Sven Sabas is learning to make smart choices in New York

SVEN SABAS: “If I’m working on a small part of a bigger project, I want to understand the bigger goal that it aims. I have a very hard time focusing on just my little part of it.”

Sometimes it seems to Sven Sabas (28) that he is starting to forget the Estonian language, despite the phone calls to his parents on the other side of the ocean every other week. After all, he’s been away from Estonia for a long time: the plan to study abroad came about as soon as he graduated the Hugo Treffner high school. In Great Britain alone he’d studied at three schools – University of York, London School of Economics and Political Sciences, and University of Oxford – when he applied to Imperial College London and University College London to “get another master’s degree”. “York is a relatively new university and it is culturally more diverse than Oxford, which has a very long history and where a lot of emphasis is put on your background. In newer universities the curricula are perhaps more modern and other changes are also easier to make,” says Sabas, comparing the various schools in the United Kingdom that he knows well. He diplomatically adds, “The question is always where do traditions end and where does innovation take over?”  

How does he see Estonian education in comparison with that in England? “In England, you have a lot of independent study time and there are few contact hours per week – on average 10, at most 15. The rest of the time you have to study independently, which requires excellent self-discipline. In Estonia, the curricula are more structured, and most entail a greater number of seminars and practical sessions,” says Sabas, who in 2007-2011 while still in high school also went to the University of Tartu Gifted and Talented Centre, where he graduated mathematics with distinction. “I believe that the schools in England prepare you better for independent life than the ones in Estonia do. When you go to work, you can’t expect your superior to give you a task every two hours. You have to decide for yourself what needs to be done and when.” Today, the triple master’s holder (finance, statistics, and mathematics and computer science) with an impressive resume has headed even farther – to New York, for five years of doctoral studies at the renowned Columbia University. “I applied to twelve universities and was accepted to about half of them.” How many other Estonians are currently studying at Columbia University, I ask him, thinking back to the fact that President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is among those who have in the past. “Unfortunately, I am the only Estonian student at the university,” although there are some Estonian researchers at the university, answers Sabas in the kind of clear and loud manner of speaking that tends to stick to you when you live in the States. His spoken Estonian so far is free of any accent, as far as I can tell.

Based on the website of Columbia University, Sabas is specialising in “stochastic optimization”, “data-driven decision-making” and the application of these in “e-commerce, transport, finance, and supply chain.” “This field is very interdisciplinary, since it brings together computer science, statistics, mathematics and economics,” describes Sabas. “The goal is to combine the knowledge of these branches of research in order to solve problems in real economy. In short – how to make smart, evidence-based decisions.”  

Could we get some more details about that and perhaps an example from real life?

“Yes, of course. Since I haven’t quite pinned down or formalised the topic of my doctoral thesis, one possible direction to explore is the optimisation of transportation networks. If we were to take Tallinn as an example, we might ask whether it was a good idea to extend the tram line to the Tallinn airport or whether they should have improved the bus connections instead.”

And what is your opinion on that?

“I don’t have an opinion about it, because I haven’t seen any analyses,” Sabas keeps it scientific. However, he does hint at the fact that the digital era is changing how analyses are done and the traditional approach, i.e. consultation analyses that experts carry out that are often based on qualitative methods, are now being replaced with methods based on big data. According to Sabas, there are many areas, where “you can trust computers, because people make a lot more mistakes in their calculations. For example, researching the economy is very complicated and our brains can’t fathom all the variables and their impact on each other. Or in medicine, for example, research has shown that in certain cases computers can diagnose cancer more accurately than doctors. But this leads to the question of how the doctor can notify the cancer patient of the diagnosis if he or she doesn’t know exactly how the algorithm worked? Where do we draw the line? It creates this paradoxical deficit of trust.” Besides medicine there are other sensitive areas, where the analysis skills of computers are only increasing in time, for example, in finance. In the UK, Sabas also worked at two investment banks (HSBC and J.P. Morgan), where he tried to use “statistical methods” to find the optimal balance or line to demarcate the maximum risk level that credit institutions should take when giving out loans.

What about academic work, which often times has brought Sabas graduation diplomas with Distinction (equal to cum laude) – is that graded by computers already? Or was it connections between microchips that, for example, decided his acceptance to Columbia University, where you might have hundreds of candidates for four or five spots? The moment of reflection before answering is now a fraction of a second longer than before. “That’s a very good question. I think that not yet, since most written academic work is still qualitative and computers have a hard time understanding it right now. Of course, computers can evaluate mathematical models, because 2 + 3 is always going to be 5.” When it comes to university admissions, human relations have an important role to play. A student has to get along well with their supervisor, because it’s nearly impossible to do research alone. This kind of suitability is something that a computer would have a tough time evaluating, then again it’s not impossible.

In New York, Sabas lives in the northern part of Manhattan, in university housing, “right next to campus”. “Life is simple – school, gym, home and then school again,” says Sabas and emphasises the role of sports, “If you sit at a computer doing research work for 10 hours in a row, your body gets tired. Sports is an opportunity to reinvigorate your body, and that in turn also helps you focus better.” Sometimes, when he’s not busy with yoga or running a marathon, he also stops by the Estonian House, however, he doesn’t see himself coming all the way back home yet, at least not in the short-term perspective. “My goal is to make the most of the opportunities that I’ve been given.”

COUNTRY OR CITY: “Country. I’m a country kid, from Väike-Maarja.” 
DOG OR CAT:  “A dog is a closer friend to humans.” 
WHITE OR RED: “White.”
TEA OR COFFEE: “I don’t drink coffee, but I do like tea with lemon.”

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