Hertta Pirkkalainen: 'Estonia has given me a sense of independence'


A clinical examination. Photo: Hertta Pirkkalainen

Eight years ago, Hertta Pirkkalainen has graduated from the Estonian University of Life Sciences with a degree in Veterinary Medicine. Today, she's a Head Veterinarian at the university's production animal clinic, a lecturer, and a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki. In this article, Hertta discusses her experience of studying in Estonia, learning the local language from scratch, as well as her professional interests and expectations in the veterinary medicine. This article is part of the Alumni Success Stories series, created in collaboration with the Estonian tech news platrform Geenius.ee.

— You didn’t come from a very far away land, you came to your southern neighbor, Estonia, from Finland. What made you decide to come study in Estonia and what did you do before?

— I came to Estonia straight from my high school, from a small town in Eastern Finland. I am totally a country girl! I haven’t been to big cities at all, haven’t even traveled with a train by myself; I have never had any idea about studying abroad. I have been to Tallinn a few times before, with my family, however. Tartu seemed to be such a big city! Although the culture and the lifestyle were quite new, it was a good start for me. How did I end up here? I have always wanted to be a veterinarian. Unfortunately, in Finland, it’s quite hard to get in, so there was a need for another plan. Quite accidentally, I’ve heard of a person applying to Estonia, so I googled it, found out about Eesti Maaülikool, and applied as well! Funny thing: perhaps a day before the application deadline, I have called the school to double check if my documents were submitted correctly. I was shocked to hear they haven't received it. Only a few hours later they called me back, apologizing for the error. Apparenty my papers got into another pile! That’s how I understood how important for me it was to get in, having received a rejection before. My mother still talks about how crazy I've gone when I heard the good news and announced, "I am going to be a veterinarian!"

— So, is it really so much harder to get in to such programs in Finland?

— I believe, at some point, it was about 10-14% percent of all candidates eventually getting in; I was close, but not there yet. 

— There’s always one question with the veterinarians: why animals, not humans?

— Well, why not animals? I think it’s a challenge, dealing with creatures that don’t talk to you; instead, you have to use all of your senses. Then again, I’ve always liked farm animals. My uncle had a farm, I’ve spent a lot of time in there, and that’s exactly what I am doing now, working with the production animals. Nowadays, the idea of animals in veterinary science has changed.  It was mainly about the production animals back in the old days; today, we also receive dogs, cats, and other small pets. In addition to that, veterynary medicine has quickly developed into a high-level science, in Estonia as well. 

— You always hear about the latest advancements in human medicine, but what big thing has recently happened in your field?

— In cattle medicine, we are facing global problems, such as the relation between meat production and global warming. It is a question of a large scale: I like the idea of improving the living conditions of cattle, being able to produce meat and dairy for human consumption, while simultaneously finding way to slow down global warming. So, I believe, that’s the most important aspect of my field. In smaller animals, we perform many complicated surgeries. In this regard, a one-health thinking plays central role in both veterinary and human medicine, which are always intertwined. First performed on an animal, the surgery technique can be transferred to the human medical science. We are actually fighting for the same cause.


Hertta's research project on hoof health. Photo: Reijo Junni

So, straight out of high school, you have never been to Tartu. Was it difficult to get used to living in a completely different country, even though we are neighbors?

— There are definitely some cultural differences. The way of thinking appears to be simpler here, in a positive way. On the other hand, some conservative habits often appear controversial to me. For example, opening the door in front of women, helping them put a coat on (laughs). It’s not a bad thing necessarily, rather a question of equality. In a bigger picture, women tend to be seen as homemakers, they are supposed to have children and always stay beautiful. It is a little strange to me as a mentality.

You graduated in 2011. Do you feel like the things you described have changed?

— Certainly! At the moment, however, conservatism seems to be regaining its positions.

What, would you say, are the biggest differences in student life here, in Tartu, and in Finland?

— Based on what I have heard from my friends, who have been studying in Finland, I can say with certainty that Tartu is an ideal student town. I would compare it to Jyväskylä, a student city in Finland. First, there are a great many opportunities for getting together, which I have always liked. Secondly, everything is so close! You may easily schedule a meeting on the other side of the town, not to mention the accessibility of the campus. In this sense, the university is quite integrated into the life of people, which would not be the case in a big city. 

Once you start looking at the map, you realise there’s a quite large percentage of buildings that are connected to the university.

— Exactly, so I really like that.

How’s the language?

— Well, that was an interesting experience. Although I am quite good at learning foreign languages, I did not know any Estonian before. Nevertheless, following a one-week intensive course, we started studying in the Estonian language.

You had one week of Estonian language course and you started studying in Estonian?

— Yes! It was crazy, but I loved it anyway, as an adventure and a challenge. Recently, I have been reading those old notes we took by hand, writing what we have heard, regardless of the grammar. In a few weeks, you get used to it and start learning anatomy by heart, most of which usually related to Latin. In half a year, I would say, we were already able to go by in everyday life quite well; in a year, it has become even easier. To those facing a similar situation I would recommend mingling with the locals to experience a complete language immersion, which is the only way to become fluent in a foreign language. Upon the graduation, I have stayed to work in Tartu and eventually teach students in Estonian. 

You probably had to learn a quite specific language related to your field. Did you have to simultaneously learn it in Estonian, English, and Finnish?

— Yes, a mix of the English and the Estonian literature. Incidentally, Estonia has more materials to offer, as compared to Finland, although this number has somewhat decreased in the recent years due to a wider use of English. From my experience, it may be quite problematic for the local people and the veterinarians to give all you've got, despite the high level of the English language proficiency among the Estonians. Talking in one's native language makes a big difference. In this regard, I am better at explaining things in Estonian and obviously Finnish, regardless of my English fluency.

Coming back to Tartu, do you have any favorite spots you like to visit?

— In general, I am not a city person at all (laughs). In this sense, I really like Tartu. As an owner of two dogs, I enjoy having many green places around. I walk my dogs near my university, by the Emajõgi River; sometimes, I drive further away from the city, into the woods. In Tartu, you are always in between the city life and the nature, minutes away from each other. 


Hertta and her dog Tuli. Photo: Hertta Pirkkalainen

We have nature and we also have, at least that’s what others say, really high-level technology. How, do you think, Estonia compares as an e-country to Finland?

— You have reached a much higher level! That’s one of the selling points for Estonia: a country so small, you are able to test and implement the innovations. For example, the ID card: I love that I don’t have to have a lot of different cards, pins, etc. Instead, it is one card and one code dealing with virtually everything. So, Estonia, good job!

 What do you do now?

— At the moment, I am the Head Veterinarian at the production animal clinic of the Estonian University of Life Sciences. In addition, I am teaching students coming to our clinic for practical training during their 5th and 6th year: clinical diagnostics; some areas of surgery; aenestesiology; and hoof health, my favorite part actually. I am also doing a PhD in Finland, as well as a Finnish specialization program in production animals. Quite soon, I am moving back to Finland to work at a higher level, while also retaining some subjects I teach at the clinic. Fortunately, I will not loose my contact with Estonia completely.

But what make you decide to live in Estonia and not go back to Finland right arter your studies?

— Professionally, I wanted to learn more about the bigger heards and heard management, since in Estonia you have bigger heards of animals than in Finland. I also liked the atmosphere of the clinics. After a one-year internship, the clinic asked me to work for them. It has been eight years now.

The usual story with the Estonians: we go to Finland because they pay better. You, however, came here to work in a high-paid profession in general. How would you describe it in terms of the living policy and expenses in Estonia, as compared to Finland?

— Unfortunately, veterinarians are not highly paid in Estonia; it is about the average wage, even lower in some cases. Besides, it is a physically and mentally demanding job, which makes it rather difficult for the fresh graduates. In general, however, Estonia has lower living costs, compared with Finland. While I was coming to study here, I calculated the cost of studying in Estonia based on my annual tuition fee of 3000 euros. According to my calculations, I would manage with the help of summer jobs and the financial assitance, which the Finnish students abroad receive from the government. Although I did not know that the tuition fee will be increased by 10% each year and my financial plan did not quite add up in the end, studying in Helsinki woud be way more expensive. Speaking of the living costs in general, I don't really understand how Estonians live at all. Considering the wages, the prices of goods and services seem to me much higher, and many people might be struggling to meet the ends, including students, working to support themselves. It's very complicated.

You’ve lived in Estonia for a long time already, now you are going back to Finland to work and at the same time, you continue teaching in Estonia. How do you see your future in the next five years?

— Well, I hope I can get my PhD and the specialization done! I hope I will be able to use all these skills and knowledge I have gained throughout eight years in Estonia to work for a better health of the production animals and make my input into the global issues. In five years, I might end up in Estonia again. Thanks to the small size of this country, you can easily create your professional network and start making the difference in the field of your work. We wil see what happens in Finland, but one thing for sure: I will not stop teaching. I love watching students get excited about our scientific work, while also listening and supporting them emotionally; this is something very important.

If you look at the current Finnish education system, particularly in the veterinary science, do you expect more Finnish students at Eesti Maaülikool?

— Yes! I think things have changed: the students who are coming here today might be different from what they used to be several years ago, they are more global. They might not go back to their home country right after the end of their studies, they are open to the whole world. There are plenty of reasons why to choose Estonia: a very international place to be, good teaching quality, exchange studies, etc.  One of the best things Estonia has given me is the independence: when I came here I had to do everything myself, get used to new languages. At times, my teachers could be rather strict, which may be changing to some extent nowadays. All in all, going to study abroad is a very good decision for students.

Text: Joonas Alliksaar, Anastasiia Starchenko