How robots can guide us safely through the pandemic

The World Health Organization has recommended that to cut the chain of Covid-19 transmission, people should keep social distance and avoid touching surfaces in public places. The question is: how we can manage our lives in a way that reduces interactions with people? Our answer, as researchers at the Institute of Science and Technology, University of Tartu, is that humans can hand over some tasks to robots.

Fatemeh Rastgar
Me flying quadrotors in the lab. Photo from a private collection

Robots could deliver medicine and transfer patients’ blood tests

In some situations, keeping physical distance and not touching objects is inevitable. For example, in hospitals, doctors and nurses have to check the physical status of the infected, hospitalized people and provide them their medicine and food.

Robots could be helpful assistants for doctors and nurses. In hospitals, without being exhausted, they could acquire information by moving autonomously in patients’ rooms or deliver medicine and food. Moreover, they could help with recording patients’ physical condition and transferring their blood tests.

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From a propeller made of an ice cream stick to Estonia’s first solar car

How an ice cream stick shifted Juri’s world

Juri Volodin. Photo from a private collection

In Juri Volodin’s home there wasn’t a single toy that was left intact – everything was meant to be taken apart in order to understand how something works. One day, Juri’s father took the motor of a broken toy, two wires, and an ice cream stick. As he connected all the parts, the ice cream stick placed on the motor started moving.

“These were pointless things to me, broken and without any use, but suddenly it all started working. For me, this was something impossible, and from that point on my world had shifted,” recalled Juri of the moment his passion for creating started.

Juri’s interest in life sciences manifested in a similar way and has carried him through his young life. From the 8th grade on, Juri took part in countless chemistry Olympiads. As there wasn’t an apparatus for every chemistry experiment in his school, Juri, as a model student with a desire to do and learn more, put the apparatus together himself, for the most part.

As a high school student, Juri wished to connect his love for chemistry with his future studies, which is why he applied to many UK universities to study it further. Although he got into most of them, he still decided to go with his gut feeling and began studying informatics at the University of Tartu. After a year in informatics, he went on to study physics, chemistry, and material science. As of now, he is on his third year writing his bachelor’s thesis.

Building a solar car makes Juri’s inner child happier

Last summer, Juri wanted to be a good big brother and bring his sister to Solaride’s model solar car workshop to see whether it could spark a love for life sciences in his sister as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it to the workshop, but nonetheless Juri did not forget about Solaride. A few months later, he became an electronic engineer for Solaride, helping to build Estonia’s first solar powered car which will race in Australia’s World Solar Challenge.

“It seemed to be the project I had always hoped someone would start, so that there would be a chance to actually use the knowledge gained so far. It seemed to be destined for me to apply and also the people working there seemed to be really cool. And in projects like this, getting to know people is really important,” said Juri.

Solaride
This is what the solar car’s 3D model looks like in the final stages of design. Image credit: Solaride
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Would you clone your dog?

In 2017, my cohorts and I became the first students for the newly developed Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies master’s programme. After a few false starts, I finally found my project topic when I heard that American celebrity Barbara Streisand had cloned her dog Samantha.

Barbara Streisand’s dog Samantha on the cover of her album. Image credit: Jonathan Tommy / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

I was instantly conflicted by unease and regret – unease at how unnatural cloning seemed, and regret that I never had the chance to clone my beloved cat, Nero. I quickly realized my internal conflict was a reflection of both the highly controversial aspects of pet cloning and the driving force behind cloning – love.

In order to explore this conflict further, I focused on the ways cloning companies, cloning clients, pop culture, media, and cloning dissenters perceive and talk about companion dog cloning. My research culminated in a massive open online course called Folkloristics and the Vernacular of Companion Dog Cloning that is available for free on Udemy.com.

Screenshot of the author’s MOOC

Strong bond between people and their dogs

People who clone their dogs (or want to clone their dogs) have several things in common. First and foremost, they love their dogs. People and their dogs usually live together, sharing their lives and often food and the furniture as well. The dogs in these relationships are considered friends and/or part of the family. In these close-contact and shared lives, people believe their dogs love them just as much as they love their dogs. These bonds are so strong the person cannot imagine life without their best friend.

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Switching from average success in Moscow to opportunities in Tartu

I have lived all my life in Moscow, the huge, metropolitan city of 15 million. I got my bachelor’s degree in geography at Lomonosov Moscow State University in 2008 and my master’s degree in geography at the same place in 2010. For several years afterwards, I worked on a project developing an enterprise GIS in public organization “Mosvodostok,” which focuses on developing, building, and maintaining stormwater sewer networks. After this project was over, I continued my work as an employee in the company’s GIS department.

Ivan in Moscow
Me in Moscow. Photo from a private collection

By the end of 2016, I had started to feel a dead end in my life and further career and thought that it was time to move forward, or I would be stuck in the same place and position until retirement. Also, I got tired of living in an overcrowded, polluted city and spending 2-3 hours every workday commuting. That is how I became obsessed with the idea to move somewhere to live and work for a longer period. 

It was obvious to me that in the world of the global economy and international labor market a significant and almost necessary step in a career and with the possibility to travel at the same time would be a job in an international company. To be successful in this endeavor, it seemed crucial to be fluent in English and to have an education that would be competitive enough on the international level.

So, I came to a decision to complete an academic program in GIS abroad to get a more solid foundation in this field, extend my job opportunities, and simply travel. It was not an easy decision at all. I had to drop pretty much everything considered to be attributes of successful average big city life. I quit a stable job, sold my car, rented out my flat. But, although it might sound too cinematic, when looking back I can confidently say that it was the best decision in my life so far.

I didn’t have sufficient skills to pass the IELTS exam for a score sufficient for foreign universities, so I decided to finish English courses first. By that time I became so sick of living in Moscow that I decided to do that in New Zealand, the furthest place in the world which you can go from it. Looking back, it wasn’t a reasonable decision in financial and logistical terms, but travel wise it was remarkable.

After half year of English courses and successful IELTS exam, I realized that I would like to continue further with my plan somewhere closer. I started to look through master’s programs offered at European universities. I sent applications to several universities and because of several factors and circumstances, decided to choose the Geoinformatics for Urbanized Society master’s program at the University of Tartu.

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How to see plants again: The plant blindness phenomenon

Plant blindness, or the lack of attention to plants as active agents in ecosystems, may seem to be a harmless ignorance. However, its consequences are directly related to the current state of environmental deterioration.

Plants have been of crucial importance to maintaining ecological processes of the planet Earth as well as for sustaining cultures and societies around the world. Plants themselves are complex, sensitive organisms that employ intricate signalling strategies to monitor, adapt to, and benefit from their environment.1 Baldwin, Ian 2015. Plant Science: Rediscovering the Bush Telegraph. Nature 522: 282–283. ,2 Ryan, John C. 2012. Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature‘s Agency through Human-Plant Studies (HPS). Societies 2(3): 101–121.

However, despite their complexity and the central role in functioning of the living world of the planet, in Western society plants have been habitually marginalised and described in neutral collective terms, such as, e.g. landscape or agriculture, a tendency which is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness.

Paeonia leaves
While the flowering parts of plants or stand-alone trees may attract our attention, groups of plants or the less conspicuous parts, such as these Paeonia leaves, may more likely blend into the undifferentiated green mass. Image credit: Yekaterina Lukina

In his book Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall observes that “most places on Earth which contain life are visibly plantscapes”.3 Hall, Matthew 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. p. 3 Indeed, plants comprise the major part of the Earth‘s biomass4 Bar-On, Yinon M.; Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron 2018. The Biomass Distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(25): 6506–6511., being of crucial significance to maintaining the planet‘s environmental balance and ecosystem stability.5 CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) 2010. Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020 [online]. Retrieved from: https://www.cbd.int/gspc/intro.shtml

Thinking on the larger temporal scale, plants feel much more on home ground on the planet Earth than any animal species that ever existed. “If millions of years could be measured in meters” – state Gagliano, Ryan, and Vieira – “the history of plants would equate to a 500-meter-long walk, while ours would be no more than a few centimeters”.6 Gagliano, Monica; Ryan, John C.; Vieira Patrícia (eds.) 2017b. The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. vii.

Yet even this tiny footprint of the human species on planet Earth is profoundly embedded in the vegetal world – it is impossible to comprehensively approach the history of any cultural or social formation without simultaneously considering the history of plants.

Nevertheless, in the conceptual framework of the Western cultures, plants, for the most part, have habitually been overlooked and considered no more than a trivial backdrop for daily human practices and activities.7 Aloi, Giovanni (ed.) 2018. Why Look at Plants?: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Leiden: Brill. ,8 Marder, Michael 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

Botanists and biology educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler9 Wandersee, James H.; Schussler, Elizabeth 2001. Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47(1): 2–8. once argued that these tendencies to marginalise plant forms are symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness – the inability of humans to distinguish and appreciate plants as active agents in the ecosystems.

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Love comes when you least expect it

There’s no question that the University of Tartu is alma mater to a number of Estonians and foreigners, but next to education, many have also found their love here. With Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s a perfect time to look past the academic achievements and deep into the hearts of our university family.

Eeva and Ain Heinaru. Swept off their feet

Eeva and Ain Heinaru
Eeva and Ain Heinaru have been together for more than fifty years. Image credit: Annika Metsla

Eeva and Ain Heinaru have been together for more than half a century and celebrated their golden wedding anniversary just three years ago. All that may have never happened if it wasn’t for the eye-catching flat cap that Ain used to wear in his student days.

When asked about when they first met, Ain reflects for a moment. It was so long ago that the exact year eludes him. “It must have been in 1964 or 1965,” Ain finally concludes. However, he clearly remembers the first time they met. “I went to a microbiology practical class and there was a crowd of young ladies there. They took a liking to my funny flat cap and started to throw it around,” Ain says. “One young lady was particularly enthusiastic about it,” he chuckles. The young lady was Eeva.

After that first meeting, Ain and Eeva kept on talking and became a couple. They loved to travel and went on adventurous trips already in student days. Together they also earned money for their travels. “In those days, students used to transport cattle to other countries,” Ain explains. “Mostly it was calves that were transported by train to Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. There were two of us in the railway carriage, a bale of hay in the middle, and next to us the animals that we had to take care of,” he tells. “That way we could visit Ukraine, Crimea, the Caucasus and Kazakhstan.”

The pay received was used to finance upcoming travels, including also climbing mountains. “For example, we’ve been to Mt. Elbrus. My wife climbed up to 5,000 metres, I went all the way to the top,” Ain recalls. “We’ve also enjoyed our travels to the Askania-Nova nature reserve in Ukraine and to Central Asian cities – these were great fun.”

Since graduation, they have worked side by side at the Department of Genetics of the University of Tartu – Ain as a professor and Eeva as a microbiology researcher. Today Ain is a professor emeritus while Eva works as a project manager at the Department of Genetics. Working together has made them more appreciative of each other and has taught supportive skills. “For many years, I was more away from home than at home. My wife has had a major role in our life,” Ain confesses. “When you’re abroad, you are not even around to help with raising the children.” Ain and Eeva have two daughters, Piret and Maris.

These days, Ain and Eva do not travel as much. Instead, they often visit their country house near Elva that they fixed up as a side hobby. “My wife has created a beautiful garden there that she tends to. You’re in nature, breathing in clean air – this is very important,” Ain says.

What could today’s students do to find a suitable partner from the university? “There’s nothing you can do because love comes when you least expect it,” Ain replies. So all you can do is hope for that to happen. “When young people spend time together, things always happen,” Ain says and concludes that people who are not too alike are the best match. “There must be some differences so that you can complement each other. Living together is a form of art.”

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28 days of the arduous journey from Nigeria To Tartu

Emmanuel Jonathan

I have always wanted to travel abroad for postgraduate studies to see the world and meet new people. I did not just want to study, I wanted it to be in a calm, scenic, and affordable place.

It was therefore love at first sight when I came across the University of Tartu on studyportals.com late December 2019. By January 2020, I had put together my application and applied for the MA programme in International Law and Human Rights. My joy knew no bounds when on 7 May, right amidst the gloomy lockdown and the Covid-19 global pandemic, I received a conditional offer from the University of Tartu.

I proceeded immediately to fulfil the conditions of my offer and mailed the relevant documents to the admissions department for consideration. On 30 June, I received an email confirming my enrolment, and my arduous but rather exciting journey to Tartu began.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and most countries under lockdown, it was not clear how I was going to make it to Estonia. To compound my worries, there is no Estonian embassy in Nigeria, my home country. The closest Estonian representation is in Egypt.

I got really agitated when other institutions in Estonia began to cancel or postpone admission offers of third country students, but my worries were laid to rest when I received an email notifying me that studies would be held online until most students were able to make it to Estonia.

I paid my tuition even when it wasn’t yet clear that I would make it to Estonia. The closest Estonian embassy to Nigeria is in Egypt, so I wrote to the consulate to book a date. I got a prompt response and the meeting was scheduled for 3 November. To travel to Egypt, however, I needed an Egyptian visa and also had to apply to the Egyptian embassy in Nigeria.

On my visit to the Egyptian embassy I was informed that visit and tourist visas were as then suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I met similar disappointment at the Turkish, Israeli, and Belarusian embassies. I was considering deferring my studies to the next academic session when I got the good news that a new Estonian embassy would be opening in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

I quickly wrote to the embassy and secured 12 November for an appointment, and I cancelled my appointment with the Estonian embassy in Egypt. I had no problem securing a tourist visa to the UAE. However, the Estonian Embassy, following the regulations in the capital city of Abu Dhabi, required that all visitors to the embassy must have stayed within the UAE for at least 14 days before their appointments.

So, on 26 October I left Nigeria for the first time in my life after taking the Covid-19 test and getting a negative result. I was excited about what lay ahead, but I was also sad about leaving my family and friends. I boarded Rwandair with two stopovers in Accra and Kigali, the longest I have ever travelled by air.

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