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Risto Pärnapuu Receives Cybernetica Fellowship at University of Tartu

Risto Pärnapuu, Computer Sciences Master’s programme student at the University of Tartu Institute of Computer Science was announced as the recipient of the Cybernetica Fellowship today.

Cybernetica Fellowship, consisting of a 5000-euro scholarship and a paid internship at Cybernetica is the largest IT-fellowship in Estonia, giving a unique opportunity for students to participate in global research projects at one of the country’s leading R&D companies already during their studies.

Risto, you are currently a Master’s student, majoring in computer science. What triggered your interest in the field?

In fact, I’ve been involved in computer science since highschool – I was already taking programming courses and participated in the Science School program (Teaduskool); I knew for sure I was going to be studying in Tartu after graduating high school. I felt I was exactly in the right place already during my first year, so I knew I had made the right decision. I took a gap year before starting my Masters’ studies to start working, but felt I still needed a more academic foundation, so I continued my studies.

You mentioned you were sure about choosing Tartu. Where are you from originally and why did you choose Tartu?

I am originally from Pärnu and when choosing the university, I visited both Tallinn and Tartu. Tartu felt like a better student town. Additionally, Tartu offered a more academic approach, which was more suitable for me – more mathematics and deeper theory.

How do you see your academic foundation applied in the future?

My work today is also tied to research, apart from being a software engineer. After graduating, my plan is to move further into research and to broaden my role to a research engineer, which will enable more interesting projects for me to work on.

Do you already have a field in mind that you would like to focus on as a research engineer in the future?

When I started my Master’s studies, there were two fields that interested me – data science and cryptography. I understood pretty quickly that data science was a little bit too „soft“ for me, and I strongly preferred cryptography. I have been focusing on it quite a lot lately, and taken several courses in the field, especially the newer developments – for example, multi-party computation which I’m currently researching in my cryptography seminar.

Looks like currently you have found your calling – what about when you first started out in computer science? What was the most interesting field back then?

For me, computer science has been a life-long interest, so when I started taking my first programming lessons, my future was pretty clear and computer science the only choice of study.

So you see your future in cryptography, perhaps as a cryptographer?

Definitely my near future. It is more difficult to say what happens in some years, but right now, it is very interesting and offers a lot to learn.

For us at Cybernetica, science and research is a core pillar, and we see it as a very exciting field. It is sometimes challenging to popularise science amongst young people, though. Do you think this is changing or that they are still more drawn to the practical?

Probably right now the direction is more towards the practical education, but largely due to the fact that there are less companies that work with R&D. Secondly, I think when people choose IT, they are seldom informed of all the possibilities or maybe think they have to choose one or the other, science or programming.

You already have work experience as well, so you see it from a different perspective.

Yes, I have almost four years of work experience in software engineering.

Was there something surprising for you when you started working, or perhaps something unexpected about working in IT?

In fact, I started working with the aim of learning about working in IT – university is more academic so I wanted to get a better idea of how an IT-company works, it was a whole new world for me. I gained a lot of valuable experience in collaboration, especially between different roles and departments.

Could you share some advice from your own experience to current high school students, who are thinking about studying IT?

Definitely focus on your studies at first – and focus on finding our whether it is a field you really want to pursue. It is often seen as the „cool“ field to study, with no actual understanding of what it entails. I would recommend trying to find out about that world already before starting with the studies, then there will be a much higher probablity of carrying out til the end. I would also recommend internships or even part-time work, to acquaint yourself more with the practical side of things.