Latvian Students Find Their Way to Tartu

Sigrid Rajalo is a PhD student of economics at the University of Tartu. She worked as the editor of the Estonian-language university magazine for five years until August 2013.

A bunch of young Latvian students interested in space live in Tartu, and they really appreciate the chance to participate in ESTCube-1, the student satellite project.

Latvians in Tartu

From left to right: Kārlis Zālite, Gatis Šteinbergs, Kaspars Laizāns (on the sofa), Andris Slavinskis and Jānis Mucenieks around the table at their Tammelinn home. Photo by Merilyn Merisalu.

Kārlis Zālite, a second-year doctoral student of physics at UT and a junior researcher at the Tartu Observatory, ended up in Tartu two years ago following an invitation by Mart Noorma, one of the leaders of the Estonian student satellite project. “We came to the physics summer school and met Mart Noorma again, and he told Kaspars and me to come study, Kaspars for the master’s and I for the PhD”.

In addition to Kārlis and Kaspars Laizāns, many other Latvian students have found their way to Tartu, with interest in space and science the common denominator. At least for the time being, many of these southern guests are residing in a house in Tartu’s Tammelinn, surrounded by green, that they are renting together. The students say the house has become a meeting place for many Latvian students. Most of them have been involved with the Estonian student satellite project.

Andris Slavinskis joined the space team a few months after Kārlis and Kaspars. He is a second-year doctoral student at the UT Faculty of Science and Technology and a junior research associate at the Tartu Observatory. In the satellite project, Andris works on attitude determination and control.

Master’s student Gatis Šteinbergs arrived in Tartu not long ago with the help of the Erasmus foundation, and is now developing the control system of the ESTCube mission.

Additionally, students from other fields have come from Latvia to work with the satellite project. In the spring of this year, Jānis Mucenieks defended his master’s degree in management at Ventspils University. It was directly related to the business side of the satellite project. Jānis hopes to continue with doctoral studies at the University of Tartu and further investigate how to motivate engineering and IT students to participate in business activities.

Andris, Kārlis, and Kaspars

Andris, Kārlis, and Kaspars. Photo by Merilyn Merisalu.

“When I came to Estonia and mentioned somewhere that I was working with the ESTCube team, many said, ‘Oh, why do we need this project; it’s a kids’ toy, very expensive’. But this project is much more, everybody has a chance to try out new things, things that wouldn’t be possible somewhere else. Not just technical stuff, but also teamwork, risk and supply management, networking”, Jānis explains, adding that the project is like a small company, as the participants get the knowledge and skills to start their own businesses.

According to Jānis, his master’s thesis proved the preceding experience and respective studies, showing that projects such as ESTCube are really important for igniting the entrepreneurial spirit in students. In addition to the qualities already mentioned – entrepreneurial spirit, field-specific knowledge and skills – these kinds of projects give students a valuable network of contacts and a sense of how to find investors and successfully defend their choices in front of powers-to-be and lawmakers. “Arguments need scientific proof”, Jānis further elaborates.

Andris adds that many students involved in the satellite project are already planning to establish their own company in the future. In addition, even the first-year master’s programme students have had chances to attend scientific conferences and publish articles. “It’s not usual that first-year master’s students hold public lectures at scientific conferences”.


Kaspars in the garden. Photo by Merilyn Merisalu.

Kaspars includes project management, teamwork, and public speaking with the list of things learned, explaining that public speaking skills are the thing that engineering students lack. “They are very shy – it’s very hard for them to present in front of the public, but it is a necessary skill, and you have to present any scientific research publicly”.

Most of the project participants are studying for bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “We check each other, supervise one another. It’s a team effort”, explains Kaspars.

The guys recall that the months preceding the launch of the satellite on 7 May this year were extremely busy for some team members. Jānis stresses that the project has exceeded expectations: Everything planned is actually working. The first Estonian satellite was contacted from Earth’s orbit and on May 15 the on-board camera took a high-resolution picture of the Earth.

The young men admit that many of the team members must add an extra year to their studies, as it hasn’t been possible to participate in examinations and the satellite project at the same time and a choice had to be made. Still, Kārlis again points out the educational importance of the project. “Not all ESTCube students stay with science, and they shouldn’t; they should enter the labour market and use their knowledge and skills there”. Kārlis himself is hoping to be involved in science for the next ten or so years – in Tartu, because he considers the conditions here to be interesting and the best for him: the infrastructure, competent colleagues, the observatory.

Andris would like to continue with science as his first preference as well, but he most definitely does not exclude starting a business when the conditions are suitable. Apart from the research work and studies, the Latvians have still time for hobbies. Andris wanted to continue folk dancing while in Tartu and joined the folk dance ensemble Torbikud. Jānis brought his dog to Tartu, and takes daily walks with it. Toomemägi is more tiring for a dog than the flat landscape of Ventspils, making the walks shorter, Jānis jokingly added.

Janis and Gatis

Jānis, Gatis, and a toy dog. Photos by Merilyn Merisalu.

As is suitable in a student community, the housemates cook together. The guys admit that decent meals are among the biggest advantages of living together, as there wouldn’t be enough motivation to cook alone. Naturally, they know the popular pubs of the student town as well, and appreciate the fact that when the Latvian friends come to visit, there are enough nice places for every night of the week.

The only annoyance would be the abundance of mosquitoes at this time of the year, plus the smaller variety of sour cream and beer than in Latvia, all year round! In spite of the attempt, the young men couldn’t think of anything else negative, and concluded that it’s actually quite good if these are the only downsides of living, studying and researching in Tartu.

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