Our big day: It all started in Tartu

A couple of weeks ago we had our big day, a day in a long path that has changed us both and will change our lives forever: a path of responsibility, commitment, respect, and – most of all – love. On 25 July we tied the knot and it was a sunny day of happiness! It was a moment that we had planned and imagined for almost a year, but had been very much threatened – until the final weeks – by the global pandemic and the unprecedented uncertainty related to it. The forced lockdown and the limits imposed by the state of emergency throughout the spring only increased this feeling of powerlessness.

Descending the stairs of Modena’s City Hall. Photo credit: 10 Photography – Francesca Pradella

That’s why when we eventually said YES, despite all these challenges, we felt all the warmth of that summer sun, along with the feeling that for us 2020 would forever be a very special year and – luckily – not because of COVID19. We also felt that there was such an urgent need for good news this year and that this is our big one! The small-sized intimate wedding ceremony took place in the beautiful venue of Modena’s City Hall – in northern Italy – but this is very much a Tartu story.

Anna grew up in the Latvian town of Jelgava, south of Riga. Many centuries ago, Jelgava served as the capital of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. After completing high school in her hometown, Anna moved to Bradford, in the UK, to study international relations at the city’s university. After moving back to Latvia for a short period, while working at the US Embassy in Riga, she started a new adventure in Estonia’s university city of Tartu, where she moved to continue her studies in the master’s programme in “European Union – Russia Studies”.

Stefano grew up in Modena, in central-northern Italy. A few centuries ago, Modena was also the capital of a small Italian duchy named after the city itself. After completing his bachelor studies at the University of Bologna, Stefano moved to Siena for his doctoral studies, which he completed some years later. As with many Italian academicians, he flew first to Oslo, then to Istanbul, and eventually to Tartu as a post-doctoral researcher.

This is our common denominator. The University of Tartu is where we first met more than six years ago, it is the charming and welcoming town where we fell in love, and the place we are proud to call home today.

In front of Modena’s Cathedral (Duomo). Photo credit: 10 Photography – Francesca Pradella

Today, Anna is Manager of Online Learning Projects and Stefano Associate Professor of European Studies and Programme Director at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies.

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My gold rush in science

The major credit I think Jim and I deserve … is for selecting the right problem and sticking to it. It’s true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold. – Francis Crick

The author of this article, Jaan Aru, in the shoes of an old gold miner, searching for scientific treasures. Image credit: New Zealand Graphic/Wikipedia and Inga Külmoja

No scientist is the same, and people become involved in science for different reasons. I am in science because I’m addicted to the feeling of being on the verge of solving a scientific mystery, discovering scientific “gold”. But as it often happens, a scientist, like any treasure hunter, hits nothing but rocks, and the months and years of explorations remain futile.

I never aspired to become a scientist—it simply happened. In my first year of university studies, I was reading in the library, having stumbled half-accidentally upon the issue of consciousness. How can the whizzing of brain cells create consciousness? How are neural processes linked to conscious perception? I was captivated by the puzzle, and before I realised it—after reading books and journal articles and carrying out my first experiments—I had become a scientist.

It all seems so simple at first. The less you know about a problem, the easier it seems to find a solution. Why couldn’t I be the one to solve the problem of consciousness? So, I grabbed a pickaxe and started on my quest to find “gold”. I ploughed vigorously in various riverbeds, occasionally coming across some yellow nuggets.

Nine years later, after submitting my doctoral thesis, frustration hit—in the nine years, I had not arrived any closer to solving the problem of consciousness. My most important contribution to research was demonstrating, with my colleagues, that the problem of consciousness cannot be solved using the existing experimental approaches to study it. The “gold” was not buried where I had been digging.

In science, it is a common practice to specialise in a discipline and delve deeper into a subject. This makes sense because after having investigated a single topic for years, it would be foolish to write off the investment and start over elsewhere. Therefore, you have only yourself to blame for the poor choice you made early on in your academic career to take up studying the enormous subject of consciousness. You made your own bed—now lie in it for the rest of your life!

Many researchers would do the right thing in this situation and go deeper. But I am hunting for “gold”: I need the feeling that I’m solving a puzzle; I need to believe that I’m closer to finding “gold”. At the very moment that I realised that I was unable to solve the problem of consciousness, it was time to move on. Where else is “gold” to be found?

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How important is “web spinning” in science

A scientist today would have to be an excellent “web spinner”. Here a clarification is perhaps due: under “web spinning” I mean networking – building and creating of networks and catching others in your “web” or network. As most researchers tend to be introverted, for them networking may prove even more challenging than making a brilliant scientific discovery.

I prefer focusing on my research rather than networking, which, unfortunately, one cannot escape from. Without it, there would be fewer opportunities to find a position or finances. Networking in a broad academic circle guarantees invitations to conferences and inclusion in collaboration projects.

Below I’ve included three examples of situations in which I could not have managed without the art of “web spinning”. Being not the best of communicators, I often don’t take the most optimal advantage of such situations, which means missed opportunities to make it in the international academic world. The first of the examples has to do with poster presentations, the second with keeping close to the leading scientists in your field, and the third with going to the pub with your colleagues.

Most large conferences feature not only traditional oral presentations but also poster presentations. A researcher displays his or her research on a poster and presents it during the poster session. A poster presentation usually involves standing next to the poster for an hour, sometimes for two, being prepared to answer the questions of anyone who takes interest in research. However, shifting weight from one foot to another with a forced smile on my face and waiting for people to take an interest in my poster is one of my least favourite pastimes.

At a recent conference in France, participants presenting their posters were handed a bottle of wine, which they were asked to pour out to guests interested in the poster. A waitress’s role proved even more difficult. I must confess that I couldn’t make it for more than ten minutes, even though my poster was excellent this time and I was very proud of both the research and its presentation. I slipped the almost full wine bottle on the first unoccupied table corner and, with a slight pang of guilt but huge relief, sneaked away.

Once I was at a conference in the US, with several leading experts in the field attending. I braced myself and approached a famous French researcher to compliment him on his paper. We struck a conversation, at the end of which I offered to take him on a hike in the local nature park. He gladly agreed and was excited about the chance to learn about the nature of the area. Over the course of the hike, we discussed potential collaboration projects, and by now, we have published several co-authored articles. This single brave networking move which took me a lot of courage proved hugely beneficial!

The author of this article, Tuul Sepp, networking with excellent French scientists Frédéric Thomas and Mathieu Giraudeau in the Grand Canyon. Image from a personal archive
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Meet Houman, our robotics wizard from Iran

Houman Masnavi is a 2020 cum laude graduate of the Robotics and Computer Engineering master’s programme at the University of Tartu.

Houman Masnavi
Houman Masnavi. Image from a personal archive

From his very childhood, Houman spent a lot of time in his father’s workshop. His father is both a mechanical engineer and an electrical technician. Little by little, Houman became a helping hand, repairing and maintaining different types of machinery: tower cranes, elevators, electrical generators, welding rectifiers, car washes, winches, and air compressors.

Houman was introduced to computers at the age of ten and found it really fascinating. Soon he could help others troubleshooting computer and network-related problems. He worked as computer technician for eight years, as well as during his bachelor’s studies in information technology at the University of Zabol in Iran.

After graduating cum laude, he started searching for suitable master’s programmes and came across the University of Tartu. Houman applied to computer science and robotics programmes at the same time, got admitted to both with the same funding and conditions, and chose robotics.

“I joined robotics because I wanted this hands-on experience, wanted to close the gap between the practicality and the theory I studied in computer science,” explains Houman.

He chose Estonia because of the fully funded admission, which was very important and of great help. Also, Estonia’s image as a “Silicon Valley of Europe” supported his choice. “So far, I’ve liked it a lot and gained the things that I wanted,” says Houman. His expectations about Estonia were met, but not to the extent it was advertised. A super tech-savvy Houman would love to see more advanced stuff while walking around, as it is in Silicon Valley.

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Favour from Nigeria: I want to be a model for how you view my continent, my country, my race

Ezinne Favour Ogwuegbu is a 2020 cum laude graduate of the master’s programme in International Relations and Regional Studies at the University of Tartu.

Favour (second from the left) with her friends and diploma after the graduation ceremony. Photo from a private collection

On a hot summer day, I met Favour in front of the university’s main building, and we headed to the university cafe nearby. It was lunchtime, and they only served lunch, which we were not interested in. However, we were allowed to stay and enjoy coffee on the house, which I did. I turned down the music in the room – we were there alone – and we started our conversation.

Conversation is something that Favour always goes for to understand other people and cultures. “If you think we are different, have a dialogue with us first. You would be surprised at what you would learn about other people if you just took the time to have a conversation with them, even for five minutes. Have conversations first; do not assume,” Favour encourages.

She sometimes misses conversations. After classes, everybody just vanishes. Students are busy with their lives, kids, and jobs. “And when you do meet your classmates, it occasionally feels like you are in another academic conference,” Favour smiles.

She considers Estonians to be very reserved. However, whenever she encountered problems, people went out of their way to help. In contrast to Estonians, Nigerians are very warm and expressive. Favour admits that her usual “larger than life” personality has become more reserved after coming to Estonia.

Here, she does experience the occasional stares, but it seems as though they have decreased now. In a popular blog post, entitled “Discrimination in Estonia: Are Estonians racist?” Favour acknowledged that “If you are looking for a place where you are not considered different or won’t get stared at from time to time, that place is back home in your country.” She knows that some people are indeed racist and encourages her fellows “not to let one negative experience ruin the urge to go out and do some good, to be understood.”

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Why is Hong Kong protesting?

Hongkongers fight for their freedom. Image credit: Etan Liam / Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The Chinese Communist officials drafted a national security law for Hong Kong, to be approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament. This draft law was approved by the Chinese parliament on 28 May. Now, any action related to “secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference” is illegal and is subject to imprisonment in Hong Kong. This law also allows China to set up security agencies in Hong Kong to ensure its implementation. 

What do Hongkongers think about the new law?

This is shocking to most Hongkongers. No one expected the Chinese Communist Party would bypass the Hong Kong legislature and impose its dictatorial might on Hongkongers. Hong Kong is a special administrative region with its semi-autonomous system running separately from the rest of China. This is Beijing’s new move to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

We see this as a response to the political unrest in Hong Kong since June of last year. The unrest was triggered by an extradition law proposal which would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong’s jurisdiction to that of mainland China. As there is no independent judiciary in the mainland, Hongkongers were afraid that this extradition law would become a political tool to suppress basic freedoms in this special administrative region.

Now, the new national security law has more direct consequences for any critic of the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Communist Party regime. One only has to recall how Chinese authorities imprisoned human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang – who took up sensitive cases of journalists, democracy advocates and followers of banned spiritual movements – for nearly five years for the crime of “subversion of state power.”

Western liberal democracies have rule of law and separation of powers to prevent such abuse of national security law. The People’s Republic of China has only one power, the Communist Party, that effectively controls the government, legislature, and judiciary, and the word of the Communist Party boss is the law.

Ask anyone who lived under the Iron Curtain, and they can immediately point out that those in power will not stop oppressing their political opponents until these voices are completely silenced.

There will also be people who will abuse this law to settle scores with their personal nemeses. Informing on a colleague, employer, landlord,  business partner, creditor, debtor, romantic rival, and so forth can have very dire consequences for the victim – especially if the informant happens to be well connected to Chinese Communist Party or to China’s state security services. Hence, even those people who are entirely apolitical can easily become victims of this law. In other words, all Hongkongers will live under immense fear once this law has been implemented. This is the end of Hong Kong as we know it.

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Efe and Ege: What social isolation has taught us

We, Efe (on the left) and Ege (on the right), enjoyed playing with online reality. Photo from a personal archive

Fellow readers of the UT Blog, 

Before we begin, let us ask about you: How is everything going? Hope you’re all doing great! If you’d ask about us, then we’re really good – probably due to enjoying the beautiful weather of spring again! 🙂 It’s already been more than a week since the “emergency situation” has been eased, starting from 18 May, and one can easily spot the differences between these two weeks, right?

It is marvelous to see people back in the streets, and life becoming more normal, day by day. For us, one big indicator was to see people parking their cars (and some getting fined) in the huge parking lot that we see from our window – it had been nearly empty for 2 months! We are sure that you also got to experience many changes, on a larger or smaller scale, but something like this in your lives too! 

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” This quote was made by the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, known as the first existentialist philosopher in history. We’re sure that everyone who’s reading us from anywhere in the world has learned something new from this hard time. Yes, was it the best way to learn to properly maintain hand hygiene, or to keep ourselves isolated if we ever felt a little sick? Absolutely not. Hundred thousands of lives were lost, leaving three to four times more people in grief and billions of them worried. 

First of all, during this time, we had all the foundations to start a journey “inside.” How so? We had enough time to enjoy our favourite things: like watching the films that we always wanted to but couldn’t spare time for (such as watching the mother of musicals – “Grease”!), returning to books we’ve read (Agatha Christie’s novels, which are usually shorter than a few breaths), and we tried cooking the dishes we always liked but never cooked (Efe learned how to bake a pie, and now it’s in our weekly routine!). 

In our previous life-rush, we underestimated how important our favourite things were to our well-being and didn’t spend time on them at all. Now, with this period, this internal journey allowed us to experience what we really like and dislike – in general, about life.

For example, we really like to be surrounded by our friends and family, and dislike being not able to visit them or spending too much time on unnecessary annoyances. Those days made us question the position we’re holding in our lives, our expectations of our future steps, our values that shape us to become a better person… and many more to count. 

So, did we manage to stay fit? Well, this question has multiple answers: physically, maybe, but mentally – definitely. We did our very best not to lose the endurance and strength we’d built before with home workouts, jogging, and beach volleyball; but it’s not certain if we really managed to do so.

However, speaking of mental fitness, we really learned what is challenging to us, and now know how to cope with the challenges even when we’re at home. We once again saw how important the support of our family and friends is when we’re in our lowest spirits.

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