Testing New Waters


The first time I saw Earth through satellite remote sensing instruments, I was just amazed at how small and defenseless our planet actually is. What also struck me is that there are no borders between countries, and this humbling perspective thankfully extends to the research field of satellite sensing where national boundaries lose their potency. Because of its highly “global” nature, environmental remote sensing is really an international business not only within Europe but also between Europe, America and Asia. Although I had always been interested in this field of research, this is not the one I chose to study in my native Estonia, as I felt it was beyond my reach due to its complexity and the expense of doing such research. Little was I suspecting that, years later, a Marie Curie Fellowship would not only allow me to reach this dream, but also to cross borders.

I studied environmental physics at Tartu University in Estonia, and obtained my Ph.D. in 2000. I concentrated my research efforts on the optical properties of water in lakes. This topic is very relevant to Estonia as the country has more than 1500 small freshwater lakes and shares borders with one of the largest ones in Europe, the Lake Peipsi-Pihkva. I also discovered that there was a small community of water optics researchers all around the Baltic Sea area–in Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Poland, and Germany. Shared field expeditions on the lakes and coastal seas often felt like holiday trips with friends. So it is not surprising that the prospect of leaving all this behind after completing my thesis made me rather sad, but I knew I had to move on as I wanted new challenges.

Satellite-based remote sensing of large lakes

So I slowly started looking around, and at one conference I met Don Pierson of Uppsala University in Sweden. He told me about a new project in his lab involving the satellite-based remote sensing of large lakes in Sweden. These words immediately rang a bell in my mind ? “Optics of lakes, that’s something I know, and satellites, that’s a distant dream,” I thought to myself. This sounded like the perfect opportunity for me to combine my knowledge with the chance to learn a topic that I had long been interested in.

Don offered me a 3-month visiting researcher position to work on his project in Sweden. This allowed me to gain a better understanding of the work and its objectives and also gave me a chance to get an insight into life in Sweden. At the same time, we started to look for funding so that I could stay longer. I met a German postdoc in my current department who was a Marie Curie Fellow, and he told me about his experience with Marie Curie Fellowships while referring me to the information available on the Internet. I guess it was his very positive attitude about his mobility and his life in Sweden that in the end inspired me to write an individual fellowship proposal. It was granted.

It all seemed like a dream come true, but just before leaving Estonia problems arose from where I wasn’t expecting them. I started doubting how I would manage to live in the new country. I had never done it before. I was also conscious that I needed to think about my family and be sure that my career decisions did not disrupt their lives or hinder my child’s schooling. It was only then that I appreciated how important it was that researchers could take their families with them and have the means to support them. In my case, my daughter came to Sweden with me but my husband did not stay with us for the entire period as he couldn’t get an equivalent position in Sweden.

But after living in Sweden for about 3 months I calmed down. Foreign researchers and postdocs are made to feel very welcome here. Uppsala University is very international (but I guess this is also true for other Swedish universities) and Swedes commonly stay abroad after finishing their theses. This meant that most people in my department could truly identify with the situation of “living alone in a foreign country” and this empathy certainly made it easier for me to adjust to my new life. English also tended to be the common language in the department even during our coffee breaks and almost the rule in seminars. The downside of this is that it made it harder for me to learn Swedish, and my daughter, who studied in an international school, had the same problem. This hindered our contacts with Swedish people outside the lab, and our friends here are now mainly foreigners.

But thanks to this fairly smooth transition, I was able to start on my project almost immediately. I was given a great deal of independence and responsibility early on and this taught me to be more assertive. My supervisor did not limit my ideas or activities, and I was left free to travel to conferences and buy consumables. Having my own fellowship also meant planning myself how to use my resources to the maximum benefit. Possessing my own funding meant that I was also working in partnership with my supervisor planning activities together and filling in applications jointly for further grants.

As for the bureaucratic requirements associated with the fellowship, they were primarily managed by the university’s administrative officers. Still, I had to take matters such as my travel and living allowances into my own hands as there were often some delays. Officers did help with other formalities such as paying taxes. Salaries are highly taxed in Sweden and this is something that may come as an unpleasant surprise if you are not aware of it before moving. But on the positive side, Swedish laws and social amenities are also very liberal, for example, partners can easily get a work permit and families are entitled to child allowances.

Confidence and courage to apply for funding

In the middle of the second and final year of my fellowship, my boss started to ask about my future plans and suggested that we continue to work together. We both felt that 2 years was too short a time to fully explore our ideas, which were developing as I was gaining experience. Meanwhile, another researcher joined the team and I also started to supervise a master’s level student. All this gave me the confidence and courage to apply for funding from the Swedish National Space Board. My application was successful and I continued working in same institute for an additional year after my Marie Curie Fellowship finished.

However, deep down I did miss home. One of the partners in our proposal is the Tartu Observatory, a leading institute in Estonia in the field of satellite remote sensing of land cover. However, they had no experience in water environmental sensing and I know they appreciated my proposal for collaboration. Over the course of my discussions with Tiit Nilson from the Tartu Observatory, we both became aware that we had more and more interesting, promising, and challenging ideas in common. It seemed conceivable for me to establish an independent research group on water remote sensing in his institute.

Then I remembered that a Marie Curie Reintegration Grant could offer me the funding I needed to do this, so I applied and have recently been accepted. Thus, I will go back to Estonia in 2005. The Reintegration Grant is a terrific idea, but as it is only for 1 year, I am conscious that I will be soon forced to look for new funding even if I am successful. It seems to me that longer durations both for mobility and reintegration grants would give young researchers more time and energy to become professionally independent.

Right now, I am continuing to work at Uppsala University in a research group consisting of five people. I still have a long way to go with my career and a great deal to learn within my field and also need to hone skills such as project management and inspiring and supporting students, colleagues, and collaborators. I can’t be certain that my career will have a smooth ride, but I believe I now have the tools and experience I need to create the future that I want.

The Marie Curie mobility grant in particular helped me develop so much, both academically and personally. And, as a bonus, I enjoyed working in Sweden and felt it was a good place for me and my family to live in.

My experience made me realise once again that if you want something in life it is not enough to sit quietly and wait until it happens. The fellowship gave me the opportunity to go out there and prove to myself that I could make it as a researcher.

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