Author:
Virgo Haan

Indrek Tulp: chemistry is a lifejacket for Estonia's economic problems.

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Indrek Tulp

Where did your career path begin, and why did you choose chemistry?
I have always liked the natural sciences; I value logical thinking, and it seems that it comes easily to me. As a young person, I also really enjoyed solving crosswords. This kind of problem-solving has always been my passion.

I once took part in the precision sciences program at the University of Tartu while still in high school, which could be done by correspondence (now known as the University of Tartu Science School). The teachers noticed that I was good at chemistry and recommended that I participate in the program. I received assignments from the precision sciences school, solved them at home, and sent them back. I really enjoyed doing them, and thanks to the program, I had a spot at the university. I also participated in chemistry Olympiads.

As a young boy, I was naturally interested in chemistry because of the explosions and reactions, but that passion has clearly waned over time. My bachelor's thesis was more related to environmental chemistry, dealing with the determination of cadmium in drinking water. At that time, I worked as an analyst in the central laboratory of the Health Board. Later, I tried organic chemistry and eventually moved to computational chemistry. Alongside school, I also had to work: as an analyst, (junior) researcher, and briefly as a systems administrator.

What was your experience like at the University of Tartu's chemistry institute?
I was a simple country boy, coming from Varstu High School. For me, just moving to the city and starting my own life was a big event. I didn't know what to expect from studying at the institute, but I highly value my university memories. The studies were not easy, with both harder and easier subjects, and as a young person, there were other interests I wanted to pursue.

I remember experiencing a paradigm shift in learning when the same subject was approached from completely different angles in high school and university. It confused me at first, but later, when I understood, I realized that I could now see the world more comprehensively.
Looking back, I am grateful that I got to know different people, as many of them are now my collaborators or may become so in the future. University brings people together, and new innovative ideas can emerge from this togetherness.

What do you think is the value of a chemistry education in everyday life?
Of course, I never tell myself, "Aha, this is where my chemistry education comes in handy," but the education has given me the skill to analyze. I can delve deeply into phenomena and understand hidden connections. For example, a principle I sometimes quote is Le Châtelier's principle: if a chemical reaction's equilibrium is disturbed by changing conditions, the position of the equilibrium shifts to maintain balance. This is very natural to me because nature strives for balance, which is driven by this chemical equilibrium. First comes chemical balance, leading to biochemical, then biological, and eventually natural balance. A simple modern example would be exhaust gases – if released into the air, nothing changes immediately, but systematic excessive emission of exhaust gases disrupts the natural balance, leading to corresponding consequences. In short, when observing the world, one draws on their knowledge, and chemistry knowledge helps to understand the world more effectively.

I find that a chemistry education is also a quality mark. If someone has studied chemistry and graduated, it shows employers that the candidate has determination. They see that the person is persistent and doesn't give up. These are qualities that employers value.

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do as a student?
I have always been rather opportunistic and did not have a single clear goal. I always tried to keep my eyes open for new and interesting opportunities. Sometimes, of course, I wondered if I was studying the right thing, but I don't regret anything. Good education provides a competitive advantage in later life.

What has your career path been like?
The journey has been varied. I worked at the institute both during and after my studies, and this transition was relatively smooth. As I mentioned, I have also changed fields: I started in environmental or analytical chemistry and moved to computational chemistry.
Since I also had a great interest in economics, a good friend and I started a company during university to develop medical devices. The main goal was to develop a nucleic acid-based rapid diagnostic device for infectious diseases. For example, during COVID, a nasal swab was taken and sent to large machines for analysis. Our goal was to integrate this process and technology into one small device. It was a challenge, but we managed. The company is still operating and trying to find cheaper production and commercialization opportunities.

A few years ago, I also earned a master's degree in business administration. I find that applying the knowledge gained from applied research and experimental analysis in economics to develop a product or service that helps people is what Estonia really needs right now.
After my master's studies, an interesting opportunity arose to lead the resource valorization program at the Estonian Research Council, which was more of a science funder role. The program selected projects for support that addressed the real needs of the business sector – the goal was to identify and solve problems that entrepreneurs genuinely face. Leading this work was very exciting.

How has studying another field besides chemistry been beneficial to you?
It doesn't have to be just chemistry, but I find that, for example, an economics education helps to utilize your existing education to serve both yourself and society. Economic studies amplified my chemistry knowledge, and I feel they complement each other.
All this ultimately led me to head the applied research center at Metrosert, which has just been established. It's nothing hugely new on a global scale, but in Estonia, we are unique. We learn from what is done in the West, adopt those models, and try to make them work in Estonia.

What does the applied research center at Metrosert do?
Currently, we are mainly focused on building, staffing, and targeting our activities. However, the goal is to support the business sector in product development through applied research in five areas: hydrogen technology, biorefining, health data, drone technologies, and autonomous vehicles. Our aim is to support Estonian companies and create testing opportunities. The business sector is actually interested in broader research and experiments, but these are quite time and resource-intensive, so cooperation opportunities must be found. For example, the main goal of the university is to provide quality education, so product development is not a priority for them. Today, however, it is desired that universities and companies cooperate more effectively, and we position ourselves between the two. Together, we could ensure the smooth functioning of the technology development lifecycle. We already have very close cooperation with universities in the fields of biorefining and health data, and we aim to expand this further.

I feel we are engaged in interesting development work and solving various problems in an applied way. We have a clear output, and personally, I look forward to the collaborations that lie ahead. Currently, we are building infrastructure and enhancing skills at Metrosert, but I see that we offer quality service and can thus be helpful to the future of Estonia.

What motivates you as a scientist?
I believe that curiosity plays a significant role in my life, but it can be understood in two ways. Are we talking about curiosity to understand a process or curiosity to find a solution to a problem? One is very theoretical, the other practical and goal-oriented, and the same applies to basic and applied research. Basic research, as often said, is curiosity-driven free science, mainly conducted by universities. Applied research, on the other hand, solves a specific problem. In descriptive science, the question is "Why?" whereas in applied research, the question is "How?" This is the curiosity that motivates me. I also feel that I do not want to fall into a comfort zone; a good amount of positive stress keeps a person alert and young. The comfort zone is not necessarily bad, it all depends on people's goals, but I stay away from it.

I am certainly motivated by the fact that my research is useful to someone. It would undoubtedly be interesting for me to study how a snowflake falls on a snowdrift, but I do not see practical application or tangible meaning in that. In my doctoral work, I studied solubility as a broader phenomenon, and it did not have an applied purpose at the time. During the work, I discovered that the solubility of substances is very important from a drug development perspective. My doctoral work itself was like basic research, but if understood, it could actually be applied. For example, why some drugs must be taken with food and others not, depends on solubility and absorption capacity.

What was your course like?
Our course was united and incredibly strong, and the friendships have lasted to this day: we get together at least once a year. At the chemistry alumni gathering in November, over 400 people attended. This shows that chemists are a very close-knit group.

At university, people tend to find friends – I would even say comrades-in-arms – with whom they form a bond stronger than friendship. Together, they go through thick and thin and become incredibly close. In our group, it also happened that if the weekend was approaching and money was tight, we would collectively make a batch of macaroni, sprinkle curry for flavor, and the hunger was defeated. The closeness of coursemates also depends on the timetable. In my time, there was one fixed program that everyone had to complete, making it easier to form friendships. I remember very clearly that if there was a lecture on fermentation processes, we would go as a group to a pub called Humal afterward. There we could immediately taste and smell what we had just learned about in the lecture. Nowadays, with subjects being more separate and not constantly being with one group, perhaps such strong bonds do not form.

Would you recommend studying chemistry? Why?
I would definitely recommend studying chemistry for several reasons. For example, mathematics, which is exceptionally important in the natural sciences, functions in chemistry like a language: it is conventional, and we use it for effective communication. Next comes physics, which is closely related to chemistry and provides a good logical base. If you have a grasp of physics and mathematics, you have the foundation to understand chemistry. Chemistry certainly challenges you, and it is hard to keep up with studies, but it is worth it. Mathematicians view the world through mathematics, physicists through both mathematics and physics, but chemists use all three. As a result, you get a comprehensive knowledge base and worldview as a chemist. It’s not directly that one natural science is better than another, but I would say that studying chemistry gives you a more holistic worldview.

Studying chemistry also has very practical implications right now. Looking at the direction in which modern technology is developing, for example, in the IT sector, people's needs are already met with current technology. There is no direct necessity for development. However, the whole world shares a common desire to solve energy crises, which requires chemists. I see that chemistry is like a lifeline for Estonia's economic issues. Estonia actually has top-notch science, but knowledge transfer is poor, and innovation in the business sector could be better. If we want Estonian entrepreneurship and industry to thrive, we need smart people to work on it.

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