Attending my very first scientific conference as a guest speaker - UTU Masters
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Attending my very first scientific conference as a guest speaker

Hello all!

Quite recently, from 22.-23.2., I was fortunate enough attend my very first scientific conference as a guest speaker that took place in my hometown of Riga, Latvia. I was invited to represent University of Turku (UTU) as a Student Ambassador, and share my personal experiences, vision of mobility tools regarding higher education, and researcher mobility at the Baltic Science Network Final Conference. On this intense two-day conference, the second day also marked the celebration of the CBSS (Council of the Baltic Sea States) Annual Baltic Sea Science Day.

Sharing the stage with leading experts in the science sector, higher education and national delegations from CBSS member states and the European Union is undoubtedly one of my highlights of 2019 so far. Moreover, being a part of UTU delegation was a huge honor for me, and it also shows that the “voice of a student” matters.

In preparation for this conference, I learned that the Baltic Science Network (BSN) serves as a transnational forum for higher education, science and research cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR). It is a project that has lasted the past three years; hence, the conference serves as a great opportunity to provide participants (around 100-150) with insights regarding the achievements, results and future initiatives of this project. One of BSN’s main goals is to maintain and foster scientific excellence within the BSR by supporting the mobility of young researchers and ensuring a better representation of macro-regional interests and cooperation on the EU level.

Thursday, 21.02.2019.

My journey from Turku to Riga started one day before the conference took place. Despite all of the UTU delegation members flying to Riga in different times, I was lucky enough to meet Rector Kalervo Väänänen at the Helsinki airport. After introducing myself, Rector himself shared with me some interesting stories about the history and future vision of UTU, student mobility in Turku, and even gave me a few useful tips and recommendations regarding my thesis (more stories on this in the future posts!).

Friday, 22.02.2019.

The next day the conference started with registration and mingling around lunch tables where people started to exchange business cards and then followed by high level opening remarks. Panelists were also asked where they see BSN in five years from now. Answers were quite ambitious, including the following: leading network in Europe, closely tied network, role model for the European Union, role model that others can benefit from and many others. Afterwards, three sessions were held regarding the mobility in higher education and research in the BSR, joint areas of research in the BSR and widening participation in the European Research Area (ERA).

All these sessions had something in common – mobility starts at our home universities and it is the key to make the collaboration in the field of science, research and innovation in the BSR work. Representatives of the BSN were also confident that the newly established network is an efficient way to discuss and solve challenging issues of today (e.g. climate change, protection of the Baltic Sea and many others). Moreover, it was also stressed that mobile students are more competitive in the labor market or when applying for different research grants. However, diverse statistics presented at the conference demonstrated that numbers of international student mobility are steadily declining instead of raising.

Panelists from all three session were focusing on identifying and displaying the most crucial challenges and obstacles for researchers in mobility within the BSR. Their key findings indicated that three of the biggest issues are as follows: low number of support measures, brain drain (a process when highly trained or qualified people emigrate from a country) and mobility from East to West. As a workaround, several mobility tools were introduced that could potentially solve the previously mentioned challenges: summer schools, research internships and short-term scholarships.

As a young and thriving researcher myself, I feel that many of these tools are specifically targeted for only PhD students. However, it is important to keep in mind that also Master’s degree students require a lot of guidance and assistance. The earlier we learn about conducting a meaningful research and receive the very much needed tools and assistance, the sooner we can focus on solving the challenging issues of BSR today. Therefore, I truly wish that the BSN will soon take its initiative to the next level by moving from recommendations to implementations; thus, strengthening the identity of BSR by making it more attractive to young researchers and by implementing new scholarship funds.

Once the first day of the conference was officially over, all the participants were invited to attend a guided tour at the House of the Blackheads, followed by a dinner party and ceremony of the Baltic Sea Science Day Award. This served as a great opportunity to learn a bit more about Latvian history and establish new contacts by enjoying delicious food. Look at the pictures yourself!

                   

Saturday, 23.02.2019.

Second day of the conference started with registration and morning coffee, once again mingling around the buffet. Later, in the first plenary session, Rectors from different universities were debating about prospects for smart specialization strategies. It was discussed that all higher education institutions in the BSR are focusing on regional development by providing internationally competitive higher education, fostering science, and promoting intercultural communication through versatile research activities, study programmes and innovation projects. It was also stressed on numerous occasions that universities should work together more closely.

Afterwards, two parallel sessions took place where one was focusing on researcher mobility in the BSR, while the other one introduced Baltic TRAM as a science for business in the BSR. I was attending the first session together with my fellow colleagues from UTU. Since I had to give a speech myself, it meant only one thing – showtime!

Although it is believed that there are various partnership agreements, exchange programmes and scholarships to support young researchers within the BSR, none of them cover all fields of study. In fact, I myself am an excellent example of this issue.

While I was still doing my Bachelor’s studies in Latvia, demonstrating excellent academic performance resulted in me receiving different scholarships that have played a crucial role in my academic career. For instance, in the past I have had the privilege to receive different scholarships provided by the Government of Latvia, University of Latvia, CIMO, Finnish National Agency for Education and Erasmus+. However, uncertainty about continuing my studies appeared right after graduating when I learned that continuing studies in my field is not possible. At least not in Latvia.

While being devasted about the shocking news, I reached out to the academic staff of different universities in Latvia and Finland, as well as to various organizations that had supported me in the past. But answer was always the same – there are no scholarships to help me continue pursuing my academic career in Finland. In addition, I was disappointed to learn that international students in Finland do not receive any financial assistance from Kela like Finnish students do. Personally, financial struggles of supporting yourself in a new country may very well be of the main reasons why Finland, with its high living expenses, is not very attractive to international students. Even though Finland is famous for its high international rankings of higher education, it is difficult to talk about equal opportunities for all students and thus for excellent research for all.

If BSN’s initiative about establishing a new scholarship fund is successful, I sincerely hope that me, and all the other students who feel the same way, will be taken into consideration. Moreover, I hope that universities representing Latvia and Finland will finally investigate ways how to strengthen their relationship by supporting young and ambitious researchers like myself.

Sunday, 23.02.2019.

Once the conference was over, it was time to return to Turku where many assignments were waiting to be finished. Interestingly, my journey finished the same way it started – by traveling back to Finland together with Rector Kalervo Väänänen.

Finally, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to members of the UTU International Office for nominating me, Planning Officer Mari Leino for inviting me to take part in this conference and all the other inspiring people that I was fortunate enough to meet. It has been my absolute pleasure to represent UTU as Student Ambassador and I enthusiastically look forward to carrying the name of UTU out in the world also in future events!

Until next time!

UTU delegation, photo from left to right: Head of International Affairs Irinja Paakkanen, Director of Development Riitta Mustonen, me, Rector Kalervo Väänänen, Planning Officer Mari Leino.

Kristaps Kovalonoks
krikov@utu.fi
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