Tartu University News

Synthetic biology opens up a new development path for the wood industry

1 day 1 hour ago
23.09.2020

The Estonian wood industry creates over a million tonnes of wood waste each year, which is mainly used as heating material. In addition to that, we have an abundance of low-value wood and pulpwood, which often do not have any application in the local industry. In business terms, this is a considerable amount of raw material that is lost to Estonian economy.

However, research institutions have the knowledge necessary for developing the technology for raising the value of wood. Estonian wood industry is mainly focused on the mechanical processing of wood, which results in the production of construction materials and wooden houses, for example. These technological solutions are already mature and relatively well-rooted in companies, as are the target markets the goods are sold to.

According to the head of the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, Henrik Välja, great changes and innovations are currently happening in chemical processing of wood, which helps create new value chains. Wood is also a source for substances that could be used in the textile, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and packaging industries, for example. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of companies in Estonia processing wood chemically.

At the Core Facility for Chemistry and Bioprocessing of the University of Tartu, new technological solutions are under development, which could bring an industry to the Estonian wood sector, which is innovative, provides several times more added value than before and has a smaller ecological footprint. Wood bioprocessing uses enzymes found in cells for processing the parent compounds derived from pulp. As a result, it is possible to produce valuable fine chemicals and materials.

According to a UT professor of molecular systems biology, Mart Loog, the university’s scientists are looking for possibilities that would help obtain from microbial cell factories in an industrially productive way colourants suitable for the cosmetics industry (carotenoids), fatty acids used in the food and materials industry (linolenic acid), as well as parent compounds of anticancer drugs (betulinic acid).

Also, a method is under development for producing phenol-aldehyde resins and glues from lignin – a natural binder that lends rigidity to the wood. Compared to the traditional chemical industry, the ecological footprint of bioprocessing is significantly smaller.

When talking of innovation, the head of the executive committee of the Estonian Fund for Nature, Tarmo Tüür, finds that environmental protection and better health are important criteria, which should be set as an ever clearer goal besides economic indicators.

More value without increasing the level of logging

Last year, work was commenced at the UT Gas Fermentation Technologies lab to study how to create fine chemicals from gasified wood waste using cell factories. The lab is cooperating with the large American biotechnology enterprise, LanzaTech. “We are looking at how to use acetogenic bacteria to bind carbon monoxide, but in the future, also carbon dioxide, and as a result, produce chemicals which could be starting materials for producing biodegradable plastic, among other things,” said Loog.
Currently, Graanul Biotech OÜ, a subsidiary of Graanul Invest, is making a great developmental leap in the field of wood biorefining and is establishing a pilot plant in Imavere with novel technology for wood fractionating or dividing into particles. In this field, the company is also collaborating with the UT Core Facility for Chemistry and Bioprocessing.

“When in the times of EstFor (a company that was planning a cellulose plant near the city of Tartu – P. E.) we were saying that the technology planned there would have been 150 years old and polluting for the environment, then Imavere will have one of the most innovative plants with some of the cleanest technology,” said Loog.
The plant will produce lignin and wood sugars from low-value wood and sawdust, which can be biologically turned into various high-value fine chemicals or widely-used biomaterials, such as resins, glues and plastics. This is a good example of production with larger added value without increasing logging.

“Estonia has a great opportunity to be one of the first to take the innovative path, as these technologies have only become possible in recent times and thanks to synthetic biology. Scandinavia, where contributions have been made into wood chemistry for the last 20 years, has not yet considered this field much in their investments,” noted Loog.

Loog finds that when developing business models for bioeconomy, the easy way out of using technology that is already known and tested should be avoided.
“Since the end of the 1960s, we have a molecular biology tradition, laboratories and trained specialists in Tartu. Today, the methods of molecular biology can be used to create cells, which may produce dozens of very expensive separable chemicals during one and the same process,” explained Loog.
He added that in the traditional chemical industry, all synthesis steps would be done in separate reactors, each requiring energy and causing harm to the environment. “With the biological process, something like beer brewing takes place in the cell. The development of such technologies requires greater support for curiosity-driven science,” emphasised Loog.

New technology from science to industry

In the UT, there is a plan to establish an industry association with the Centre for Synthetic Biology, bringing together companies interested in such technological developments. “Similarly to the western Europe and North America, Estonian industry could come together in this association and contribute to the development of basic research as well as operational activities. We have a lot of free land on the Maarjamõisa campus, a detailed plan and 13 plots. Estonian bioindustry companies should pool their money and build centres for wood industry and bioeconomy research with all the important levels of research necessary for knowledge-based economy represented – from curiosity-driven research to product development,” appealed Loog. Also, an industry association creates favourable conditions for involving international companies and lays the groundwork for Estonia to develop into a hub of bioindustry.

The head of the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, Henrik Välja, finds that reaching a consensus between local companies necessary for participating in a common industry association is quite difficult. In his opinion, leaders of Estonian wood industry companies are interested in innovation, but the smallness of the companies and the relatively small number of innovators in the entire sector becomes decisive in the development of new technology.
“Wood chemistry is science-heavy and requires a lot of investments, competitors are large and their research budgets may exceed the entire Estonian research funding. With such competition, developing completely new technologies is difficult for our companies,” said Välja.

As long as the development directions of companies are in strong correlation with established market patterns, change is slow to happen. The European Green Deal as well as the EU Biodiversity strategy demonstrate the will to foster the commissioning of environmentally friendly technology. The head of the executive committee of the Estonian Fund for Nature, Tarmo Tüür, pointed out that the Estonian state is not directing the wood industry purposefully towards the path of innovation, even not via funding measures. “Rather, the effect of forest policy has been the opposite. As logging conditions are relaxing increasingly, and wood is available at an affordable price and in large quantities, this does not motivate entrepreneurs to develop sustainable and smart solutions,” said Tüür.

Smart value-adding for local natural resources

With the support of the resource value-adding programme of the Estonian Research Council, within the next three years, seven applied research studies will be conducted for developing technologies for the separation of wood into components and enabling chemical and biochemical value-adding. This allows to add value to the wood types and wood industry wastes little used in Estonia more diversely and with a higher added value than before.

According to the head of the ResTA programme, Indrek Tulp, in addition to developing specific technologies, it is important that new know-how is created in the field of wood chemistry and bioprocessing and that specialists are trained within the projects. This will in turn facilitate establishing cooperation links with sectoral companies, so that new solutions can be implemented.

Five studies will be carried out with the participation of the University of Tartu. As other partners, studies will also be carried out by the Tallinn University of Technology and the Estonian University of Life Sciences. The total budget for the seven studies is €3.7 million.

  Industry association

An industry association for synthetic biology and sustainable technologies

  •  creates opportunities for bioeconomy enterprises to develop cooperation networks born out of the new funding programme of the European Commission and the Green Deal, and to find partners;
  • introduces companies to the new technologies being developed in the world in the field of wood, biomass and waste processing, carbon sequestration, smart agriculture and circular economy;
  • offers training in the field of managing, coordinating and writing bioeconomy projects funded by the European Commission; 
  • tries to find a consensus among interested parties on the development options for Estonian bioeconomy.


At Paide Opinion Festival in August, Mart Loog from the University of Tartu, Rando Värnik from the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Henrik Välja from the Estonian Forest and Wood Industries Association, Tarmo Tüür from the Estonian Fund for Nature and Aavo Sõrmus from the Center of Food and Fermentation Technologies discussed how to use Estonian wood and food smarter

Author: Piret Ehrenpreis, University of Tartu Research Communication Adviser

Category: Research
Piret Ehrenpreis (piretehr)

Suicidal thoughts among people with dementia need more attention

2 days 2 hours ago
22.09.2020

14% of elderly with dementia living at home think about suicide, as revealed by a study carried out in eight European countries, including Estonia, with the participation of researchers from the University of Tartu. It is essential to identify suicidal thoughts to give the patients appropriate treatment and support their caregivers.

According to the World Health Organization, suicide and the related ideation and behaviour are a great problem across the globe. Both old age and mental disorders are considered as risk factors.

Researchers and doctors say that too little data has been collected about suicidal ideation among people with dementia. More data would help to provide better support for people with that disorder. Medical researchers of the University of Tartu in cooperation with researchers from seven other countries helped to gain new knowledge about this inadequately studied field.

More than 1,200 subjects

The study involved 1,223 people older than 65 from Estonia, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Germany, Finland and the United Kingdom. There were 172 subjects from Estonia. Apart from the age, the inclusion criteria were a particular score in a mental state examination, a diagnosis of dementia and living at home with the aid of an informal caregiver and support services. To understand the factors related to suicidal thoughts and the changes in such thoughts over time, the subjects were interviewed both at the beginning of the study and three months later.

Occurrence of suicidal thoughts

The occurrence of suicidal ideation varied a lot by countries: from 6 to 24%. “This may depend on the cultural background and how suicide is perceived in different countries,” said Associate Professor emeritus of the University of Tartu, geriatrician Kai Saks, who organised of the study in Estonia. “Also, the accessibility of social services and the support to informal caregivers may have a role, as these aspects also vary significantly across countries,” she added.

The main factors leading to suicidal thoughts were cultural background, depressive symptoms, delusions, hallucinations, agitation, anxiety, apathy, disinhibition, irritability, night-time behaviour disturbances, medications to reduce anxiety and fear, and medications to relieve the symptoms and slow the progress of dementia.

Differences between countries

The results of the international study indicated the differences in suicidal ideation among people with dementia in eight European countries. The Netherlands had the highest proportion of persons with dementia and suicidal ideation, while the lowest proportion was found in Spain.

In Estonia, the occurrence of suicidal ideation was around the average of the participating countries. “However, as the subjects from Estonia included more people in the severe stage of dementia compared to other countries, such a result cannot be considered good,” said Saks. “Both this and previous studies have indicated that the occurrence of suicidal ideation is most often associated with the moderate state of dementia, after which it tends to decrease.”

Changes in suicidal ideation

While 14% of the subjects had suicidal thoughts at the beginning of the study, the interviews conducted three months later revealed that the majority of those who did not have such thoughts at the beginning also did not have them later. The percentage of those with newly developed, reduced or lost suicidal ideation or those whose suicidal ideation persisted without significant change was about the same.

Saks explained that the persisting of and changes in suicidal ideation can depend on the trajectory of the dementia disease, the dynamics of depressive symptoms, using medication and the ability of informal caregivers to cope with the caring situation.

Supporting the patient and the caregiver

Kai Saks finds it essential that specialists identify elderly patients with dementia who have suicidal ideation and depressive and other psychological symptoms, as this is the only way to provide the necessary support for both patients and their caregivers. “An informal caregiver has a very important role, as we can see that living with a caregiver supports staying stable and reduces the risk of suicidal ideation,” she described. 

At the same time, she emphasized that if the caregiver’s burden is overwhelming, it can lead to a burnout, which, in turn, can make the person with dementia feel being a burden or guilty, resulting in suicidal ideation. “It is very important that informal caregivers get support from the community or the state and have time for their own life apart from the carer’s role.”

The researchers find that further country-specific research is needed on suicidal ideation as well as suicidal behaviour in persons with cognitive decline, dealing with various biological, psychological, social and cultural factors. “Longitudinal and intervention studies can improve the knowledge about the course of suicidal ideation over time, and may lead to effective health care and support for persons with dementia and their caregivers,” asserted Saks.

The research article “Associated factors of suicidal ideation among older persons with dementia living at home in eight European countries” written with the participation of researchers of the University of Tartu was published in the journal Aging & Mental Health.

Further information:
Kai Saks

Associate Professor emeritus of the University of Tartu, geriatrician
731 8627
kai.saks [ät] ut.ee

 

Category: Research
Virge Ratasepp (a73579)

New season of business idea development has started in Startup Lab

2 days 21 hours ago
21.09.2020

The University of Tartu’s Startup Lab launched the new season of its business idea development programme Starter Tartu on 17 September with an Idea Hackathon at the Delta X Ideas Festival. The opening event brought together over 120 entrepreneurship-minded students from high schools and universities who presented their ideas and joined teams.

The Idea Hackathon started with inspirational talks by Starter Tartu alumni Norman Vester and Mete Cilingir, who shared their experiences during the programme. "The most important thing for our idea was the mentors’ feedback, which helped us move forward in the right direction," commented Norman Vester.

Thereafter, those with ideas got the chance to pitch and explain them. Moderator Harald Lepisk encouraged the participants to interact, leading to the formation of 15 teams who will be develop their ideas in the Starter Tartu programme. The ideas were mostly related to health, food and technology, with the common goal of making life better.

Participants found the event very exciting and look forward to future Starter Tartu workshops. More information about the workshops can be found on the Startup Lab’s website.

See the event pictures in the Startup Lab Facebook album.

The event was financed by the European Social Fund and EIT Health.

Further information: Andres Vaher, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Startup Lab, University of Tartu, +372 5558 7359, andres.vaher [ät] ut.ee

Category: Continuing CoursesEntrepreneurship
Sandra Sommer (sandraso)

University of Tartu researchers study how external factors lead to immune-mediated diseases

1 week 6 days ago
10.09.2020

Immune-mediated diseases form a large group of diseases of more than one hundred diagnoses. These diseases continue to be researched by scientists and doctors across the world. We must not overlook any other medical problem while fighting against coronavirus, emphasised Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu Raivo Uibo, who is leading a research group that contributes to research into the onset of immune-mediated diseases as a part of the major Horizon 2020 initiative HEDIMED.

Immune-mediated diseases are caused by an abnormal activity within the body’s immune system. Betterknown examples include allergies and autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes. While in the case of allergies we usually know the particular allergen that causes the allergic reaction in the body, in the case of type 1 diabetes, the factor that triggers the whole chain of the disease is still unknown. This also applies to other autoimmune diseases, in the case of which the immune system mistakenly starts to attack healthy cells or tissues. We still do not know what leads to such reactions in the body.

Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu Raivo Uibo said that in developed countries, 5–7% of the population have autoimmune diseases and they may occur in both adults and children. “Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, is a rather common autoimmune disease in adults, while type 1 diabetes may develop already in a one-year-old. Other examples include thyroiditis, psoriasis, coeliac disease, the relatively rare lupus, etc.,” explained Uibo.

Coeliac disease is mostly triggered by the wheat protein, gluten. The disease often starts in childhood, but the first onset can also be observed in adults. “30–40% of Caucasians have a genetic predisposition to the onset of coeliac disease, but it occurs in only up to 1% of the population. This is why we must study the additional factors that bring about the disease in some people,” said Professor Uibo.

Major international initiative

To research all that, medical researchers of the University of Tartu participate in a large international research project HEDIMED that undertakes to analyse factors in the external environment that lead to type I diabetes, coeliac disease and childhood allergies, particularly asthma. This is done in cooperation with 22 academic and industrial partners from Europe and the USA. Along with eight other initiatives, HEDIMED belongs to the Human Exposome Network of the European Union.

“In this study, we try to analyse everything we can. We want to know all possible external factors that could affect our immune system and lead to immune-mediated diseases. While doing that, we also keep the persons’ genetic background in mind,” explained Uibo.

Thanks to extensive data, researchers hope to reach a comprehensive understanding that can be used for giving recommendations to reduce the incidence of diseases both in particular countries and globally. 

Looking for the cure

Among other topics, the researchers are trying to find which medication could be used to curb the diseases. “Finnish researchers, for instance, are currently developing a vaccine against enteroviruses. In children, this could reduce infection with enteroviruses that have a role in the onset of diabetes,” said the professor. He believes this vaccine is very much needed, as the incidence of type 1 diabetes in children increases by 3% on average every year. “So far, this process has been incessant, but the researchers believe it could be curbed by reducing a certain type of enterovirus infections.” 

Other diseases must not be overlooked due to coronavirus

7–10% of the world’s population suffers from various forms of diabetes and approximately 10–11% of the global health care resources are spent on diabetes only. “I want to underline that no other medical problem has disappeared due to coronavirus,” emphasised Uibo. 

The article is based on an interview by Madis Ligi with Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu, Academician Raivo Uibo in the programme “Kuue samba taga” on Raadio Kuku.

Further information:
Raivo Uibo
Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu, Academician
510 5079
raivo.uibo [ät] ut.ee Category: Research
Virge Ratasepp (a73579)

University of Tartu researchers help teachers and adolescents recognise violence

2 weeks 3 days ago
07.09.2020

Studies have shown that a third of adolescents’ close relationships involve violent behaviour patterns, such as checking the other person’s phone, restricting meeting with friends, intimidation and influencing. Researchers of the University of Tartu are launching online courses to help teachers and hence adolescents to recognise different forms of violence as soon as possible and prevent the patterns of dating and relationship violence. With the programme “Terved ja turvalised suhted” (“Healthy and safe relationships”), researchers aim to take the topics of violence to the human studies, family education and psychology lessons of all school stages.

For a long time, relationship violence has been rather a taboo in Estonia. While hitting and shoving one’s partner is considered violent behaviour by both adolescents and adults alike, people often fail to understand that also a mental attack is relationship violence. “This includes, for instance, controlling behaviour, in which a person tries to make another person do something against their will by using intimidation, manipulation, threatening, isolation or other means,” explained Kai Part, teaching physician at the Women's Clinic of Tartu University Hospital and the leader of the Sexual Health Research Centre.

Dating violence means that one member of a relationship exercises control and power over the other and uses physical, mental, sexual or economic violence or threatens with it and thus causes harm to the partner. For instance, a person may try to prevent the partner from pursuing his or her hobbies and activities and meeting friends and make demands like “if you love me, you should only want to be with me”. Examples of dating violence include checking the partner’s mobile phone, emails and messages, and non-consensual sex.

“It is important to understand that these are unsafe and harmful relationships,” emphasised Part, adding that it is vital to recognise the patterns of relationship violence in adolescents’ relationships as soon as possible and take action. “This way we can avoid the situation where violence escalates and it becomes difficult to exit a close relationship that has lasted for years.”

Part says most young people want to discuss these topics in a safe learning environment. “In a recent study on sexual abuse commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, the surveyed 16–26-year-olds said that they want and need more information about avoiding abuse and where to seek help than they are offered now,” said Part, noting that young people prefer to get information from school (49%) and prevention programmes taking place at school (40%).

Ability to notice and step in

Estonian teachers can learn methodological skills on relationship violence and get instructional materials in the programme “Healthy and safe relationships” since 2016. The study of a teachers’ test group showed that the programme works. As few as three lessons reduced the teachers’ attitudes tolerating violence and improved their skills and willingness to discuss these topics at school.

A significant positive impact could be also noted in the pupils’ test group: the lessons increased the percentage of pupils able to notice mental violence in relationships and the pupils knew better what to do and where to seek help. The pilot study involved 542 pupils of years 7 to 12.

“The study conducted at the University of Tartu in cooperation with Kadri Soo indicated that some pupils find it difficult to see it as unhealthy controlling behaviour if their date keeps asking them about where they go and whom they see,” said Part. In the pre-study, 24% of pupils found that it is a sign of love if the boy keeps calling the girl and asking about what she is doing. In the post-study, the figure had dropped to 12%. “In the pre-study, most pupils (75%) did not consider such behaviour violent at all or saw it as a healthy and safe relationship. By the time of the post-study, the pupils’ knowledge had significantly improved and 64% of them considered the partner’s constant checking in by phone as violence.

According to Part, taking part in the pilot project improved the adolescents’ attitudes about gender roles and violence. After the pilot lessons, pupils were more prone to value equality and less prone to tolerate and normalise violence. Most significant changes could be noted in the pupils’ opinion on men’s and women’s duties at home and at work, the girl’s duty to be accommodating to the boy who has taken her out, distorting the meaning of a girl’s “no” and the right to decide on what one’s boyfriend or girlfriend is allowed to do.

Online training courses

The training courses on healthy and safe relationships that used to take place in a classroom setting are now offered online. The e-course in Moodle aims to give the learners knowledge about the forms of adolescents’ relationship violence, how to notice violence and where to seek help and advice. Teachers can upgrade their skills of discussing these topics in school lessons using interactive methods and hone their attitudes supporting gender equality and condemning relationship violence.

“Naturally, online courses cannot replace face-to-face courses in which discussions have an important role. But such a format could even be more suitable to some teachers, as we know that it may be difficult to find a substitute and travel to another city for a day to take part in a face-to-face training course. As teachers have recently had to learn a lot themselves about teaching online and taken up new methods, we hope that our online course is not too hard for any teacher. We have also created tools for assessment to ensure that all learners obtain the material of the course,” said Part, encouraging teachers to take part in the course.

Further information:
Kai Part
Teaching physician at the Women's Clinic of Tartu University Hospital
+372 5668 0778
kai.part [ät] ut.ee Category: Research
Virge Ratasepp (a73579)

Gholamreza Anbarjafari to deliver inaugural lecture on computer vision applications in human-robot interaction

2 weeks 5 days ago
04.09.2020

On 7 September at 16:15, Professor of Computer Vision at the University of Tartu Gholamreza Anbarjafari will deliver his inaugural lecture on the applications of computer vision in human-robot interaction with a focus on affective computing. The lecture entitled “Affective Computing: Human Behaviour Analysis Using Computer Vision and Machine Learning” will be held in English in the university assembly hall.

Social AI agents and social robotic systems have recently drawn increasing attention in many disciplines, such as computer vision, artificial intelligence, human-machine interaction, and smartification of processes.

In his lecture, Professor Anbarjafari will discuss various feature extraction approaches (for example, visual-based, audio-based, or tactile-based) and the need for dimensionality reduction and semantic understanding (for example, face detection, recognition and tracking, and audio-visual feature extraction). He will speak how the results of his research in human behaviour analysis are being used to improve human-robot interaction. This is possible thanks to recognising and analysing compound emotions of human even in situations where the person is not cooperative with the acquisition system.

Anbarjafari will discuss how advances in machine learning, such as support vector machines, Hidden Markov Models, and deep learning techniques, have been used in audio-visual feature extraction and face and body analysis using high spatio-temporal resolution. He will also talk about his ongoing research on developing a computer vision-based solution for understanding how humans are blocking their emotions.

Gholamreza Anbarjafari is a Professor of Computer Vision in the Institute of Technology at the University of Tartu. His research areas include computer vision, machine learning, human-robot interaction, graphical models and artificial intelligence.

At the University of Tartu, Professor Anbarjafari has founded the intelligent computer vision laboratory, which is the largest of its kind in the Baltic states. Anbarjafari has been the Deputy Scientific Coordinator of the European Network on Integrating Vision and Language of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), and has represented Estonia in several other COST actions. He is an associate editor and guest lead editor of several journals, special issues and book projects.

Professor Anbarjafari has held many national and international grants funded by Estonian and European Union agencies, and by industrial parties.  He has supervised 17 master’s theses and seven doctoral dissertations, and published over 130 scientific works.

Further information: Gholamreza Anbarjafari, UT Professor of Computer Vision, +372 737 4855, gholamreza.anbarjafari [ät] ut.ee

Category: ResearchPress release
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

University of Tartu continues rise in world university rankings

3 weeks ago
03.09.2020

The Times Higher Education (THE), the provider of the most reliable university rankings in the world, published the most recent ranking of the best universities yesterday. For the first time, the University of Tartu is ranked in the top 300 universities (in the range 251–300).

THE World University Rankings 2021 include more universities than ever before: 1527 universities across 93 countries and regions of the world. The University of Oxford tops the rankings for the fifth consecutive year, followed by Stanford University holding the second place and Harvard University the third. Besides two British universities there are eight universities of the United States in the top 10. For the first time, an Asian university has succeeded in breaking into the top 20 – Tsinghua University of China is ranked the 20th. The top 100 includes universities from 18 countries.

The highest-ranking among the partners of the University of Tartu is the University of Toronto (18th), and of our closest neighbours, the University of Helsinki ranks 98th and Uppsala University 111th. In addition to the University of Tartu, two more Estonian universities have made it to the rankings: Tallinn University of Technology and Tallinn University, both ranked in the range 801–1000.

“This year’s QS World University Rankings also confirmed the consistently high quality of our research: in the QS rankings, the University of Tartu also rose to its highest ever ranking, the 285th position,” Rector Toomas Asser said.

Commenting on the university’s position in the QS rankings, UT Vice Rector for Research Kristjan Vassil pointed out that the guiding principle of the university’s strategic plan for the next period is to move closer to the world’s 100 best universities, and currently the university is improving its position in the international rankings by 20 places on average yearly. “Keeping this rate shows that we have achieved excellent international visibility without compromising our role as Estonia’s national university – in developing science, higher education and culture in Estonian and offering evidence-based support for governance to our state and society,” said Vassil.

According to Rector Toomas Asser, these comments by Vice Rector Vassil are also appropriate for explaining the rise in the THE rankings. “The high position in the rankings naturally affirms the excellence of our academic community and the relevance of the objectives we have set. The fact that Estonia’s national university does research and provides higher education on a comparable level to the world’s top universities is valuable for the whole Estonia,” Asser said.

Over the years, the University of Tartu has performed well due to the high number of citations per article, which is an important performance indicator in the THE rankings (accounting for 30% of the final result). In the new rankings, the University of Tartu holds the 164th position among the world’s top universities for this indicator (last year, 216th).

THE has published university rankings since 2004, comparing world research universities across all core missions. In the ranking THE takes into account 13 performance indicators which are grouped into five areas: the learning environment (30% of the final result), research (30%), research influence (30%), industry income (2.5%) and international outlook (7.5%).

Read more about the methodology of the ranking on THE website.

Additional information:
Toomas Asser, Rector of the University of Tartu, +372 516 6849, toomas.asser [ät] ut.ee
Lauri Randveer, Senior Specialist for International Cooperation, University of Tartu, +372 512 9996, lauri.randveer [ät] ut.ee (questions about the ranking and indicators)

Category: University
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

VIDEO: Rector Toomas Asser in live interview on how the university starts the new academic year

3 weeks 2 days ago
01.09.2020

In a live interview on Tuesday, 1 September at 13:00, Rector of the University of Tartu Toomas Asser spoke about the organisation of studies and work at the university this autumn. 

The interview focused on what to keep in mind in this academic year in the circumstances of the spread of coronavirus and to what extent regular classroom studies will be replaced by e-learning. In addition, the rector once again reminded viewers how to keep oneself and others safe at work and during studies and what to do in case of illness.

Category: University
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

UT coronavirus info and updates

3 weeks 5 days ago
28.08.2020

Coronavirus continues to spread in Estonia and globally and acting responsibly is still the best way to prevent it. We want the approaching academic year at the University of Tartu to start and continue as smoothly as possible. 

Below, we have gathered some recommendations and advice on how to act considerately in the circumstances of the spread of the virus. Some of the most important recommendations:   

  • when returning from countries with a high coronavirus infection rate, follow the restrictions on freedom of movement requirements laid down by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; 
  • maintain distance with other people in the work and study environment and comply with hygiene rules to reduce the likelihood of the virus spreading; 
  • stay home even with mild symptoms of a viral disease;
  • lets's use hoia.me app. HOIA mobile app allows rapid notification of a possible close contact with a COVID-19 virus carrier and is safe to use.

Organisation of studies

  1. If necessary, classroom studies can take place, supported by at least partially web-based study, if possible. Be prepared to use more IT resources in studies. If the level of infection rises, we must be ready for the increase in e-learning. 
  2. The specific decision about the form and beginning of studies is made depending on the curriculum. When studies need to be reorganised, the lecturer informs all students registered for the course and makes sure the information in SIS is updated accordingly. 
  3. If there are more than 30 people attending a lecture, then should be seated farther apart in the lecture hall so that the room is up to half full. If that is not possible, face masks should be worn.
  4. It is important to make all students understand that they must not participate in classroom studies when they have any viral symptoms. The requirements for completing the course in case a person cannot participate in classroom studies must be also clarified and communicated to students. 
  5. Concerning the arrival of international students and international visiting students who are starting their studies, we are flexible and take the situation into account. In English-taught programmes we allow international students who have difficulties with entry to Estonia to participate in studies via online tools. 
  6. Read more detailed guidelines for organisation of studies in the context of COVID-19 on the university's intranet.
  7. Rector: ten guidelines for studies (read quidelines on the university's intranet).


Organisation of work

  1. Together, managers and employees find solutions that take the interests of both the university and the employee into account and ensure a safe working environment for all. 
  2. Think ahead, whether and how employees of different positions could work from home, if necessary. 
  3. Electronic means for participating in meetings must be created for employees working remotely. 
  4. If necessary, separate safe workstations must be set up for positions that require contacts with customers and people outside their unit. 
  5. Prefer paperless procedures and forward documents via electronic channels. 
  6. Read more detailed guidelines for organisation of work in the context of COVID-19 on the university's intranet.


Travelling

If you travelled abroad, make sure to consult the web page of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the list of countries arriving from which you must stay in self-isolation for 14 days. As the epidemiological situation changes rapidly, plan all trips abroad with the consideration that you might be subject to movement restrictions when returning to Estonia. 

Possible infection

  1. If you suspect infection with coronavirus, call your family doctor or the family doctor’s advice line 1220 for advice. Do not go to the family doctor’s office. 
  2. To prevent further spread of the virus, stay at home while waiting for the test results and when tested positive. 
  3. Information about a person being infected with COVID-19 is sensitive personal data and must not be forwarded, except with the person’s consent. Nevertheless, employees and students are encouraged to inform the university if they turn out to be virus carriers and close contacts of a virus carrier. Rapid exchange of information helps us prevent the spread of the virus and reduce confusion resulting from the lack of information. 
  • If an employee turns out to be a virus carrier or a close contact, we strongly recommend informing his or her immediate supervisor. The immediate supervisor forwards this information to Academic Secretary Tõnis Karki who is the contact person of the Health Board at the university. 
  • If a student turns out to be a virus carrier or a close contact, we strongly recommend informing his or her academic affairs specialist or programme director who then forwards this information to the academic secretary. 
  • After that, the academic secretary, the faculty and the Health Board together decide which measures must be taken in the organisation of studies as well as in the study and work environment. 

 Important terms

  • A virus carrier is a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. Virus carriers must not leave their place of residence starting from receiving the diagnosis until confirmed recovered. 
  • A close contact of a virus carrier is a person who has been in the same room with a virus carrier for more than 15 minutes and closer than two metres. All close contacts must stay in self-isolation for 14 days, even if they do not have any symptoms. The Health Board is responsible for identifying and notifying close contacts. 

Contact information 

Tõnis Karki (Academic Secretary, contact person of the Health Board at the University of Tartu), 529 7917 
Peeter Liik (Head of the Marketing and Communication Office), 5554 8206 

State coronavirus helpline 1247 
State website on COVID-19 www.kriis.ee /en  

Category: University
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

Vice Rector for Academic Affairs Aune Valk: welcome (back) to the university!

3 weeks 5 days ago
28.08.2020

It is always a special pleasure for me to welcome our first-year students and those who start their studies at the University of Tartu for the first time. Congratulations on admission and thank you for choosing the University of Tartu! This year the competition was tighter than in the last five years and therefore you deserve to be proud. Welcome back to all our returning students!

I am sure you do not regret that you chose the University of Tartu and specifically your programme. In spring, 94% of our first-year students believe they have selected the suitable curriculum and that their studies are interesting. At the end of studies, there are even more of those who are satisfied with their choice.

This autumn is different from earlier ones everywhere in the world. People are forced to stay home more and there is less air travel. Our spring experience showed that the University of Tartu is very good at teaching online; also our international students rated it highly in international comparison. On the other hand, we understood that our greatest strength is the practical, interactive, small-group learning. This is why we try to combine our strengths to offer all our students as good a learning experience as possible in the new circumstances.

Unlike many other universities in the world, we welcome all international students to Tartu – if possible, considering the travel restrictions. We also understand that only few students can arrive here by the beginning of September and therefore in most curricula we offer our students the possibility to participate in online studies during the first months of the academic year. We understand that the beginning of the year is difficult for both teaching staff and students, and requires more effort from everyone. I am convinced that by keeping in touch with fellow students, teaching staff, programme managers and support staff, we will overcome these difficulties.

I have three requests to you when you arrive in Tartu, to keep the number of infections low and to be able to study more.

Firstly, do not leave home when you are ill. You can find information for each course how to keep pace with others if you have missed a seminar or lecture.

Secondly, follow the rules laid down for your curriculum, for your institute, or for the particular course. There are very few university-wide restrictions; methods of controlling the spread of the virus are largely decided on the spot and depend on the needs and possibilities of the specific course or room.

Thirdly, enjoy the university life but please do not party in large groups. Based on existing experience of the universities worldwide, it is recommended that during the spread of the virus you limit socialising to a group of no more than ten people, and take responsibility for both yourself and your companions.

Aune Valk
Vice Rector for Academic Affairs

Category: Studies
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

World-leading e-governance expert Robert Krimmer elected as Professor of the University of Tartu

3 weeks 5 days ago
28.08.2020

At the session today, the senate of the University of Tartu elected Robert Krimmer, one of the most influential e-governance experts in the world, as Professor of E-governance of the University of Tartu. A research group with Professor Krimmer in the lead will be established at the university to bring research in the field of e-governance and public e-services to international excellence and foster the development of e-governance in Estonia.

Professor Krimmer’s research is focused on digital transformation, cross-border e-services, electronic participation and democracy, as well as electronic voting, and other issues further developing a digital society. In 2019, Robert Krimmer was mentioned as one of the top 16 academics within the list of 100 most influential experts in the field of digital government.

The research group formed around the professor of e-governance will analyse and develop e governance and public e-services. The group will closely collaborate with the Center of IT Impact Studies (CITIS) of the University of Tartu and, building on the existing IT, social, economic and legal knowledge as well as big data, support the government in shaping next-generation e-services.

Mihkel Solvak, Senior Research Fellow in Technology Research at the University of Tartu and ERA Chair Project Manager, says that Robert Krimmer is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of electronic voting. “His joining the University of Tartu and the new research group will give us the capacity to have a say in the digital transformation of governance in Estonia and Europe,” Solvak said. He pointed out that, for example, by skilfully applying machine learning and artificial intelligence, Estonia could be the first country in the world to work out the next generation of e-services, which are based on user experience and can predict the future needs of users.

At the University of Tartu, Professor Krimmer plans to make use of the vast opportunities provided by the available data about Estonian e-government. “The big data research infrastructure of the University of Tartu allows to produce great insights into the adoption process of e-governance. I consider it very important to continue to study the benefits of the digital transformation of government, while minimizing the associated risks and ensuring security, privacy and equal access,” Professor Krimmer explained his research plans.

The new research group is funded by European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme under the European Research Area Chairs (ERA Chair) action. The goal of this action is to create equal conditions for research and innovation in the European research area, bringing outstanding scientists to universities and research institutions with potential for research excellence.

Robert Krimmer

  • has advised a number of international organisations, e.g. the Council of Europe, OSCE, UNESCO, European Commission, WHO, as an expert in matters regarding digital transformation;
  • is an associate editor of the international scientific journal Government Information Quarterly, and an author and/or editor of tens of books and special issues of scientific journals;
  • has lectured at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria in Hagenberg, Danube University Krems, and Tallinn University of Technology;
  • has authored about 200 international scientific articles and has been cited over 1300 times.

Robert Krimmer was elected as Professor of E-governance of the University of Tartu from among 31 candidates in an international open competition. All candidates to the position were evaluated pursuant to the bylaws of the University of Tartu and the terms and conditions of the open competition for the e-governance professorship. The seven best candidates were also reviewed by four external experts in the field.

Further information: Mihkel Solvak, UT Senior Research Fellow in Technology Research, ERA Chair Project Manager, +372 5667 0611, mihkel.solvak [ät] ut.ee

Category: Research
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

Anatomy Olympiad initiated by students of the University of Tartu gains popularity

4 weeks ago
27.08.2020

On 28 and 29 August, second-year medical students of the University of Tartu are organising the International Anatomy Olympiad “Anatomy Theatre” in Tartu. Ten teams from six universities from Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will put their medical knowledge and creativity to test. The organisers hope the event becomes a lasting tradition.

Last year, when the first Anatomy Olympiad was held, its theme was “Anatomy Park”. To continue the tradition of a theme, test the participants’ creativity and add a touch of entertainment to the tasks, “Anatomy Theatre” was chosen as this year’s theme.

“For centuries, anatomy and surgery were taught in rooms resembling amphitheatres. An example is the Old Anatomical Theatre on Toome Hill, one location of our event. For hundreds of years, both dissections and surgeries took place on such theatre-like stages in front of an audience mostly comprising professors and students. Sometimes, however, dissections were held as public spectacles to which townspeople could buy a ticket,” said Jaanika Kilgi, an organiser of the Olympiad and a medical student of the University of Tartu. So, following the footsteps of the amusing history of medicine, this year’s participants must captivate the audience with not just their knowledge but also with a short film about anatomy, for instance.

Organisers emphasise the wider aim of the event: to promote studying medicine and show that it does not have to be burdensome, dull and tedious. “From an academic point of view, the Olympiad offers a fun way to reinforce one’s knowledge. The element of competition promotes effort just like the need to exit one’s comfort zone fosters development,” said Kilgi. She added that all of this year’s organisers belonged to the winning teams of Anatomy Olympiads in Tartu and Riga last year, and for them, the competition was one of the most memorable events of their first year of medical studies, giving them extra motivation and energy for learning.

The Olympiad brings together ten three-member teams from the University of Tartu, the University of Turku, the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Latvia, Riga Stradinš University and the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences. Because of the coronavirus, the Olympiad cannot host teams from Poland and Sweden. Much to the organisers' surprise, also medical students from Nigeria, Uzbekistan and Bangladesh were interested in the event.

At the Olympiad, competitors must complete a variety of tasks. In addition to five main organisers, 20 volunteers from among the second- and third-year medical students helped to come up with new practical tasks for the competition.

The organisers hope that the Anatomy Olympiad becomes an annual prominent tradition that inspires medical students in Estonia and abroad and invites increasing numbers of participants from even more foreign universities to Tartu each year. “We are also hopeful that taking part in the event inspires younger students to take the baton of organising the Anatomy Olympiad next year,” added Kilgi.

This year’s International Anatomy Olympiad is organised by second-year medical students of the University of Tartu Jaanika Kilgi, Peeter Paul Kollist, Samuel Rüsse, Martti Vanker and Mihkel Hallen. They are supported by the University of Tartu Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine and teaching staff of the Department of Anatomy, who helped with establishing international contacts as well as financially. The organisers would also like to thank the organisers of last year’s Olympiad for sharing their experience.

The Olympiad takes place on 28 and 29 August at the University of Tartu Biomedicum and the Old Anatomical Theatre. Additional information can be found on the home page of the Olympiad.

Further information:
Jaanika Kilgi
Medical student of the University of Tartu, organiser of the International Anatomy Olympiad
5902 8830
anat.olympiad [ät] ut.ee Category: Studies
Virge Ratasepp (a73579)

Futulab invites students to join project-based internship

4 weeks ago
26.08.2020

Futulab, the university-wide platform for mediation of internship, invites students of all curricula to join an internship project of interest. Registration is open until 20 September.

Project-based internship provides students with project work experience and therefore, a labour market advantage. It also helps expand their horizons, bring them out of their comfort zone, and forces them to develop.

Project-based internship enables students to

  • apply their professional skills and knowledge;
  • cooperate with organisations of different fields;
  • expand their horizons;
  • make new contacts;
  • achieve real results;
  • earn 6 credits.

Students can join a project they are interested in at https://praktika.ut.ee/projektipraktika, click on the project and in the window that opens, click “Join“. Students who have joined a project are enrolled in the project-based internship course in SIS during the autumn semester. The project-based internship programme begins on 22 September with a workshop introducing the organisation of the programme, held at Narva mnt 18–1006.

Students work in teams and each project has a supervisor. Work on the project is supported by an e-course in Moodle and by internship coordinators. Students set a goal and draw up a project plan and schedule, using their teamwork, problem-solving, communication and critical thinking skills.

Project-based internship is flexible, allowing the team members to choose a suitable time, place and manner of working. In addition, working in a team of students from different curricula gives them an excellent opportunity to acquire collaborative experience and reach tangible results in their project.

Partners of the project-based internship programme include the University of Tartu Museum, Wikimedia Estonia, School of Economics and Business Administration, MTÜ Elistvere Loomapargi Sõprade Klubi, and the social enterprise Köömen.

Further information: Merily Heinalo, Coordinator, School of Economics and Business Administration, University of Tartu, +372 5649 5333, merily.heinalo [ät] ut.ee

Category: Studies
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

University of Tartu Library and University of Tartu Museum celebrate the Day of Morgenstern

4 weeks 2 days ago
24.08.2020

On Friday the University of Tartu Library and the University of Tartu Museum celebrate the 250th birthday of Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern, the founder or the art museum and library of the University of Tartu, the professor of rhetoric, classical philology, aesthetics and history of literature and art.

In the morning the restored monument of Karl Morgenstern will be opened in Toomemägi, also excursions will be organised to the placed related with the great man. At 2:15 p.m. a ceremony in the memory of Morgenstern will take place at Raadi cemetery.

“Karl Morgenstern is an important person for Tartu and the University of Tartu. He is a Tartu Classicist, because everything what he did, had an influence on Tartu and the University of Tartu: he founded the university library and art museum to lead Tartu to a university town that values cultural traditions,“ described the director of the University of Tartu Library Krista Aru. „He lived fifty years in Tartu, but his community was the cultural public of the whole Europe. Morgenstern was one of the first populizers of science and humanistic lifestyle. Not to mention that he valued an educated person as well as a beautiful nature and clean living environment.“

The restored monument that was erected to commemorate Karl Morgenstern in Toomemägi in the year 1851 by the University of Tartu will be re-opened on Friday at 11.15. Mayor of Tartu Urmas Klaas, director of the University of Tartu Museum Mariann Raisma and the director of the University of Tartu Library Krista Aru will speak about the importance of Karl Morgenstern to Tartu. Also, the poems written by Morgenstern and abstracts from the gift act of his plot to the university will be read out. The conservator of the University of Tartu Museum Maria Väinsar speaks about the restauration of the monument.

A quarter past midday free tours to the University of Tartu Museum and Art Museum will take place. The first one introduces the new permanent exhibition in the university museum in the Cathedral, the former location of the university library. The other one takes people to the art museum in the main building, to an exhibition “The enchanting art of stone cutting. Morgenstern 250”, which shows the life and heritage of the great man. The tour guides are the doctoral student and museum guide Ken Ird and the director of research of the museum Jaanika Anderson.

At 2.15 p.m. a memorial service at Raadi cemetery will take place. Speeches will be held by the rector of the University of Tartu Toomas Asser, Mayor of Tartu Urmas Klaas and the professor emeritus of the University of Tartu, classical philologist Anne Lill. Senior research fellow of the UT Library research centre, classical philologist and translator Janika Päll reads the abstract from the inauguration speech of Karl Morgenstern.

The Day of Morgenstern will be organised by the University of Tartu Library and the University of Tartu Museum. All events are free and everyone is welcome to participate.

Additional information:
Krista Aru, University of Tartu Library, 554 0107, krista.aru [ät] ut.ee
Mariann Raisma, University of Tartu Museum, 522 1702, krista.aru [ät] ut.ee

Category: Research
Kaja Karo (kajakk)

It could rain liquid metal on lava planets – just like on future Earth

1 month ago
17.08.2020

Head of Tartu Observatory's Space Technology Department Mihkel Pajusalu and his colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come to the conclusion that the clouds of lava planets are probably made of metal, and instead of rain or snow, there could be showers of liquid metal. The research helps to undestand both the formation and future of the Earth, because as the Sun turns into a red qiant, our planet could also be covered in lava ocens.

By now, more than 4000 exoplanets have been found, some of them lava planets – terrestial planets which orbit their stars so close that their surface temperature could rise to thousands of degrees. This means that the rocks on their surface have to be in molten state.

These planets are called lava planets because they are most likely covered in lava oceans. Examples of lava planets are 55 Cancri e, Kepler-10b and Kepler-78b. Similar planets can also be spotted in sci-fi movies, like Mustafar in Star Wars (mostly known from episodes II and III). However, the surface temperature was notably underestimated in the movie: in real life, no human could survive on a lava planet.

Metal showers

Currently, these planets are detected with quite indirect methods, which is why it is hard to get an exact overview of what is happening on their surface. Mainly, the so-called eclipse method is used, which is based on the change in the visible brightness of the star. Brightness changes when the planet is located between the star and the observer, or when light can't reach Earth because the planet is located behind the star.

It has been found that many lava-ocean planets reflect a lot of their stars' light (albedo higher than 40%), but the reason behind it has remained unknown. Up until now, one of the hypotheses has been that the brightness is caused by the reflectiveness of either the lava or the glass it turns into after solidifying. A team including Mihkel Pajusalu, Tartu Observatory's Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Department of Space Technology, also went on a journey to try and find an answer to that question. Pajusalu worked with Professor Sara Seager and Doctoral Student Zahra Essack from the MIT.

In the course of the research, they melted different rocks to evaluate the optical behaviour of lava, and investigated the reflective properties of the glass it formed after cooling. After measuring the reflectance values at different angles, they implemented the data to calculate the reflectance values of planets covered with certain materials.

They concluded that the surface of the planets cannot be reflective enough by itself (albedo lower than 10%). This means that the high reflectance value has to be caused by the clouds. With temperatures as high as on these planets (2000–3000 K, 1700–2700 °C), the clouds could even consist of mist or drops of metal, because metals start boiling in such temperatures. Further, it means that the atmospheres of these kind of planets must be made of substances with a very high boiling point, and there are probably showers of liquid metal instead of the rain or snow we are used to.
 

Earth could become a lava planet as well

The surface of a planet can be covered in lava even if it doesn't orbit its star extremely close. For example, the Earth had to be in a liquid state right after being formed, because a lot of warmth was released as the particles collided. The most popular formation theory of the Moon also implies a huge collision which would have left a major part of the Earth's surface in a molten state. Researcing current lava planets can therefore help us understand the formulation of planets in general as well as the past and future of our planet. According to what we know now, in billions of years the Sun will enter the red giant phase of its evolution, turning the surface of the Earth into lava oceans again.

Estonia is also participating in the ARIEL space mission with Tartu Observatory, University of Tartu as a partner. The mission goal is to create a space telescope which will enable to observe planets close to the stars they orbit. Lava planets will most likely be among the subjects.

More about the topic

More information:
Mihkel Pajusalu
Head of the Department of Space Technology at Tartu Observatory, University of Tartu
5381 5711
mihkel.pajusalu [ät] ut.ee Category: Research
Kairi Janson (kairijan)

Design contest for the UT cap badge, chest badge and ring

1 month 1 week ago
14.08.2020

The university announces a design contest for the UT cap badge, chest badge and ring. All members and alumni of the UT are welcome to submit their design projects.

General principles of the design of the cap badge, chest badge and ring:

  • the design stems from symbols expressing the university and the academic spirit;
  • the cap badge, chest badge and ring correspond to the core values of the University of Tartu;
  • the design withstands the test of time;
  • the cap badge, chest badge and ring form a stylistically uniform set;
  • the form of the student cap laid down in the statutes of the University of Tartu student cap is taken into account.

Basics of the design of the cap badge, chest badge and ring:

  • the main material of the cap badge and chest badge is metal, which can be supplemented by other materials that withstand weather and use;
  • the design project may include the method of attachment of the cap badge and chest badge, but its final solution will be decided by the producer in cooperation with the university;
  • the cap badge and chest badge are 1,6–2 cm in length and 1,6–2 cm in width;
  • the ring is made of 925 silver, which can be supplemented by other suitable durable materials.

When evaluating the designs, also the simplicity of production will be taken into account.

The design of the cap badge, chest badge and ring must be submitted as a set of three designs in a sealed envelope marked by “Kavandikonkurss”. The envelope must be taken to the Secretary of Viljandi Culture Academy Anu Ehala (Viljandi, Posti 1, room 229) or mailed to Anu Ehala, Viljandi Kultuuriakadeemia, Posti 1, 71004 Viljandi. The author’s name and affiliation to the University of Tartu must be supplied in a separate sealed envelope.

Entries must be presented in two-dimensional design, scale 1:1, showing the heights and thicknesses, as well as the materials used. The author may choose to add digital images of the designs.

Submission deadline is 30 September.

The winning designs will be chosen by a committee comprising the Academic Secretary of the University of Tartu Tõnis Karki, Lecturer Eilve Manglus, Lecturer Janet Laidla, Lecturer Tõnis Tatar, Metalwork Master Indrek Ikkonen, Senior Specialist for International Cooperation Kadri Asmer, Senior Specialist for Protocol Kady Sõstar and representatives of students.

The prize fund for the design contest is 2,000 euros and the committee decides on the possible division of the amount between the winning entries. Applicable taxes are withheld from the prize payment.

The winning design will be chosen by 16 October.

Further information: Eilve Manglus, University of Tartu, Viljandi Culture Academy Lecturer in Estonian Native Metalwork, +372 508 0025, eilve.manglus [ät] ut.ee

Category: University
Sandra Sommer (sandraso)

New skin-like robot could turn us into superhumans

1 month 1 week ago
12.08.2020

Inspired by nature, roboticist Indrek Must is working on a wearable robot made of textile.

Nuts, bolts, and lots of cables. That’s what most people imagine when they think of wearable robots.
These external skeletons are usually created to protect and support people with disabilities. They help them stand up and walk, or just make people stronger. Many start-ups are making them, but none have really reached a wider market yet.

Exoskeletons are still only taking baby steps. But a Tartu University roboticist Indrek Must is working on something even more exclusive, and as he believes, more efficient in the long run: a three-layer textile, as thin as human skin, that people could wear one day.

A patient with moving difficulties could zip it up like an overall and walk to work one day.
Textile is great for this, because it can’t hurt people. Soft material is also more intuitive and comfortable than wearing metal parts on your legs and arms like a science fiction character. Or like Must likes to emphasize, textile is simply more natural.
“Whenever I have questions, I always look for answers from nature,” he admitted.

Smart textile made of natural substances

In his three-layer textile, Must combines fluids that contain mobile charges with two natural textiles. The first textile, activated carbon material, is derived from wood pulp. The second textile, silk, prevents the electrically charged textiles from contacting.

At the moment, Must is focused on developing the material cell-by-cell in his lab. In the long run, it should turn into a whole exoskeleton.
“I’m creating the most primitive intelligence on a material level,” explained the scientist, who completed his post-doc at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia.
Each cell acts semi-autonomously just like in the skin. It’s like they have their own microscopic brains that follow the commands that have been previously programmed. They have the information about which movements should be expected in any specific situation. The material would then behave in a certain way by helping the patient lift their leg or boost their jump.
The cells would only need a small impulse by the person wearing the material.
The key to success in robotics is the connection between those tiny brains, or cells in this case, Must explained. As textile has fibres that bind many identical elements together, it turned out to be a great material for robotics. It creates a bendable structure that can wrap itself around a limb and help out a fellow human.

Read full article by Marian Männi in Research in Estonia.

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

Category: Research
Piret Ehrenpreis (piretehr)

International conference on educational technology focuses on the impact of the corona crisis on teaching and learning

1 month 2 weeks ago
07.08.2020

On 17 and 18 August, the Institute of Education of the University of Tartu together with Riga Technical University and Utrecht University organises an online conference entitled “How to Re-imagine Teaching and Learning in Uncertain Times?”. It is open to everybody interested in new developments in educational technology and teaching in a world affected by COVID-19: parents, teachers, lecturers, researchers, politicians, technology entrepreneurs, etc. 

The event gives a chance to discuss the experience of two partially web-based master’s programmes, one at the University of Tartu and one at Riga Technical University. Stemming from these examples, the discussions focus on designing web-based study, its challenges and opportunities as well as finding a balance between online and classroom study. Speakers include alumni of such programmes, who have been in two roles at the same time: developers and implementers of educational technology at their workplace and the users of new technology as students. During the coronavirus outbreak, such a two-sided view gave rise to experiences worth sharing at the conference. 

The keynote speaker is a recognised expert in education technology, Professor of Utrecht University Bert Slof. Representatives of Tallinn International School, Tartu International School and Rocca al Mare School share the viewpoints of general education schools. In addition, researchers and lecturers from Riga Technical University share the experiences of our neighbours. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of turmoil in the world. Students and teachers had to adapt to rapid and major changes. Our conference that stems from the experience of two partly web-based master’s programmes in educational technology provides a chance to share ideas and perspectives as to what has been done and how to imagine education in a post-COVID-19 world,” said the main organiser of the conference, Senior Research Fellow in Educational Technology of the University of Tartu and director of the master’s programme Emanuele Bardone. 

The conference takes place online on Zoom and is free of charge. Registered participants will receive guidelines for joining the conference and the presentations will be recorded. The working language of the conference is English. 

Registration is already open. For more information, see https://edutech.mii.lv/?p=5978

The conference is part of the Erasmus+ Project “MA in Educational Technology: A New Online Blended Learning Program for New Member States”. 

Further information:
Marje Johanson, Project Coordinator at the Institute of Education of the University of Tartu, 737 6456, marje.johanson [ät] ut.ee
Emanuele Bardone, Senior Research Fellow in Educational Technology of the University of Tartu and director of the master’s programme, 737 6022, emanuele.bardone [ät] ut.ee

Sandra Sommer Press Officer Tel: +(372) 737 5681
Mob: +(372) 5307 7820 sandra.sommer [ät] ut.ee
www.ut.ee

 

Category: Continuing CoursesResearchPress release
Sandra Sommer (sandraso)

University of Tartu researchers continue the study on the point prevalence of coronavirus

1 month 2 weeks ago
06.08.2020

On Thursday, 6 August, the University of Tartu invites 2,400 residents of Estonia to participate in the fifth wave of the study on the prevalence of coronavirus to understand the impact of the recent weeks’ outbreaks on the wider spread of the virus.

Head of the monitoring survey and UT Professor of Family Medicine Ruth Kalda said that researchers have kept an eye on the daily infection statistics throughout summer to come back to collecting data about the point prevalence of the virus across the country as the number of infections increases. “Cases related to the outbreak in Tartu have reached elsewhere, so we need more detailed information on whether and to what extent the virus has spread to other Estonian regions,” said Kalda. She added that while people were generally more careful in the spring, the summer inevitably brought along more active communication as well as holidays abroad. “Nobody wants the country wide restrictions to come back, so we must study whether the outbreak that started in Tartu is merely local or has become more widespread.”

According to Kalda, we should also be cautious given the results of the study on coronavirus antibodies KoroSero-EST-1 led by the University of Tartu. According to the study, only a fifth of people who have suffered from coronavirus exhibited a symptom of a viral disease. “This confirms the existing belief that a virus transmitter might not even be aware of being infectious. This is why we cannot condemn all the infected but can do a lot ourselves to minimise the spread of the virus,” said Kalda. “It is wise to avoid crowded events and parties where keeping distance is not possible, or wear a mask in such places. We should not go to parties even with the slightest symptoms of illness.”

On 6 August, the research company Emor sends an email or SMS invitation to participate in the study to people included in the random statistical sample based on the data of the population register. After the participants fill in the questionnaire, the time and place for taking the nasal swab will be agreed with them. Participation in the study is voluntary for all who receive the invitation. After analysing the data, the University of Tartu presents the findings to the Government of the Republic.

“We have been cooperating with the government to find evidence-based solutions for curbing the spread of the virus and coping with the crisis since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak,” said UT Vice Rector for Research Kristjan Vassil.

In addition to monitoring the point prevalence of COVID-19 and the study Koro-Sero-EST, the University of Tartu is about to start two more studies in which researchers collect data on the spread and nature of the virus. In the coming weeks, the study KoroGeno-Est will be launched in which the genetic sequences of the COVID-19-causing virus spreading in Estonia will be examined to determine the source of unknown infections. Also, a monitoring system of COVID-19 based on wastewater analysis will be started to help detect broader virus spread at the earliest possible stage.

Further information:
Ruth Kalda, Head of the Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health, Professor of Family Medicine, 5698 5599, ruth.kalda [ät] ut.ee

Category: ResearchPress release
Mari-Liis Pintson (pintson)

Professor Lutsar: no sign of the coronavirus subsiding

1 month 2 weeks ago
06.08.2020

The novel coronavirus has been circulating the world for seven months and there is no sign of it subsiding. This means, however, that we will very likely have to coexist with the virus for a very long time and it is up to humans, not the virus, to decide how we want or manage to do that, writes Irja Lutsar, Professor of Medical Microbiology of the University of Tartu.

Spread of and infection with the virus

In terms of the spread of the virus, countries can be divided as follows:

  1. Countries that had an intense wave of infections in February–April and implemented very strict restrictions which have now been relaxed. Despite high levels of infection, not more than 10% of the population has developed antibodies even in these countries (although there are large regional differences). There has now been a slight increase in infection in most of these countries (Spain, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands), which have so far not led to an increase in mortality or the need for intensive care. It is too early to say whether it is because mainly young people are infected, or because the new wave has not yet reached a phase where mortality is rising, or because the increased numbers are due to more widespread testing. The curve is also significantly flatter. An increase in the number of the infected after the relaxation of the restrictions was expected and most experts and models predicted this to happen. At present, these countries are not rushing to introduce broader restrictions but rather emphasise the importance of social distancing and testing.
  1. Countries where the initial wave of infections was very modest or short-term. They show a significant increase in infections, which has so far not led to the overburden of the medical system. Examples include the Balkans, Israel, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Czechia, etc. This is unlikely to be a new wave, but the virus has always circulated in these countries. All these countries have reintroduced different restrictions, yet the infection continues.
  1. Countries where the spread started later than in most European countries and remains at a high level. In Russia, for example, around 5,000 new cases and around 100 deaths are reported every day. In the United States, the centre of infection has shifted from the East Coast to the West Coast and the South. Although the infection rate is in under control in some areas of the East Coast, the country-wide figures remain high. South American countries also fall into this category. No downward trend in infection can be noted yet, rather the rise continues.
  2. Countries where only a few cases of infection have occurred for a long time. This category includes predominantly islands or very small countries such as New Zealand, Vatican, Greenland, etc. Vietnam was also considered as such for a long time, but a significant increase in infections in the Danang region has also been observed in recent days. In Africa, infection remains low (except in the South African Republic).
  1. Countries I would like to highlight because of their specific nature:


a) Singapore – with very low levels of infection at first, the country now reports 300 to 500 infections every day for the third month already, while mortality is very low (0.05%). The infected are predominantly migrant workers. Singapore very well manages to monitor the infected and their contacts;

b) China and South Korea – the first outbreak was in January–February, but a small number of new infections still occur. Coronavirus has not disappeared from these countries;

c) Iran — the outbreak remains unchanged since February; every day around 2,500 new infected people and around 200 COVID-19 related deaths are reported. The restrictions are relatively modest and tend to be limited to the recommendation to comply with hygiene rules and wear masks indoors. Iran has reported that 20% of its population has antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. As infection steadily continues, it is probably not sufficient for the onset of herd immunity;

d) Sweden – a country that opted for lighter restrictions and which should not face any problems arising from the lifting of restrictions, as nothing has been lifted. In recent weeks, infections have notably decreased, despite a significant increase in the testing capacity. The number of fatalities and patients needing intensive care has also decreased significantly and over a longer period. The Swedish outbreak has lasted for around five months in total. Experts do not know exactly what is behind the current decline in infections – whether herd immunity is starting to develop or it is rather due to the holiday period and the related dispersion of people. The coming months will probably give us the answer;

e) Northern European countries and the Baltic states – the infection rate remains low, although a slight increase has been observed in all these countries in July. So far, the Nordic and Baltic states (excluding Denmark) have shown the lowest infection figures in Europe in terms of the number of infected people per 100,000 inhabitants over the past 14 days.

Mortality

Since mortality rates are reported differently from country to country, cross-country comparison is not 100% reliable. What can be noted, however, is that case fatality rate varies greatly: from 0.05% in Singapore to 16% in France. Indeed, case fatality rates of more than 10% are mainly reported only in the most advanced Western European countries (Belgium, the UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain), while the world average is between 3% and 4%. All the countries mentioned above also report high mortality rates adjusted to population numbers. A detailed analysis of the difference in mortality between countries has not yet been published. It may be speculated that high mortality rates are due to an ageing population, an overburdened medical system or a low testing capacity, at least in the initial phase of the outbreak.

The infection fatality rate (IFR) is also considerably fluctuating, with low IFR (0.1%) in regions with low mortality rates, while the average rate was 0.27% in regions with high mortality rates. As expected, a notable difference between the IFR for people under 70 and over 70 can be noticed.

Prevention of SARS-CoV-2

As already mentioned, the levels of antibodies against SARS‑CoV-2 are low (<10%) in most regions of the world, even in countries with high levels of infection. There are some exceptions – northern Italy and the slums of Mumbai, where 50% to 60% of the population have antibodies. Since repeated infections have not been described so far, antibodies are likely to protect from repeated infection.

It is, however, too early to say how long this protection lasts. Thus, most of the world’s population is not immune to the virus, which is also proven by the constant circulation of the virus in most countries of the world.

Herd immunity could be induced with vaccines, but the arrival of vaccines on the market, despite the speed at which they are being developed, is not realistic in the coming months. More than 140 vaccines based on different methodologies are under development; five of those have entered the third-phase trials. Most of these trials only started and, even at a very high speed, we will not get the first results on immune response and vaccine tolerability before three or four months. Whether vaccines prevent the onset of COVID-19 among those vaccinated can be assessed in one or two years. Thus these results can be expected in summer 2021 at the earliest.

So far, low levels of infection have prevented third-phase trials. The current trials are carried out in countries where the infection is at its peak (the United States, Brazil, South African Republic, Saudi Arabia). It is noteworthy that the vaccines prevented both the serious disease and the infection in a small number of monkeys. So far, trials involving the infection of human volunteers have not been considered ethical. We do know that vaccines bring about neutralising antibodies in humans. Regulators have said that they accept a vaccine that is 50–60% effective. Thus, even if vaccines do reach the market at the end of the year, we will only know their short-term side effects and whether they produce antibodies, perhaps also their primary efficacy indicators.

Russian news channels have announced that physicians and teachers will be extensively vaccinated from October. The current understanding is that the vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Institute has not passed the third-phase trials. In conclusion, vaccines cannot be seen as a quick solution any time soon and non-pharmacological methods must be used to combat the virus. Physical distancing is an effective tool to prevent infection with infectious diseases (and not only COVID-19). This may become new normality, although it is not yet the case.

Masks are one method of social distancing and are probably the most important in a situation where physical distancing is not possible or where the number of virus carriers can be high (indoor spaces, public transport, hospitals). As this is primarily a human-to-human disease, wearing masks in places where there are few people or at a time when infection levels are low does not make much sense. Wearing masks is not dangerous if they are correctly used and regularly replaced. However, masks alone are not a magic bullet against the virus but are part of a complex set of measures.

Isolation is indicated only for close contacts of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 (>15 minutes closer than 2 m). Isolation should not be applied to the contacts of close contacts, as they do not pose a risk. Self-isolation must be strictly adhered to and it does not depend on whether the contact was in the workplace, abroad or in a night club.

Estonia has laid down a 14-day isolation requirement for people coming from countries at risk. As an alternative to isolation, several countries (Germany, Austria, Iceland) accept a PCR test on arrival, which Iceland requires to be repeated on day 7. The PCR test could also be combined with an antibody test, especially if a person is known to have had COVID-19. The retesting of PCR-positives is not recommended as it makes little sense.

Hygiene rules have already been explained at length, so washing hands, disinfecting, staying at home when ill, etc. should become a social norm.

COVID-19 in Estonia

Similarly to other northern European countries, the current level of infection in Estonia is low (3.8/100,000 in the last 14 days), but the virus has not disappeared. Cases have occurred throughout the summer. Most cases have been imported, but the outbreak in Tartu also shows a local spread of the virus. As in other European countries, predominantly young people are affected: it is a disease of parties and gatherings. In general, young people tend to spread the disease better than the old; on the other hand, it is more severe among the elderly. About 15% to 16% of patients are older than 50 (the main group putting pressure on the medical system). During the March/April outbreak, more than 50% of patients were older than 50. The Health Board has currently been able to monitor contacts, but this is very resource-intensive and probably unrealistic if the spread of the virus increases considerably.

It is now clear that SARS-CoV-2 is not a short-term phenomenon, but will be around for years, if not decades. So, we must take this into account in our future action. Can we close down schools, leave people confined to their homes and stop external communication for years or find ways to live with the virus?

Restrictions cannot be completely avoided, but they must always be proportionate, timely and balanced. Strict and very early restrictions have not demonstrated a long-term effect in any country (China is an exception). They may work at first, but once they are slightly relaxed, the virus will come back.

It is not possible to avoid all infections, but it is reasonable to keep infections at a level that does not overburden the medical system and impede the treatment of other diseases.

Estonia’s future strategy should seek to maintain as normal a life as possible and the implementation of restrictions should be focused and considered when the medical system starts to show signs of failure. Testing capacity is in place in Estonia and there should be also enough personal protective equipment, so the test-and-trace strategy seems to be the best option.

Each institution/sector should develop a long-term strategy for living with the coronavirus. For example, how to keep the entertainment sector working in such a way that people are entertained without putting their lives at risk. The same applies to nursing homes, which pose a very high risk in terms of coronavirus. It is very inhumane to close old people in homes for years without any face-to-face contact with their loved ones. Making all schools to implement full e‑learning for several years might not be sustainable. But it may work to some extent, especially in senior school stages. The current situation requires innovation and brainwork from all of us.

In the fight against coronavirus, we should not forget that there are many other diseases in the world and that restrictions also affect the occurrence of other diseases. For instance, closing down schools means that vaccinations done in schools are cancelled or at least delayed, potentially leading to outbreaks of other infectious diseases. The closure of kindergartens also disrupts the work of many other institutions, including the organisation of medical care. Soon it will be time for flu vaccinations and this should not be forgotten in the rush of dealing with coronavirus.

The situation requires understanding, patience and responsible behaviour from all, the young and the elderly alike.

Professor Lutsar published this article on social media on 3 August.

Category: Research
Virge Ratasepp (a73579)
Checked
24.09.2020 - 11:37
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