autonomous driving cars to work without a human driver. In that world, human beings do not have to do any dangerous work anymore. We receive better healthcare, especially for older people.

In fact, we are not talking about the very distant future. Actually, we are moving towards this goal, and I am sure all of us have been in one of the following situations before:
1. Amazon recommends you a book or a product you really like.
2. You ask Siri to do something, and it does exactly what you asked for.
3. You are in a Tesla car heading to your destination without a human driver.

Do you know how all these things are done? The secret ingredient is machine learning. Machine learning is about algorithms processing user data and turning it into such magic. Usually, a data scientist is involved in the process. As you can see from the figure below, the size of annually generated data is growing exponentially. On the other hand, we have a shortage of the required data scientists to work on this huge data.

Datasphere and shortage of data scientists

In my thesis, I am working to build these machine learning algorithms automatically without any human intervention. Now, the machine can build these algorithms, select the most appropriate ones, configure them, tune their hyper-parameters, and make this magic happen without any human data scientists involved. Furthermore, the produced machine learning algorithms can compete with the machine learning algorithms created by data scientists.

So, do not be surprised if you wake up in the near future to find yourself in one of those smart houses and everything you need is ready for you. You will go to work in an autonomously driven car, and all your dreams will come true.

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Volunteering in the COVID-19 department: Dream or shit job?

January 2020: The news had started to circulate about a virus spreading in China. It was related to SARS and MERS and expected to stay in the east.

February 2020: The news channels were now covering the novel coronavirus spreading outside China. Little by little, it was nearing the borders of the EU.

13.3.2020: The Estonian government declares a state of emergency, University of Tartu cancels regular contact learning, and social media explodes with panic. We all make memes and jokes about toilet paper to better survive the shock.

We are three University of Tartu medical students currently in our fourth year. We are groupmates and see each other daily in classes now, but last spring we were colleagues in a slightly different setting. We were all corona volunteers at Tartu University Hospital in the spring of 2020, and now we’d like to tell you a little about our experiences and what we think about volunteering in Estonia in general.

How did we decide to become volunteers at Tartu University Hospital?

Iina Gyldén
Iina with the mask mark on her face. Photo from a private collection

Iina Gyldén: Not long after the state of emergency was declared, I heard from my classmates that Tartu University Hospital, our home hospital, was looking for volunteers among medical and nursing students to help with the new additional infection control measures.

A cynical person could point out that that was a glorified way of saying they were looking for cleaning staff and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, what that simple dismissal fails to see is that when trying to keep a new virus like this in control in a hospital environment the system needs every free pair of hands to do that work.

At that time I had been entertaining the idea of finding a place to volunteer at for a good while already. I am recovering from a burnout and somewhere along that journey I had started hearing people repeatedly mention the importance of volunteering in regard to psychological and emotional well-being.

I now had spare time and already knew I’d be staying in Estonia for the spring instead of returning to my native Finland. In the end, my decision to volunteer was made by the simple fact that they were looking for people to do it; they needed hands and mine were free.

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Five myths about working as a freelance content creator

Young people tend to think that becoming an influencer or a freelance content creator is a way to easy living. Former journalism student and freelance content creator Keili Sükijainen shares some facts about her professional life, several of which may come as a surprise to those who only see influencers’ glamorous celebrity lives. 

“Let’s be honest, my grandparents still don’t understand exactly what I’m doing, and there are probably a lot of people who think that it’s ‘not a real job,’” states Keili, who for several years worked as a TV journalist in Estonia. Recently, she established her own content production company that enables her to mix paid partnership content creation and journalistic work as a TV presenter. 

Though she enjoys the incredibly convenient life of a digital nomad due to Estonia’s e-solutions, she has decided to share the backstory of being an influencer and a content creator.  

People think that influencers or content producers simply make money by posting photos and videos on social media. But there’s more to it – it is a mix of the profession and a lifestyle career. “And it’s not as easy as it seems,” Keili states.

Myth #1: You don’t have to know anything 

Although Keili has her production team – Juhani @juhanisarglep and Katri @katrikats – to help, she also has to know everything about video production. She learned this during her journalism studies in Tartu and in the US. “How to get a high-quality picture, sound, how to perform, how to find customers, how to do marketing, etc. And, of course, you have to have something to say. It all requires a great deal of different knowledge and skills. A bit like being a jack of all trades,” Keili sums up.

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