National research awards laureates – what do they do?

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National research awards in 2018. Author/source: ERR

Last week, the Government of the Republic announced this year’s laureates of the national research awards. ERR Novaator has compiled an overview of what these scientists do.

Award for outstanding lifetime achievements in research and development

Mall Hiiemäe (born 1937) is one of the most notable folklore researchers in Estonia, diligently collecting and studying Estonian folklore for over half a century. Mall Hiiemäe’s field of interest as a researcher has ranged from the non-material creations of Estonians to understanding the relationship between Estonia’s nature and its cultural heritage.

She had already begun updating Estonian folkloristics significantly in the 1960s by explaining how folk tales are created and passed on in a living oral storytelling tradition. In the 1990s, her work promoted the understanding of folklore not as a remnant of the fading agrarian folk culture but rather as part of a living cultural process that also involves the urban environment and the Internet. The eight-volume “Estonian Folk Calendar” by Mall Hiiemäe (1970–1999; 1st volume by S. Lätt) stands firm as a significant work of lasting value. Her life’s work has resulted in a solid foundation for understanding our contemporary nature.

Mall Hiiemäe’s previous awards:

  • 2000 Order of the White Star of the Republic of Estonia, Fourth Class
  • 2007 national research award in the field of humanities for research work in the field of folkloristics

Award for outstanding lifetime achievements in research and development

Agu Laisk (born 1938) is a senior research fellow in plant physiology and professor emeritus at the University of Tartu (UT).

Academic Agu Laisk is an outstanding researcher of carbon binding (photosynthesis) in plants, whose research through the years has dealt with the question: What determines the speed of photosynthesis? To answer this, Laisk has led the construction of the world’s fastest photosynthesis measurement system, the preparation of the most complex photosynthesis model and the collection of research results that shed new light upon the photosynthesis process – all of which could be referred to as “first in the world”. Through his work, Laisk has reached one of the highest points atop the world’s scientific pyramid, a height that will remain unreachable to his contemporaries for many years to come.

Agu Laisk. Source: Wikipedia

Agu Laisk has previously been given the following awards:

  • 1985 Estonian SSR national research award, collectively with colleagues
  • 1992 Karl Ernst von Baer Medal of the Estonian Academy of Sciences
  • 1999 national research award of the Republic of Estonia (with Vallo Oja) in the field of chemistry and molecular biology for the monograph, “Dynamics of leaf photosynthesis”
  • 2001 Order of the White Star of the Republic of Estonia, Fourth Class
  • 2007 Medal of the Estonian Academy of Sciences

Award for research and development based on a scientific discovery that led to the creation of an innovative product which has a significant socio-economic impact: research and development work “Base technologies of e-society”

Ahto Buldas (born 1967) is a professor within the Department of Software Science at Tallinn University of Technology.  Thanks to the work of professor Buldas, we live in a relatively safe e-state. Ahto Buldas’ work in creating attack-resistant e-services and timestamp systems has led to the development of Estonian e-state technologies as well as the products and services of two internationally successful Estonian companies, Cybernetica AS and Guardtime AS. His timestamp technology (or blockchain) is founded on mathematical proofs. It ensures the invariability of data from the moment of stamping and makes forgery prohibitively expensive. This technology developed by professor Buldas has now been incorporated into every successful information system and many of its applications are already starting to change the world.

Ahto Buldas has previously been presented with the Order of the White Star of the Republic of Estonia, Fourth Class (in 2015).

Award in the field of exact sciences

Ülle Kotta (born 1948) is a lead research scientist at the Tallinn University of  Technology and has received the award for her cycle of works, “Algebraic methods in mathematical control theory.

Ülle Kotta has solved two problems in mathematical control theory that hitherto had stumped mathematicians. She has shown that the behaviour of autonomous systems can be reduced to systems with one sensor and one actuator. She has also uncovered two broad classes of discrete time systems, which can be decompiled into observable and unobservable subsystems. Ülle Kotta has provided substantial answers to important questions that make the theory more coherent and more universal. She has been able to find many easily explained connections between seemingly disparate concepts. This is mathematics in the best sense of the word.

In 1996, Ülle Kotta was given the national research award of the Republic of Estonia in the field of technical sciences for her research work, “Inversion method in the discrete-time nonlinear control systems synthesis problems”.

Award in the field of chemistry and molecular biology

This goes to a research group responsible for the cycle of research works, “Mechanisms of antibiotic action and antibiotic resistance”:

  • Tanel Tenson (leader of the collective) is a professor of the technology of antimicrobial compounds at the UT Institute of Technology,
  • Vasili Hauryliuk is a senior research fellow in molecular biotechnology at the UT Institute of Technology,
  • Arvi Jõers is a senior research fellow in molecular biotechnology at the UT Institute of Technology,
  • Niilo Kaldalu is a senior research fellow at the UT Institute of Technology,
  • Karin Kogermann is an associate professor in physical pharmacy at the UT Institute of Pharmacy,
  • Ülo Maiväli is a senior research fellow in molecular biotechnology at the UT Institute of Technology,
  • Marta Putrinš is a research fellow in biomedicine at the UT Institute of Technology.

Antibiotics are one of the pillars of modern medicine but regrettably the spreading of resistance to them has rendered them less effective. A better understanding of the mechanisms of antibiotic action and antibiotic resistance helps to achieve a more reasonable use of current medicine as well as the development of new medicine. The research group led by professor Tenson approached antibiotics in a multifaceted way, studying the biochemical mechanisms of action as well as the effects on bacterial cells. The part of their collective work which was most innovative demonstrated the transfer of genetic material repressing the action of medicine from environmental microbes to human pathogens. The results of the research make an effective contribution to the creation of new antibiotics.

Award in the field of technical sciences

Jarek Kurnitski (born 1970) is the head of the research group within the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture at the Tallinn University of Technology and was presented with the award for the cycle of research works, “System boundaries and technical solutions for nearly-zero-energy buildings.

Energy efficient buildings is a topic of paramount importance in the world. Jarek Kurnitski can be considered as one of Europe’s leading researchers in the field of the energy efficiency and the indoor climate of buildings. His work connects building physics, the technology for ensuring suitable indoor climates and solutions for necessary utility systems. For the time being, the systems and solutions created are usable under laboratory and real-world conditions. In this way, it is easier to optimise heat release from the heating system and minimise heat loss; combine the operation of energy piles and a heat pump; test the impact of controllable external screening; and use the effect of the heat pump together with district heating. Under Jarek Kurnitski’s lead, a breakthrough is happening in Estonia in the methodology of energy efficiency and in designing and building energy efficient buildings.

Award in the field of medical science

  • Joel Starkopf (born 1966) is the head of and a professor at the UT Institute of Clinical Medicine
  • Annika Reintam Blaser (born 1971) is an anaesthesiology and intensive care research fellow at the UT Institute of Clinical Medicine and the chief doctor at the Lucerne Cantonal Hospital

Together, they were given the research award for their research and development cycle, “Increase in intra-abdominal pressure and gastrointestinal failure in intensive care patients.

Discomfort in the stomach may be a sign of something serious. Thanks to the research work of Joel Starkopf and Annika Reintam Blaser, the understanding of gastrointestinal pathophysiology in critical patients has significantly improved. Their research specifies evidence-based definitions for describing feeding intolerance in intensive care patients and tests their trustworthiness. Respective clinical practices have also changed significantly all over the world as a result of their work. Under the guidance of professor Starkopf, a significant, internationally acknowledged research group has been formed.

Award in the field of geology and biology

Academic Ülo Niinemets (born 1970) is a professor with the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and has been given the award for his cycle of research works, “Integration and adaptation mechanisms of plant photosynthesis: from foliage gradients to global patterns.

Plant physiology professor Ülo Niinemets. Source: Wikipedia.

All organisms on Earth are dependant on plant photosynthesis – it is the foundation of life. Ülo Niinemets asks: Which structural and physiological properties of plants determine the speed of photosynthesis? By posing this question he is actually asking how global climate change affects the capability of Earth’s vegetation to provide us with clean air and sufficient food. Additionally, he offers insights for developing a new generation of climate models that can predict the production of vegetation and the processes of the biosphere, while also hinting at ways to increase the yield of plants.

Ülo Niinemets has previously been presented with the following awards:

  • 2000 national research award of the Republic of Estonia (together with Olevi Kull) in the field of geology and biology for the work, “Adaptation of photosynthesis in foliage”
  • 2006 national research award of the Republic of Estonia in the field of chemistry and molecular biology for the work, “Physiology of volatile organic compound emissions”
  • 2012 Order of the White Star of the Republic of Estonia, Fourth Class

Award in the field of agricultural science

Rein Drenkhan (born 1977) is an associate professor in forest pathology at the Institute of Forestry and Rural Engineering and has been given the award for his research work, “Early identification of invasive dendropathogens and distribution analysis.

Forest-related topics have become explosive, and woe to those who dare criticise the health of our forests or the way they are managed today. Rein Drenkhan has the courage to step upon this minefield and prove that the forests of the Baltic states and Nordic countries are increasingly in danger of forest diseases. Furthermore, many pathogens have been located in our forests and he has explained the risks to his Northern European colleagues. These diseases endanger conifers as well as broadleaved trees and may infect or kill tree species that thus far have been considered to be relatively resistant. Rein Drenkhan offers opportunities for saving the health of the forest.

Award in the field of social science

Ringa Raudla (born 1979) is a professor at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance of the Tallinn University of Technology and has been given the award for her cycle of research work, “Public finance developments and challenges during and after crises in Estonia and in Europe.

During the last four years, the research of Professor Ringa Raudla has made significant contributions to international scientific literary works that analyse the connections between public finance, crises and public administration. Her publications on this topic span a wide spectrum, comprising advances in theory, case analyses, comparative studies as well as quantitative approaches. The research group led by Ringa Raudla has developed an analytical framework, which can be used for a more systematic exploration of fiscal governance and fiscal bureaucracy, especially in the context of a crisis.

Award in the field of humanities

Martin Ehala (born 1963) is a professor at the UT Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics and was given the award for his research paper, “Development of sign theory of identity based on studies of the Estonian linguistic environment”.

The concept of identity is inextricably connected to understanding the meaning of being human, understanding “I” and to the nature of personal causation and social relationships. It is the set of characteristics that makes us unique. The most important result of Professor Martin Ehala’s research is the development of a novel theory of identity as a phenomenon based on the results of identity studies within different disciplines. The author has successfully implemented this theory for a comparative study of ethnolinguistic vitality of the largest ethnic groups of the Baltic states (Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, the Russian communities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Latgalians, Poles in Lithuania and the Mari people in the Russian Federation). His research has made a notable contribution to the development of the theoretical concept of identity studies and to the studies on the sustainability of Estonian language.

The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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