A Study Trip to the Fields of Estonian Research

A path in a bog. (C) Siiri Kumari, visitestonia.com

Participants: 5 EUSJA science journalists
Topics: environmental science, information technology
Location: Estonia
Time: June 14–16, 2017
Application deadline: March 19

The deadline for members of the British, Dutch, French and Swiss associations is March 27.

The Estonian Association of Science Journalists and the Estonian Research Council invite EUSJA journalists to explore the fields of Estonian research. You can select up to four field work or lab assignments to take part in and get a detailed look into a scientist’s day, work methods and routine. Most importantly, you will have an exclusive chance to be involved hands-on in field work and conduct interviews with the scientists.

You can choose between a number of activities to observe and participate in.

Monitoring the Baltic Sea environment on board research vessel Salme

The Baltic Sea, shallow and rather isolated from the ocean, is heavily polluted by the industry and agriculture around it. This, together with climate change and invasive species, causes a lot of stress to its fragile ecosystems. It is therefore important to survey and study the sea environment continuously. The research vessel Salme is devoted to this task, with its advanced instruments enabling high-resolution sampling in time and space, with near real time data delivery. One of its main tasks is to monitor oxygen conditions and plankton blooms in the eutrophic sea. You can observe the deployment of instruments and learn about the related science during the trip on board the Salme.

Professor Urmas Lips, Tallinn University of Technology, Department of Marine Systems

Recording the ambient sounds of the sea

The sea is filled with sounds, both natural and human-made. The ever present ambient noise in the sea has been increasing in the past 50 years mostly due to increased shipping. In addition, a number of sources, such as pipeline building, produce intense short-term noise. Such human-induced noise may harm sea mammals and other organisms. Aleksander Klauson and his colleagues have been measuring and analysing underwater noise in the Baltic Sea for some years now. On the Salme, he will demonstrate the deployment of an underwater acoustic logger and and explain the phenomenon of underwater sound and its effects on ecosystems. He will also demonstrate real time analysis of underwater sounds.

Professor Aleksander Klauson, Tallinn University of Technology, Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture

Near zero energy buildings: saving and harvesting energy

Energy efficiency is among the five main targets of the European Commission’s Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Research is needed for the development of innovative buildings based on efficient use of materials and smart energy solutions. You can visit a test house for experiments on energy efficiency technologies at the Tallinn University of Technology. The near-zero energy test building near the university campus was constructed in 2013 to help research on building materials, heating and ventilation systems, lighting, and the use of renewable energy.

Professor Jarek Kurnitski, Tallinn University of Technology, Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture

Renovating a building to meet near zero energy standards

The first Estonian project to convert an old block of flats to a near zero energy building makes use of many innovative technological solutions. The renovation is unique in using of prefabricated modular panels to insulate the walls and roof. This ensures high construction quality and significantly reduces on-site work time. The building will have a heat recovery ventilation system, solar collectors for making hot water, wastewater heat recovery and a solar power system. These will ensure energy efficiency at a near zero energy level. The project’s complete solution is one of a kind in the Baltic and Nordic countries. The building will serve as a prototype for renovating similar apartment buildings. The renovation of the family dormitory, built in 1986 and located on the campus of the Tallinn University of Technology, will be completed in September 2017.

Professor Targo Kalamees, Tallinn University of Technology, Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture

Measuring the traffic between forest and atmosphere

The SMEAR Estonia station (Station for Measuring Ecosystem-Atmosphere Relations) in the Järvselja Forest measures the dynamic interchange of greenhouse gases, atmospheric pollutants, particulate matter, and energy between the forest ecosystem and the atmosphere from a 130 metre mast in the forest. Activities that you can closely inspect and get your hands on include soil surface exchange measurements, automated and manual gas sampling, and micrometeorological measurement. In addition to the 130 metre atmospheric measurement mast, there are two 30 metre scaffolding towers from where scientists can take measurements inside and above the forest surrounding the station. It is the only station in Estonia able to measure and monitor a whole range of environmental parameters at once.

Senior Researcher Steffen M. Noe, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Department of Plant Physiology

Testing the effects of air humidity on trees in the forest

Plenty of sunlight, enough water, good and rich soil – all three elements are essential for the growth of trees. In 2005, Estonian scientists started an experiment to manipulate air humidity in the forest. It is the first of the kind in the world and has produced some really interesting scientific results. The primary aim of project FAHM (Facility for Free Air Humidity Manipulation), also located in the Järvselja forest, is to study the effects of air humidity on ecosystems and on the processes within those ecosystems. FAHM grows aspen and birch trees in experimental cells where air humidity is artificially increased. The cells are open from the top but surrounded by plastic to stop rapid air movement in and out of the cells. Scientists assess the effects of air humidity on the temperature of foliage, photosynthesis and leaf growth. This helps them make scientific predictions on how forest ecosystems function and adapt. You can examine the technical architecture of the experiment, climb the tower and learn how the temperate forest adapts to the effects of climate change.

Senior Researcher Priit Kupper, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences

Avian ecology: the very best of Estonian zooloogy

Bird ecology has a long tradition at the University of Tartu. The research done on the population ecology, behavioral ecology and immunological ecology of the Great Tit and the Pied Flycatcher are fundamental to evidence-based conservation in an environment changing due to human activities. Fieldwork at Kilingi-Nõmme, South-West Estonia, started in the 1970s, and the longest time series of breeding data cover almost 50 years. This data has helped to reveal the relationship between eggshell strength and feeding on snails for the Great Tit. On the trip, you can take part in collecting blood samples for immune cell analysis. Scientists will then assess the health condition of adult birds and chicks.

Professor Raivo Mänd, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Science, Department of Zoology

Researcher Marko Mägi, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, Department of Zoology

Capturing greenhouse gases seeping from the soil in bogs and forests

Large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane escape from active peat extraction areas and abandoned peat fields in the bogs. Understanding how landscape development influences climate change helps us make better decisions on bog management, grassland use, forestry and farming, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Biogeochemistry Group of the University of Tartu is studying how environmental and biological factors influence carbon and nutrients cycles, paying particular attention to the genomes of soil microbes and processes occurring in the mycorrhiza in plant roots. You will be invited to participate in collecting and measuring greenhouse gases emitted from the soil in wetlands and forests, using an open-bottom soil chamber. You can also visit a revegetated bog near Kolga-Jaani, Central Estonia.

Professor Ülo Mander, University of Tartu, Institute of Physical Geography and Landscape Ecology

Botanical field-day: hunting for species in unique plant communities

Estonian wooded meadows hold the world record on small scale species richness: as many as 76 species of vascular plants have been identified on a single square metre in the wooded meadow of Laelatu. Antoher very special habitat type, the alvar, is a species-rich grassland of a type that can only be found in very few places in the world, among them Estonia and the Swedish islands of Öland and Gotland. However, severe loss of habitat area has driven the diverse flora and fauna of these grasslands to near extinction. In Estonia, threatened alvar grasslands are currently being restored to save their biodiversity. On the study trip, you can observe scientists monitoring the recovery of biodiversity. You can also learn about the methods used to restore overgrown habitats.

Senior Researcher Aveliina Helm, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences

Hands-on at the pond: protecting the most threatened frogs

The objective of the Conservation Biology Group at the University of Tartu is to support the conservation and advancement of biodiversity by contributing to basic and applied studies. They assess the status of species and identify threats to them, and compile control and conservation plans. Riinu Rannap is a research fellow in conservation biology. Her main research interests are frogs, toads and newts, amphibian ecology, habitat restoration, and small bodies of water as ecosystems. Amphibians play a pivotal role in the food chain, but the species are in decline worldwide. The study trip will take you to either Western or Southern Estonia and include active monitoring (dipnet plus rubber boots) of the breeding ponds of either the Natterjack Toad or the Great Crested Newt and Spadefoot Toad, all of them very rare species in Europe.

Professor Asko Lõhmus, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences

Researcher Riinu Rannap, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences

Quantum cryptography for digital security

Cryptography is the technology used to ensure the security of our data on the Internet. Quantum cryptography is concerned with two questions: (1) how can we make standard cryptographic protocols secure against quantum computers? (2) how can we make active use of quantum communication and quantum computers to get more secure Internet protocols? Quantum technology does threaten our digital security, but it also provides new opportunities and more security. The specialty of the laboratory is foundational work on quantum protocols with mathematically provable security. At the laboratory, the researchers will explain the challenges and relevance of quantum cryptography.

Professor Dominique Unruh, University of Tartu, Institute of Computer Science

Computational neuroscience: how two AIs learn to play Pong

Understanding the brain in health and disease is one of today’s biggest scientific challenges with important societal implications. In particular, computational neuroscience seeks to understand how the brain transmits, processes and stores the information that ultimately guides our behavior. The lab of computational neuroscience focuses on exploiting recent advances in machine learning algorithms and brain recordings to study how information is represented in the human brain and to improve artificial intelligent systems. During the visit, the computational neuroscience group will show you how two artificial neural networks learn to play the legendary video game Pong against each other. It is an example of how deep learning is applied to a system to make it behave in a certain way instead of programming it beforehand.

Senior Researcher Raul Vicente Zafra, University of Tartu, Institute of Computer Science

Gathering environmental data from a lake with autonomous buoy stations

Estonia is a small country, but it is full of lakes. More than 1200 lakes, from really cute mini-lakes to the big Lake Peipus, the fifth largest in Europe, are distributed around the country. A lake is a responsive indicator of local environmental conditions as it is very sensitive to pollution and agricultural substances like fertilisers and herbicides. On the other hand, the monitoring of thousands of lakes can be very time consuming and expensive. Thus more and more automated systems based on autonomous buoys or raft-mounted instruments have been deployed. On the study trip, you can see some of the systems at work on a lake.

Professor Tiina Nõges, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

Researcher Alo Laas, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Limnology

Extracting useful compounds from algae and seaweeds

Rando Tuvikene and his colleagues have been studying algae and seaweeds at Tallinn University for 15 years, focusing on extracting biologically active compounds from them, i.e. compounds that are antioxidative, bactericidal, anti-inflammatory, skin-whitening, etc. They are especially interested in compounds that have, in addition, some other useful properties, such as fluorescence, or the ability to make liquids gelatinous, viscous, or clear. Such compounds can be used in foods, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. One of the most important species Tuvikene’s team studies is the red alga Furcellaria lumbricalis that contains the gelling agent furcellaran.

Senior Researcher Rando Tuvikene, Tallinn University, School of Natural Sciences and Health

What happens next?

When your participation on the trip has been confirmed, by April 3, we will ask you to rank your preferences in the field and lab works, so that we can arrange a schedule that best suits the needs of all participants. We will send out a more detailed programme by the end of February to help you consider your preferences.

The field and lab trips are scheduled for Days 2 and 3, with a number of activities going on simultaneously for small groups of participants. Day 1 will have presentations on Estonian science, and a meet-up with Estonian journalists.

The Study Trip starts at 10 am on June 14 in Tallinn. Conclusion times on June 16 will be set on an individual basis, depending on your desired departure day and time.

Please send your application through your Association, by March 19, 2017 at the latest, to priit.ennet@err.ee. The application should consist of a short CV, a Statement of Purpose (up to 250 words on why you think the Study Trip is for you), and samples of previously published work (up to 5 recent publications).

Five other journalists, apart from the EUSJA 5, will be invited by the Estonian Research Council.

The organisers will cover the costs of accommodation in Estonia for three nights between June 13–17, meals, and transportation during the Study Trip. You are responsible for your travel expenses to and from Estonia and for any additional accommodation.

For any inquiries please contact:

Priit Ennet (content)
+372 5145608

Liis Livin (logistics)
+372 55527605

Country background: Estonia tops global rankings on internet freedom; it is the country where Skype was created, and where the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence and the EU Agency for large-scale IT systems are based. The knowledge of science among 15 year old Estonian students is the best in Europe and third best in the world, according to the PISA study, a premier global metric for school education, compiled by the OECD in 2015. As for its nature, Estonia has a lot of biodiversity, with half of the land covered by forests and the sea coast dotted with 2,222 islands and islets. Biological sciences are the main driving force behind the growth of Estonian scientific excellence. Two thirds out of the 42 Estonian scientists who have reached the top 1% in the world by the number of article citations are biologists or ecologists.

The Study Trip to the Fields of Estonian Research is organised by the Estonian Research Council through the initiative Research in Estonia, and in cooperation with the Estonian Association of Science Journalists. The Study Trip is supported by the European Regional Development Fund.