Brain train to the north

December 12, 1997

THE ONE passenger train a day into Umea arrives at 7.30am, having taken more than 11 hours for the 885 km north from Stockholm.

But this is no Swedish backwoods. More than 100,000 people live in "the best place in Sweden to live, work and play", according to monthly magazine Mnadens Affrer. Many of them are young and come from all over the country, attracted by a forward-looking and growing centre of knowledge.

The University College for the Environment, opened by King Carl Gustav XVI in September, is one example of Umea's progressive campuses. It is a joint venture between the modern Umea University, and its neighbouring Swedish Agricultural University.

For Sigbrit Franke, rector of Umea University, the environment college "is very exciting, of great interest and has a great future".

"There are 30 professorships and 150 courses focusing on the environment. These will be combined into an advanced research centre. A four-year environmental degree programme, with a broad entry, should start next semester."

Umea was the first Swedish university to start a proper environmental programme. Its centre for environmental research, which links with the Norrland university hospital, is ten years old. "The centre has supported doctoral students in environmental subjects. That's a reason why we have so many young researchers in environmental matters," Ms Franke said.

But the environment is not the only area of focus at Umea. "The Umea Centre for Molecular Medicine has a very rich future ahead of it, with about 20 medical researchers researching the causes and development of diseases," Ms Franke said. "The centre is our flagship, it's unique in Sweden and happily it's world class.

Other centres cover research in regional sciences and marine research. The Umea University campus also includes the university hospital and dental college; colleges of design and art and the institute for environmental chemistry are located in the town, and a space physics institute at Kiruna. Umea offers a number of unique courses, including energy engineering, cultural administration, space engineering, scientific journalism, media engineering, transport design and technical biology.

There are about 23,000 registered students. "Since 1990 we've doubled the number of students," Ms Franke said. Umea's students come from all over Sweden, not just from the north, which has about one million of the country's 8.7 million population.

"Umea University is second only to Uppsala in recruiting students from the whole country," she said. "That shows how popular our courses are."

Only one passenger train leaves Umea a day, the southbound sleeper at 8.20pm. The people travelling on it are not leaving the northern city permanently - they are business people on the move, researchers travelling to a conference in Stockholm, school classes on an excursion, university students taking a break. They will be back, for Umea is making tracks.

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