One of the two fellows of this year’s Tamkivi Natural Science Foundation is Friedrich Kaasik (27), a PhD student at Tartu University. He is working on his doctorate thesis in Professor Alvo Aabloo’s lab researching robotic devices that can lift heavy objects without making any sound, also known as artificial muscles. He’s also implementing his research results in Estiko Plastar, one of the leading plastic packaging manufacturers in the Baltic region. Friedrich has published several academic articles and has also taught students both in schools and AHHAA Science Center.
How did you find your passion in chemistry?
That is a difficult question. I guess I got more interested already in middle school when our chemistry teacher managed to get me into this.
You have studied in a regular school and also in a high school that is centered on natural sciences. How would you compare these experiences and assess Estonian education system and teaching of the natural sciences in particular?
It’s quite difficult to compare those two schools. First of all, at the Commerce Grammar School (currently Tartu Hanseatic School) the schoolyear was divided into regular quarters but at Hugo Treffner Gymnasium it was divided into periods. To think back I guess I preferred the period system much more because that enabled me to concentrate on studies more intensely.
I think that a lot depends on teachers and the school whether you get interested in natural sciences or not. It would be easy to say that there is not enough natural scineces in the curriculum but actually the schools can do quite a lot about shuffling the classes around and decide what courses to teach more intensely. I happened to have a lot of mathematics both in middle school and high school, 5 and 7 academic classes respectively.
You have also worked as a tour guide and a lab assistant at the science center AHHAA and as a tutor in Tartu University. That would imply that you really enjoy teaching and performing. But at the same time you did not complete your studies to become a chemistry teacher. Why?
I guess I’m really not intimidated by stepping up in front of people. I still do some tutoring both at the university and high school. I’m also currently supervising a group reasearch project and some individual projects in 7th and 11th grade. I’m also a supervisor to a MSc thesis of a graduate student.
I did not follow through with my teacher training programme because I was not motivated enough to complete the pedacogial courses of my studies. It must be the matter of a broader perspective – what matters more: the discipline itself or the didacticts of it? Of course it would be ideal to find a balance between the two.
Your field of research is the “artificial muscles” that help develop smaller, faster and wiser robotic devices. Please describe shortly what is your particular research project about and how can this be implemented in production?
I’m doing research on materials that can change its shape or size by the power of electric voltage. The same material also acts as movement or percipitation sensor. In addition to the aforementioned fenomena the material can be treated as a soft supercondensator.
A material like that could be used in robotics if there is a need for soft and flexibly-sized actuator. The material also allows to conserve energy. There could be three possible outcomes: a soft actuator, generating electricity from the percipitation gradient and a soft supersondensator.
You also conduct research in a lab at Estiko Plastar. What are the “technology of plastics with sensory qualities” that you are working on?
As I already mentioned, these materials have sensory qualities. I try to reasearch more into these qualities and better them. Unfortunately the hopes to make them much better have not been successful enough.
You have completed all the stages of your studies at Tartu University but spent one semester in Saarbrücken, Germany, in Leibniz Institute of New Materials and you have also participated in several international conferences and published academic articles in international science magazines. What is it that you mostly gain from the international experiences and how does Tartu compare on the scene?
Working abroad definitely adds to your knowledge and perspective, it helps you to thrive personally. There are great conditions here in Tartu to do science at the best possible level, there is enough higher quality equipment and scientists. Probably the most difficult part is finding enough funding for ptojects.
As you mentioned the lack of funding – how important is the scholarship of Tamkivi Foundation and the likes for you and other young researchers? Would you say the amount of time you spend on sending out the applications is proportional to the financial outcome?
The scholarship of Tamkivi Foundation definitely helps a lot in continuing my studies. But I cannot give a number on a scale of one to ten. I’ve never tried such a correlation but there could well be a correlation if you only take the positive feedback in account. But on a more personal level I’m sure that one thing usually leads to another.
In addition to your academic work you have been very active socially, being a member of student associations and a corporation and even a political party. How would you describe the position of academia in Estonian society? Do the universities react to socio-economic needs, how does the society regard the universities and what could be done better to communicate the scientific discoveries?
I’m not sure if this is a sense of some sort of a mission but I have been lucky enough to be able to participate in advancing Estonian education system. Being an insider in the system it’s difficult to evaluate the facade. I hope that Estonian society regards Tartu University as a dignified national university that provides research on the very best international level. The universities always try to work hand-in-hand with the needs of the society but nobody would be able to predict how many philosophers or material scientists we would exactly need on the labour market in 3 to 5 years. We have noticed a rise in the number of IT students over the past few years mostly due to the fact that the high school graduates have realized that IT is a profession that would not leave them on the street.
To explain the achievements of science we should use more commonly understandable terms. That would be the easiest thing to do to promote science and to reach everybody in explaining the latest discoveries. The scientists should also explain why we need this or that. Coincidentally this just happens to be one of the most difficult tasks for most scientists.