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Russian Women in Science and Technology: Five Conversations

February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science that was established by the United Nations to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. To mark this day and to celebrate the contribution of Russian female scholars into the global advancement of scientific knowledge, the Kennan Institute interviewed five inspiring Russian experts from a range of specialties, from tech to microbiology to physics, to discuss their careers, the challenges and opportunities in their line of work, and their own sources of inspiration. Interviews were conducted via email by Nina Rozhanovskaya and Victoria Pardini.

Read the Interviews Below

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    What is the most challenging and what is the most exciting thing for you about physics?
    My field is the statistical physics of macromolecules and macromolecular nanostructures. Most challenging and exciting for me is to gain insight into the main principles of how the examined system is set up, what its structure is like, and what its properties are.

    Which female scientists from the past or present have inspired you the most?
    I draw inspiration not from the scientists but from the interesting research results that they produce.

    Is there a need for role models in science?
    Why not, if it can bring talented people into science?

    Do you consider yourself a role model?
    I don’t consider myself a role model, but there were people who saw me as one.

    Is Russian science different from Soviet science, and if so, in what way?
    Science is always science. I have been working for seventy years—since the early 1950s. Over this time, technology has gone through tremendous change, both in general and in science in particular. Meanwhile, the government also affects the situation. In the Soviet era, there was an Iron Curtain, and Soviet scholars could not interact with scholars from other countries. It was only in post-Soviet Russia that our scientists have regained the opportunity to participate in international conferences and engage in joint research.

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    What is the most challenging and what is the most exciting thing for you about microbiology?
    The most challenging thing—which, however, you get used to as the years go by—is the very large amount of routine work and the small share of success. A lot of effort is spent in vain, for during the initial stages of research one has to search for the optimal conditions by trial and error. The most exciting thing is that we study organisms that are invisible to the naked eye and must set up various traps for them in order to understand, for instance, from which chemical processes they draw their vital energy. Every time this essentially becomes a detective story with a lot of adrenaline involved.

    Is there a glass ceiling in Russian science? What can or should be done to increase the number of female academicians, rectors, and deans in Russia?
    I do not sense any special obstacles and believe that women ought to compete with men on an equal basis. They have everything that is required for that.

    What advice would you give to a young girl interested in biology?
    My advice is the same for boys and girls and applies not only to biologists, even though no one ever follows it. Choose a dynamic, hard-working research group rather than a specific research topic because even after graduating from the university, you will have to keep learning for a very long time, and it is important to do so in the right environment.

    What is your greatest professional achievement, and what is your greatest professional ambition?
    My greatest achievement is that I created an outstanding team of scientists of different ages and areas of expertise who study the thermophilic (thriving at high and even extremely high temperatures) organisms of high-temperature natural habitats. Thus, we share our main accomplishments: together, we have found many microorganisms carrying out new chemical processes in volcanic hot springs and in the deep subsurface biosphere. My ambition is to create an equally brilliant team in the Microbiology Department of Moscow State University, where I work now, and together with them find thermophilic bacteria that would efficiently decompose plastics.

    You often give lectures to nonacademic audiences. Why do you consider popular science and science communication to be important?
    I feel that general microbiology is underrated and overshadowed by its applied areas, including medical ones. It is partly fair, given that medical microbiologists have changed the lives of humanity. The results of other subdisciplines of applied microbiology are also evident. Conversely, one tends to take for granted the environmental role of the microbes that ensure the biogenic cycle on our planet and sustain the stable state of the biosphere, while very few people know about them. Another crucial and interesting aspect is the variety of ways to produce energy that are common only to microorganisms. This is like a journey into the early stages of Earth’s history, when there was no organic matter and no oxygen but there was life already; the microorganisms of that time still exist.

    Which female scientists from the past or present have inspired you the most?
    Traditionally, a lot of women work in microbiology, but my primary source of inspiration is a man, my teacher, Academician Georgy Alexandrovich Zavarzin. Thanks to him, I learned that real science is the discovery of fundamentally new laws and patterns that no one knew before. It may sound trivial, but in reality, many people do not understand that and “look under a street light,” reproducing what is already known, in different variations. As for inspiring women in my field, I can name Dr. Svetlana Dedysh, also a former student of Academician Zavarzin but from the next generation after mine. She is an outstanding microbiologist who created an entire new field of study, the microbiology of wetland ecosystems.

    In addition to the above affiliations, Dr. Bonch-Osmolovskaya is president of the Interregional Russian Microbiological Society, member of the American Academy of Microbiology, and member of the European Academy of Microbiology

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    Why did you decide to become a science journalist?
    This happened in 2009, in essence, by accident. When I moved to Moscow to study, I signed up for a science journalism school at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. I was lonely in a city where I knew no one and had free time. The most diligent students at the school went for a tour of RIA Novosti, which at the time was like visiting Disneyland for anyone with even a speck of interest in journalism. I knew I was hooked, so when they announced an internship at the science and environment desk, I immediately responded. They were looking for someone with a background in biology or chemistry, and for a full-time position. I wrote something along the lines of, “Hi, I am a full-time economics student, but I’d really like to work for you.” Six months later, I was a staff correspondent, and I never looked back. I guess the takeaway here should be that if you want something, it almost never hurts to ask.

    What does it take to become a good science journalist?
    I would say the most important quality in a good science journalist is curiosity; the kind of unrelenting, nosey, and just plain annoying curiosity that journalists are stereotypically known for. It’s one of those things that are hard to fake if you don’t have it but that can also be built up through the practice of never missing a chance to ask a question. A love of reading also helps, as do a good memory and attention to detail. Finally, I think that every science journalist worth their salt is deeply fascinated by the endless beauty of the world at all scales, from galactic clusters to subatomic particles. Most scientists are fascinated by this beauty, and they like to see a fellow admirer.

    What are your favorite science topics or fields to write about?
    I believe I am what’s called a policy wonk. I really like to dig deep into the intricacies of science and environmental policy; I spent half a decade chasing UN climate negotiators around the world. But overall, I like good stories, such as the eternal fight between bacteria and viruses, which is essentially the struggle of the living against the … undead? I don’t think viruses are technically alive. It is such an epic battle if you think about it. I like these kinds of big narratives. Game of Thrones has nothing on life sciences or astronomy.

    Should an effort be made to engage more women in science, and if so, why?
    We should all make an effort to engage more women in science, there’s no doubt about it for me. Scientists are our most valuable resource in the twenty-first century, and we need all we can possibly have. But even for those who do not choose this career path, an understanding and appreciation of science is a tremendous path to empowerment.

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    What is the most challenging and what is the most exciting thing about programming?
    Most exciting is to create something from nothing. You have just a “blank slate” in front of you, but within just a few hours you’ve got a very basic website or an app that you can “touch,” click, and show someone. Of course, one can spend years making big cool apps, but even then, you see the result of your efforts very soon.

    The most challenging thing is that one needs tons of patience and persistence, especially if nothing works out for a long time. On the upside, once you solve a complex problem, it’s such a delight!

    Is there a gender gap in Russian IT, and if so, what can or should be done about it?
    Yes, there is [a gender gap], just like everywhere in the world. For instance, where I work, we have two women and fifty men, and other women developers I know report the same statistics.

    We need to do three things to overcome this gap:

    First, we need to provide young women with role models, show them successful female developers, and tell them that we exist. Usually all programmers and hackers in the movies, on YouTube, and so forth are men, and that is how the stereotype is formed. This is why a typical young woman would choose to become a manicurist rather than a programmer. She simply has never seen any female programmers in her life, so this option would not even enter her mind.

    Second, we need to create a safe space without stereotypes, where she will know for sure that she will never hear “This is not an occupation for women,” “Don’t stick your nose where you don’t belong,” “You will fail, you are not smart enough.”

    Finally, we need to show support. Support is a powerful force. We should believe in [fellow female programmers], love them, and support them—and then they will succeed.

    Why did you decide to open a special IT school for women?
    [I did it] because I see a great difference between the numbers of female and male developers, and I see the wage gap between men and women—which is smallest in IT—so I wanted to make this world a little bit more just. If a woman works as developer, she gets fair working conditions and a financially secure and comfortable life. It simply occurs to very few people, and I decided to change that. Besides, I simply enjoy sharing what I know about my beloved profession.

    Who among female scholars or IT professionals inspires you the most?
    Daria Abramova (Codabra coding school), Jane Smorodnikova (Welltory app), and Elena Bunina (Yandex).

    How can the impostor syndrome be overcome?
    Oh, this is the trickiest question! Even I do not know the answer. Sometimes I say to myself, “What are you playing at? You’re no entrepreneur.” But I know for sure what I want to achieve, and I know for sure that the world needs my project, so I do what I do.

    What advice would you give to a young girl interested in IT?
    Three simple pieces of advice:
    1. Believe in yourself!
    2. Create the right environment for yourself: find like-minded people and mentors, attend meetups and conferences.
    3. And, of course, code! Just as it is impossible to learn swimming from reading books, one cannot learn programming without practice.

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    What brought you to the study of brain physiology? What is the most exciting thing in your research?
    I think brain physiology turned out to be a field that combined my interests in medicine, natural sciences, and psychology. These interests first brought me to the physiology department at Kazan Federal University and then to a science lab, where I had an opportunity to try my hand at research. In the end, all this turned out to be so interesting that I have not found anything more exciting for myself since then. We work with laboratory animals and use electrophysiology methods to observe the electrical signals that result from the activity of an individual neuron or an entire neural network. The electrical activity of neurons and neural networks changes as an organism grows and develops. We study how the neuronal activity changes in the course of neural network development, and we try to get an understanding of what these changes mean for the normal development of the brain. This description may sound somewhat pale, but when you observe in real time the operation of individual elements of an extremely complex system that consists of millions of such elements, it feels as if a curtain were lifted and you got a glimpse of a world whose existence many people do not even contemplate.

    What is your greatest professional achievement, and what is your greatest professional ambition?
    Around ten years ago, there wasn’t a single lab in Kazan that would do basic research on brain physiology, even though the Kazan scientific school of physiology is deeply rooted and well established. When I was a postgraduate student, I was fortunate to be part of a small team of enthusiasts who started developing that field, mastering new methods and putting together the research equipment to record neuronal activity. Later that initiative gained the financial support of the Russian government’s mega-grants program and grew into a full-scale research lab with all the required equipment and infrastructure. In the meantime, our first students got their degrees, joined the lab staff, and became my coworkers. Students and independent researchers from other cities and countries come to work or do an internship with us. I think it is a decent accomplishment, and it makes me very happy. It may actually be more significant for the scientific environment of the university than personal achievements, as it creates a platform for further development of young scholars. I hope that with our professional accomplishments, we can contribute to the growth of our lab and advance our research, and this is in essence my plan for the near future. As for clear long-term plans, it is quite hard to make those in the rapidly changing world.

    What is academic life like in Kazan?
    Kazan is a multicultural, multinational, and multifaceted city. Its academic life is as diverse. There are many universities in Kazan, as well as institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences and other research organizations. Some of them are more dynamic and pursue cutting-edge trends in science and technology; others are more conservative and rely on well-established traditions and their own vision of scientific prospects. I think that Kazan Federal University plays the role of a linchpin or a center of gravity in the scientific life of the city, as most of the academics have either studied or worked at KFU at some point or collaborate with its researchers now. Students here have an opportunity to dive into a vibrant research environment even while pursuing their first degree. They can participate in academic conferences and meet those who have already embarked on an academic career, which helps them choose a professional trajectory that is right for them.

    How can the impostor syndrome be overcome?
    I would also very much want to find out how! Here’s my hypothesis. Psychologists says that if something annoys you a lot in other people, that means you deprive yourself of that very thing. For instance, if you can’t stand lazy people, it may very well mean that you don’t rest enough. As soon as you allow yourself to rest properly, your attitude toward lazy people will change. If this association works in reverse, then it could potentially help overcome the so-called impostor syndrome. After getting rid of an overly critical attitude toward others, a person would also become less strict and demanding when it comes to his or her own competence.