Training and the exploitation of results are the two principles currently applied at the University of Tartu’s Institute of Physics. This is an institute that is now very much at the forefront of developments after a period in the doldrums.
To inspect the ultrafine insulating film produced at the Institute of Physics in Tartu, Marco Kirm uses the synchrotron radiation installations at the Hasylab centre in Hamburg (DE). Scientific exchanges between Hamburg and the Baltic states are a long-standing tradition.
"When I left Estonia, in the autumn of 1991, to work in Sweden and then Germany, it seemed that the country held no future for a young scientist like myself. At that time, the Institute of Physics at Tartu University was struggling for survival.” These are the words of Marco Kirm, today the scientific director of that very institute which now employs 70 researchers and is a recognised European centre of excellence. Thanks to Estonia’s own economic growth over the past three years and financial assistance from the European Union, the Institute of Physics has been renovated and modernised. “You can now have plans and projects here, which is why I returned, as have a dozen or so of my scientific colleagues who had taken the same expatriate route."
Training and results The institute is pursuing a twofold strategy: training and the exploitation of research results. Training was neglected for many years, the almost zero recruitment during the 1990s resulting in an ageing scientific staff. This is why the Institute of Physics teamed up with Tallinn Technical University and the Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics to set up a postgraduate school in materials science with facilities for some 50 students, and 75% of funding coming from the EU Structural Funds.
As to the exploitation of results, this is based in particular on one of the institute’s ‘historical’ specialities: laser research. Most of the acquired know-how has been transferred to two companies, Estla Ltd in Tartu and Neweks in Tallin. A major contract was also signed recently with Samsung in the field of plasma screens, while research into nanotechnologies and surface treatments is a developing field. The end result should be the creation of a number of high-tech SMEs in the neighbouring science park.
From lab to lab "There is no escaping the fact that our institute no longer has the means to be active at an international level in all fields (materials science, biophysics, theoretical physics, optics, spectroscopy, etc.) as it was at the time of the USSR,” explains Marco Kirm. “Our policy is to select just a few of them, including materials physics, in which we believe we can still stand up to the competition. To do so we replaced all our old equipment dating back to the Soviet era with the very latest available. In other fields, we decided to work principally with the major European laboratories (MAX-lab of Lund, Hamburg, Grenoble, etc.) which are the only ones able to maintain the equipment that is needed. As a general rule, our basic equipment allows us to train students and young researchers up to a level that enables them to benefit from their experiences abroad. Thanks to European financing, they are able to travel and gain experience under technological conditions that we would not be able to offer.”
"It is easier to reform fundamental research than applied research as, in the latter, one comes up against a problem of the ‘chicken and the egg’ variety. Should we support industry, calculating that its growth will bring new research needs, or science, in the hope that it will give rise to new applications?” enquires the physicist Kristjan Haller of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. Estonia has nevertheless succeeded in exceeding the threshold of 1% of GDP invested in research (compared with 0.68% in Lithuania, 0.39% in Latvia, and an average of 1.93% for the EU-25 – 2003 figures).
"Nervous depression is, of course, an extraordinarily complex phenomenon,” explains the psychophysiologist Jaanus Harro, director of the Estonian Centre of Behavioural and Health Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Tartu. “Using animal models we can attempt ...
"Nervous depression is, of course, an extraordinarily complex phenomenon,” explains the psychophysiologist Jaanus Harro, director of the Estonian Centre of Behavioural and Health Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Tartu. “Using animal models we can attempt to reproduce given aspects of the illness so as to be able to describe the associated neurochemical mechanisms.”
Jaanus Harro and his team are studying new models in rats that highlight the ‘phenotypical traits’ of depression.
Traditionally, the pharmaceutical industry tests its antidepressants by measuring their effect on the time it takes a rat to give up swimming in a pool in which it is unable to find a platform. This method – which is simplistic to say the least – stimulated the development, by Jaanus Harro’s team in particular, of new models that better represent what the experts call the ‘phenotypical traits’ of depression. To mimic a reduced tendency for hedonism among depressed individuals, they will seek to isolate, among a rat population, those that do not spontaneously prefer sugared water to normal water. Similarly, to reproduce the lack of interest in social life, rats will be studied that are not attracted spontaneously by a source of 50 kHz waves – the frequency of the sounds emitted by these rodents when they are rewarded in a learning test.
Thirteen European laboratories, including the Tartu team, are working on the Nemwood project that is receiving EU financing of €7.3 million. The aim is to compare these different models in terms of behaviour, neurochemistry and genetic expression. The ultimate goal is to be able to make more complex behavioural tests available to the pharmaceutical industry.