2008 marks an important stage in the studies of Tartu Observatory researcher Kaupo Voormansik – it was the year he started his Master’s studies at the International Space University ISU in Strasbourg, France. The Skype scholarship programme was a great help in securing him a place at the university. The knowledge he gained there remains useful to him to this day.

In 2008 the scholarship was awarded by the Estonian Information Technology Foundation in cooperation with Skype. Now the name of one of the institutions has changed – the scholarship is being awarded by the IT Academy in cooperation with Skype, but the goal remains the same: to support information and communication technology and students studying in ICT-based fields abroad so that international experience and the best knowledge of best technology reaches Estonia. The IT Academy programme is managed by the Information Technology Foundation for Education.

Voormansik began his studies in the field of information technology in the Faculty of Nature and Technology at the University of Tartu in 2003. In 2008 and 2009 he studied in the Master’s programme at the International Space University ISU in Strasbourg and from 2010-2014 at the University of Tartu in the field of physics, with his thesis topic being ‘X-band synthetic aperture radar applications for environmental monitoring’.

His jobs have always been tied to state-of-the-art technology: the head of the radar monitoring work group at Tartu Observatory; a researcher with the Software Technology and Applications Competence Centre; a lecturer at Tartu University on the subjects ‘Basics of space technology’ and ‘Basics of signal processing’; a project manager on long-distance monitoring applications with AS Regio; a systems engineer on Estonia's first satellite, ESTCube-1; and more.

"Earlier this year I defended my doctorate in the field of physics,” he said. “My research was on the meeting point of three areas: information technology, physics and geography. At the observatory I'm the head of the radar monitoring work group, which has ten members.”

What does the radar monitor?

It monitors the ground, calculating useful things about it like height models to make maps more precise, and the height and biomass of forests. Or urban areas, and how cities grow. It obtains information about the ground and about objects on the ground.

So your work is closely tied to using state-of-the-art information technology?

Yes, definitely.

Your contribution to Estonia's first satellite, ESTCube-1, stands out on your CV – you were a system engineer. Was that one of the most exciting periods in your career?

Exciting on the one hand, very stressful on the other. Time was short and the satellite had to be ready on time. I was more of a technical manager – I had to trust the other team members. If there were problems or demands, I had to find the right people to solve them. I’d define my role by saying that as a system engineer I did everything within my power to get the satellite ready on time.

Your involvement with ESTCube-1 and your studies at the International Space University are connected in fact – there wouldn’t be one without the other. The Skype scholarship helped pay for your studies – it was 100,000 kroons in 2008. Do you remember how you found out about the scholarship?

An announcement about applying for it appeared on the physics department information board a couple of months beforehand. When I saw it I thought it seemed like such a big thing and so complicated, and doubted whether I’d even qualify. My supervisor Mart Noorma and I decided to go for it and filled in the application. And we got the good news that I’d been selected.

The ISU trains future leaders in the space sector. Why did you choose it?

Mart found it. Since the space field was only just beginning to develop in Estonia in 2008, starting from the education side of it seemed the most logical thing to do. Our team and Estonia needed that knowledge. The studies covered the space sector as a whole: space science; the companies and agencies that work in the field; the problems that are being dealt with at the moment. Anyone who’s graduated from ISU has the best and broadest overview of the field. I finished my Master’s programme in 2009. The studies lasted a year. It was all in English. The school’s in France, but it has an American background and style.

At the moment Martin Jüssi, who I’m supervising, is studying in Strasbourg – he’s the third Estonian at ISU. He just told me his exam results – which were better than mine! I’m really rooting for him. He's working really hard. (University of Tartu Master’s student in geography Martin Jüssi received a 16,000-euro scholarship from the European Space Agency for Master’s studies at ISU – Ed.)

Was studying in France very different from studying in Estonia?

It was very different, yes. In hindsight, my studies then match the teaching and theory of teaching today. It was already being used there at that time; newer approaches are only now reaching Estonia. There was a lot of teamwork and problem-based studies. More classical lecturing as well, quicker and shorter than ours. Classes were given by specialists in their fields, not professional lecturers. The biggest difference was that a lot of faith was placed in teamwork and problem-based learning.

The studies themselves were a lot more intensive. Whereas here a lot of students work in addition to studying, there that’d be impossible. You just couldn't manage both. ISU's tuition fees are 25,000 euros a year, so it's very expensive. The European Space Agency paid most of mine, and the Skype scholarship covered the rest.

Getting into and used to everyday life at the university took time. But since I went there with a real mission to obtain knowledge for Estonia, there weren't any big problems. I was really interested in what I was studying. Getting used to the teamwork took a while as well – here I’d worked more individually.

What was the biggest lesson you learned that year?

In terms of life lessons, the fact that ISU is an international university was great. There were students from Nigeria, Malaysia, Canada, France, Russia...I saw that people from different backgrounds really can work together. There’s no ill-feeling or other differences because of cultural background – I'm not buying into that fairytale!

How did your studies at ISU influence your career?

The topic of my doctoral thesis – ‘X-band synthetic aperture radar applications for environmental monitoring’ – is directly built on my studies at ISU.

If you combine Estonia and space your first thought is that there's not enough work here for space specialists. Or is space a field of the future for Estonia?

It’s definitely a field of the future for Estonia – I'm sure of it. There will never come a time when all the problems on Earth have been solved and we can focus our attention on space. Space is something we should be dealing with all the time as well. My view is that it's sad to see how much time people waste fighting with each other, on power and wars. Instead we could turn to space, go to Mars… That’d be something ground-breaking. It’d be progress. I believe that the deepest meaning of life for humanity is expanding the limits of our knowledge. When we learn something truly new, that means something deep – not more power or more money.

So you’d recommend to high school students that they study the sciences and apply for scholarships if they can?

Yes! Maths is such a fundamental tool. With the help of a strong basis in maths you can make quick progress in physics, and information technology. When studying maths you have to try to picture the long-term goal, why it's necessary; to understand how much this boring old subject actually applies in real life. My guess is that a lot of kids don't try very hard at maths because they don't see why it's useful. And scholarships help expand the world view we Estonians have, and deepen cooperation with other countries and other people.

Photos: Kaupo Voormansik; Flickr