I realize that I have not written about my experiences at Tartu University (TÜ) and its Hospital (TÜ Kliinikum). Besides Dr. Everaus, I had contacts already with a cell biologist whom I had met when he was a visiting scientist at NIH toward the end of the Soviet era. Several years later I visited Tartu University on a Research Council travel award and at that time worked for three weeks with a developmental biologist who was then doing research with the late Prof. Jüri Kärner. At that time Prof. Kärner was the Dean of the University of Tartu. His term as Dean ran from the end of the 1980’s when I first met him and extended into the early 1990’s after Estonia regained its independence. Dr. Kärner was a quiet man who had trained in developmental biology with Prof. SuloToivonen at the University of Helsinki, Finland.
After we began doing our stem cell experiments and things settled into a routine, I began to take part in activities of the University. The Pharmacy Institute was celebrating its 170thyear since its founding on Oct. 19, 1842. The Institute was established by Czar Nikolai I with the granting of money for the Institute at Tartu and a new professorship. The Institute is a 20 minute walk away from the hospital and is in a region where several other institutes are located, as well as some start-up companies. It is also an area where a couple of new University
research institutes are being built. One will be in Physics. It is a growing research area.
The Pharmacy program consisted of plenary talks in the morning that I unfortunately had to miss, but I heard several
of the senior graduate students give presentations of their research in the afternoon. Most of the students were women with only a couple of guys giving presentations. One of the male students seemed very at ease talking in front of the relatively large audience. He added in jokes and his dissertation work appeared well done. It was well received. After the presentations, 12 to 15 faculty members from other departments gave their greetings and handed over mementoes. Everybody had a bouquet of flowers to give to the Director of the Institute. The flowers seem to be a highly prevalent European custom. In the US plaques or other types of gifts are given, but not as often flower bouquets.
One day I met with Raivo Raid who showed me the developmental biology wing of the Anatomy Building on Vanemuise. In this building is also the Nature Museum (Loodus Museum) where the mushroom exhibit had been held a few weeks earlier. I wrote about that in an earlier blog. As we walked toward the labs, there was a nice mural on the wall of different embryos taken while underneath a microscope. The embryos had been “painted by Photoshop” and had labels left on the pictures that Juri Karner had written in. The mural was quite
artistic! I felt very much at home in the developmental biology labs. They had several new phase fluorescence microscopes, stereoscopes, and dissecting microscopes. One student was in the process of removing a litter of embryos from a transgenic cross that had been done. The microscopes were the European ones, Zeiss, Olympus, and Leitz. I did not see any Nikon scopes that I have in my own lab. They are
expecting a new electron microscope to be set up any day now. Dr. Raid often uses electron microscopy in his own research. After seeing the labs, we walked over to a newer building where I met another faculty member who works on specific peptide transporters. He had trained at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Most of the developmental biologists and their students were present for my lecture on mechanotransduction that I gave at the Molecular and Cell Biology Institute on Riia Tänav (Street). I later had lunch with another developmental biologist, Kersti Lilleväli, who works on inner ear development. It was nice to meet another “Kersti” in developmental biology! This Kersti did part of her training in Helsinki. My good friend and colleague Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and author of the popular Developmental Biology textbook (Sinauer Press) had been an opponent at her dissertation defense. Scott is a friend from my University of Pennsylvania days. She said that Scott comes over to Tartu once a year to present some lectures to her class. It makes one realize how small the world can be.
The TÜ Molecular and Cell Biology Institute (IMCB) was founded 20 years ago. This Institute has been ranked among the top 1% in molecular biology. Prof Andres Metspalu is head of the Estonian Human Genome Project which is located within this Institute. Dr. Metspalu has carried out several years of postdoctoral training in the United States, including at Columbia University, Yale, and Baylor. Metspalu was one of the young Estonian molecular biologists who trained in the first Tartu University molecular biology laboratory that was established by Dr. Artur Lind. The first Estonian to receive his Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1975 was Mart Saarma. He trained also in Lind’s laboratory and is now a professor at the University of Helsinki.
On another day I attended a seminar given by one of the graduate students in developmental biology. This was a typical research progress talk done as a PowerPoint and given for feedback from the faculty and other students. I noticed that most of the graduate students were women. It seems this has become a trend in the last 4-5 years with male students going into more lucrative fields related to computing and business, rather than seeking advanced degrees in science and medicine. Academics and medicine are not fields that provide high salaries in Estonia. In talking with the faculty members, it appears most have heavy teaching loads, are expected to write grants and to do research. On the average grants mostly from the European Union are not as high as NIH grants.
TÜ Kliinikum at 8 Puusepa, Tartu
This is the main training hospital for the University of Tartu that brings all the different clinics and programs under one roof. After regaining its
independence in 1991, the Tartu University Hospital was reestablished in 1993. Then in January of 1998 the Estonian Government, University of Tartu, and the city of Tartu established together the Foundation Tartu University Hospital. The intent was to establish Tartu as a world-class healthcare center for Estonia and the hospital as the flagship of Estonian medicine. I had a chance to tour some of the Core facilities and found that the hospital is well on its way to being a first-class hospital! On the second floor is the Artur Linkberg auditorium and that is where I gave another talk dealing with my research on environmental influences and development of congenital heart defects. Prof. Linkberg was a surgeon in Tartu in the 1930’s and was very influential in the establishment of the hospital, its various programs and medical societies with the intent to have it one day be the flagship hospital for Estonia and the main medical training hospital. His vision came to fruition.
For me Linkberg’s name triggered a memory of my parents. Prof. Linkberg was a neighbor and a very good friend of my parents. My parents lived in Tartu in the 1930’s up until their departure when the Soviet occupation took place in September 1944. Thus within my family the Linkberg name was often mentioned. Never would I have thought that there would be a day in Tartu when I would present a lecture in an auditorium named in Linkberg’s honor! I began my lecture with a personal recollection of one of my parents’ conversation that demonstrated Dr. Linkberg must have had a really good sense of humor.
Later after my lecture Dr. Volli Järv, Director of Radiology, took Juri and myself around to see the hospital’s new
wing and Cores. It is impressive what Estonia and the University have been able to accomplish essentially in a relatively short time, since regaining its independence. They started out with outmoded instrumentation and a crumbling infrastructure to now the presently new gleaming medical facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. I saw at least four new MRI’s and there are
as many new CAT scanners, all interfaced with different workstations where doctors, nurses, technicians, or students would be analyzing the scans. I saw the same models of ultrasound instrumentation that I have seen at our own hospital in Florida. The old part of the hospital had been remodeled and the new part is no different than our US hospitals. I was impressed, when I recalled the poor state of the hospitals that I saw during the final years of the Soviet era. Twenty years of freedom has made a tremendous difference for this small country! The free-market economy is doing well in Estonia.