Tallinn University of Technology

On 13 February, Tiit Lukk, Senior Researcher of the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, took office in the University of Technology as the new vice-rector of research. When the new vice-rector of research talks about his first steps in his new position, he promises that no drastic changes are expected and that he is determined to continue the work started by Academic Maarja Kruusmaa to keep the quality of research on the upward trajectory.

Having done research both in Estonia and abroad, the new vice-rector of research of Tallinn University of Technology also has his own vision and practical ideas on where Tallinn University of Technology needs to go to strengthen its position in Estonia and the world.

Tiit Lukk

Kaire Uusen | Photos: Karl-Kristjan Nigesen

While society talks about integration from the perspective of ethnic minorities, who need to be more involved in local life, Lukk is convinced that in today’s scientific world, greater cooperation between different scientific disciplines is also needed to succeed. At the University of Technology, for example, IT experts and natural scientists could look for even more common ground, but why not also researchers in the fields of construction and economics. It would be promising to link applied sciences with subjects of economics, where different business models and new technologies could be integrated. ‘As a biochemist, I have published articles with computer scientists, microbiologists, chemists and physicists. I can tell you from personal experience that it works, and the scientific result has much more weight and impact that way,’ says Lukk.

After returning to Estonia six years ago, Lukk joined the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology as a senior researcher. In addition to his research, he leads the Estonian Biochemical Society, organises successful international research seminars and plays the cello in the Tallinn University of Technology Chamber Choir and the double bass or bass guitar in the brass band.

What were your thoughts or plans when you accepted the post of vice-rector of research?

When Rector Tiit Land made this unexpected proposal, I took some time to think. I have to admit that the job of vice-rector of research is very different from the work I have been involved in so far. I’d call myself a researcher through and through, so to speak. I spoke to people smarter than me and whose opinion I trust. Accepting the position of vice-rector of research was also encouraged by his previous experience as president of the Estonian Biochemical Society, several years of experience as a member of the expert committee in the field of natural sciences of the Estonian Research Council, and the management of his own research group, all of which support the acceptance of greater responsibility and challenge. In addition, I have come to understand that the incumbent rector is an inclusive leader who supports researchers and is constructive as a leader. I have great respect for this kind of leadership and it was one of the main reasons why I said yes.

In terms of plans, no drastic changes are expected. I want to maintain a steady course of high quality research, continuing to support researchers and doctoral students, as my predecessor did. In particular, I would like to see more cooperation between the faculties and departments, as well as more effective cooperation between the University of Technology and Estonian companies to support innovation.

What are the first steps you will take in your new job?

My first job is to educate myself on what is important. It is a big responsibility to shape the university’s research strategy. We have six focus topics at the university, and the first job is to flesh them out, so to speak. Who will lead them, what are the key issues related to the focus topics and how to get the teams to work on them.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot over the years – even when I came back to Estonia in 2016 – is how to get more Estonian doctoral students. We have very high-level doctoral students coming from abroad, and it is great to work with them as supervisors, but unfortunately a considerable amount of foreign doctoral students move on to other parts of the world or back to their home countries after receiving their doctoral degree, and do not stay to contribute to the Estonian economy or develop life here.

Tiit Lukk

How are the doctoral studies going at TalTech these days?

We are actually doing very well with doctoral studies. In 2022, the largest number of doctoral students defended their theses at TalTech in recent history, and the forecast is for even more to be defended in 2023. Our supervisors are strong and our doctoral programmes are competitive and of high-quality. However, when it comes to bottlenecks, one of the most important topics is the next Estonian-speaking generation. How to encourage Estonian-speaking postgraduate students to start doctoral studies at the Tallinn University of Technology? There is a great need to find new solutions and ways to better link undergraduate students to the university, for example by involving them in research projects at an early stage.

The proportion of international doctoral students varies by programmes: for example, there are fewer foreign doctoral students in the natural sciences, while there could be more Estonian doctoral students in IT. Foreign students bring with them a unique baggage, but it is important to maintain a balance in order to preserve the next generation of Estonian speakers, which tends to be lost in some fields.

Another problem is motivating doctoral students to graduate. The current statistics are a little disappointing, as only half of all doctoral students reach graduation.

Having studied and worked for many years in very international teams, I know how enriching and world-expanding cultural diversity can be. That is why I want foreign students to always feel welcome at TalTech. One of the reasons I was drawn away from Estonia was that it seemed a bit boring at the time. In America, there were many nationalities from all over the world and I am glad to say that studying at TalTech today is a similar experience. It also provides a good basis for successful international cooperation in the future, once you start studying.

You were in the US for many years. What can you take from your international experience to the post of vice-rector of research?

I can’t say that science is done much differently in the US, but there was more emphasis on collaboration, both between universities and within universities, at the level of different faculties and disciplines. Interdisciplinary science is one of my favourite subjects – I’m a true fan. I’d like to see more engineers and chemists working together and getting someone who is very strong in IT to join the team. Not only at TalTech, but also at other universities, there is often a kind of a separation – chemists are here and genetic engineers are there, and they all do their own thing. Often, the points of reference between them remain unexplored, but I think it is precisely these that we should be looking for more. This would also help to break down inter-disciplinary prejudices, build mutual trust and lead to more integrated science.

I will give an example. In the context of the resource valorisation method (RESTA), it was very clear how the schools of science and engineering can work closely together. I’ve organised joint events and brought researchers together, but I want to see this happening everywhere, to find common forms or points of cooperation that can bring big research money from Europe. In a small country, a lot can be done when different sectors join forces.

As a biochemist, I even work with machine builders now. My research team is working on a project funded by the Environmental Investment Centre to develop smart solutions to meet climate goals in Georgia. In cooperation with the mandarin juice industry there, we are looking for solutions on what to do with the press residue, which is a very large source of greenhouse gas emissions and is currently simply buried. It is in fact possible to make effective use of press residues, for example in fermentation, but first the essential oils and other useful substances must be extracted.

I went and knocked on the door of the engineers, specifically Professor Toivo Tähemaa. I said: ‘Listen, Toivo, here’s the thing, we have some money, can we build a prototype?’. We gave his team a detailed description of what the problem was and what we wanted to get. Thanks to the knowledge and experience of the two fields, the result is that we are now building a conveyor-based steam distiller together, which will be shipped to Georgia in the near future. In this way, we will enable the local industry to fractionate the press residues from mandarin juice in order to valorise otherwise wasted bio-waste.

Tiit Lukk

What is the state of Estonian science?

The overall picture for science in Estonia is very good, but that does not mean there are no concerns. The main source of dissatisfaction is related to research funding. Estonia needs to start supporting more research at all levels – both basic and applied research are important, as this will allow universities to make a greater contribution to the Estonian economy through innovation. However, the parties in the new coalition are giving hope that support for both higher education and research will be a key priority for the new government.

It is admirable that despite the economic uncertainty, world-class science is being done at TalTech. Of course, something is often sacrificed in the name of this – even one’s own salary. It should not be the case that researchers’ work is solely passion-based.

In my research projects, I interact with researchers from the University of Tartu and the Estonian University of Life Sciences. It seems to me that we have many of the same problems – that research tends to be project-based, research funding is scarce, searching for local doctoral students is like searching for a needle in a haystack in other universities as well, and there is no certainty at the end of each successive grant. I believe that strong science and strong teams and intersectorality will allow us to take a bigger step towards longer and more financially rewarding research projects, which will also ensure greater stability.

I would like to emphasise one more thing. When I came to work at the University of Technology, I felt a lot of support from my colleagues, managers and support staff, so at least in that sense, I dare say that it is good for researchers to work here.

What are the global concerns and challenges of science?

The biggest concern is related to the environment. The earth we live on is starting to overheat. Achieving climate neutrality and reducing the carbon footprint are burning issues. We have to be prepared to take decisions that are not so climate neutral, for example in the context of mineral resources. Where do the metals that go into energy storage devices or the copper needed to make electric cars or wind turbines, for example, come from if we don’t increase the extraction of these metals? Similarly, getting clean metal from metal ores also leaves a significant carbon footprint.

I recently read in a BBC news story from a couple of years ago that in order to produce one tonne of pure lithium, it is estimated that 5–15 tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted, depending on the type of the mine. So every step and every action in the transition to climate neutrality comes with a price tag, which is not always pleasant. The first stage of achieving a big goal is quite challenging and can be tough on the environment.

Recent years have brought a series of crises that have increased fear and confusion around the world. The media asks researchers for their opinion, but they voice of clairvoyants and anti-researchers is just as loud. The Swedes are proud that their society listens to and believes in researchers. How are things in Estonia?

Every week, I listen to a programme on Kuku radio called Olukorrast ajakirjanduses (‘About the situation of the press’), which is a really good pastime and very informative. It shows that the press often magnifies topics that are actually of interest to relatively marginal groups. In society at large, researchers are actually still trusted – and with that comes extreme responsibility. The press perhaps falls too easily into the trap of small groups, giving the impression that the Estonian society as a whole is a reflection of the media. Surely, TalTech can play a greater role here, looking beyond into the future and providing society with science-based information, and being a guide and leader –this should be the mission of every researcher in society.

What kind of leader are you?

I like transparent rules, I respect agreements, honest exchanges, mutual respect. In leadership, I am in favour of collaborative partnerships. I like interacting with people, I like a personal approach. If I have to write a letter to someone two floors down, I’d rather go and talk to them face to face. I do look to the future in my decisions, but I value the one-day-at-a-time philosophy. Haste makes waste!

In the Estonian Academy of Sciences, 12% of academics are women, in the Estonian Young Academy of Sciences 48% are women and 52% of the Estonian population are women. At TalTech, the proportion of female staff is 47.5%, while the proportion of female academic staff is 37.4%. Does it make a difference whether you lead women or men and is gender balance in science important to you?

I think it doesn’t matter whether a researcher is a man or a woman, it’s the skills and qualities of the person. Actually, I consider human values, open academic dialogue and high ethics to be even more important. I like people who have a good sense of humour and who can make fun of themselves, whether they are a man or a woman. In some areas, perhaps because of the specialty, one gender is still more predominant, but still, when I worked at Cornell University, I had plenty of female colleagues who were welders or engineers working behind the lathe – -it was not a surprise or a problem for anyone. I am very much in favour of gender balance, as it avoids stereotyping, which in turn allows you to see the strengths of a person coming from their personality and knowledge.

Tiit Lukk

You play the cello in the Tallinn University of Technology Chamber Choir. How did you become a biochemist in the first place and not a professional cellist? What other hobbies fit into your everyday life?

I went to music school at an early age largely thanks to my mother who teaches violin. Even though I really enjoyed playing the instrument, I realised quite early on that I would never be able to practice for hours a day, which is necessary to reach the top level. Nevertheless, I graduated from music school and playing instruments has accompanied me all my life. Fortunately, I have also managed to infect my daughter and older son with the same passion for music, who play the cello and percussion respectively.

When I was studying at Hugo Treffner Gymnasium in Tartu, one of my biology teachers was the late biochemist Urmas Kokassaar, a truly phenomenal figure. He was able to talk about his subject in an inspiring, enthralling, and funny way, even mixing in anecdotes. It was just great and without him I might not have chosen to study biology at the University of Tartu. He was a true example of how a researcher who was passionate about his profession could be so inspiring to young people that many of those who passed through his classroom are now researchers working in Estonian universities.

I found my way to biochemistry thanks to an Estonian researcher who had returned from America and with whom I crossed paths during my undergraduate studies at the University of Tartu. Thanks to his positive experience and encouragement, I also decided that I wanted to get more involved in biochemistry. That is how I went to America for my doctoral studies at the University of Illinois.

For a very long time I have also been interested in electronics. I got it from my father, who taught me that almost everything can be fixed. Interestingly, when I applied for a job as a synchrotron beamline researcher at Cornell University after my post-doctoral studies, I was asked some unexpected questions during my interview as a biochemist and structural biologist: for example, do I know any programming languages, how do I feel about working in a workshop, what have I done as a hobby electronics engineer and what my other hobbies are. As a beamline researcher, one of my jobs was to design and draw beamline components, followed by one of two things – either hand the drawings over to the mechanic and wait for the component to be milled in a couple of weeks, or go to the workshop and do it myself. I decided to do it myself because it is much more exciting.

Perhaps that is where my fascination with sectoral integration comes from.