Universität Jena Student about Russian Science and European Dream

For the past two years, Fabian Heisler, the student at the Institute of Applied Physics of Friedrich Schiller Universität Jena, has been working at the ITMO University’s international “Metamaterials” laboratory. Before his return to Germany he shared his thoughts about the lab, the city and the big European dream.

-          How did you start working for a laboratory in a St. Petersburg university?

After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Friedrich Schiller Universität Jena, I entered the Master’s program and worked at the Institute of Applied Physics in a group that focuses on ultrafast optics under Prof. Dr. Stefan Nolte. There I did research in the optics of ultrashort impulses. Two years ago I decided to do an internship in Russia. I had studied Russian at school so I had the necessary language base. There’re quite a few Russian-speaking researchers at Jena who collaborate with their Russian peers. One of them – Arkady Shipulin – helped me connect with the “Metamaterials” laboratory at ITMO University and with its head Dr. Pavel Belov, who accepted me into his research group. I’d never been outside the European Union before and hadn’t really traveled that much outside of Germany, so a long trip to Russia was a serious step for me. At first I planned to stay for three months, six at most. But I’ve been here for two years now and don’t regret my decision.

-          What kind of research did you do?

I studied surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) of bacteriorhodopsin in purple membranes using self-assembled silver nanoisland films for Raman signal enhancement. The results of that research were published in the Scientific and Technical Journal of Information Technologies, Mechanics and OpticsMy work here was somewhat different from what I used to do at the Institute of Applied Physics. When discussing my internship with Arkady Shipulin, I made a conscious choice to try out a somewhat different research area.

-          Was it difficult to get used to life and work in St. Petersburg?

It wasn’t easy. At first I was placed in a dorm with another graduate student who didn’t speak any English. I know that in Russia three students to a dorm room is standard practice. But it was new to me and took some getting used to. Soon though, thanks to my colleagues, I moved. I actually got very lucky with the colleagues: whenever I needed something, they always helped. That made adapting to life in the city a lot easier. Twice a week Pavel Belov and I played volleyball and football, and during studies I met new people that became my good friends. Only a month into the internship I was able to make evening plans because I knew where and with whom I could go, what events and concerts were on.

-          How did the two years in Russia influence your life?

It’s hard for me to judge how I’ve changed professionally. I’ll be able to do that when I get back to Germany. Work and life in St. Petersburg for sure have made me more stress resistant. Usually I don’t feel comfortable in large cities, where it’s always noisy and there’re lots of people. Now after St. Petersburg, all cities in Germany seem small to me. Once, after applying for my visa extension two months in advance, I received the answer only a day before its expiration. Now I don’t worry anymore when things don’t go as planned. Let’s see what my friends say when I get back to Germany. Maybe they’ll notice more drastic changes.

-          Has the laboratory changed during this time?

I noticed that more and more lectures and seminars are held in English. That’s very important. Without the right language environment students and researchers from other countries, if they’re not NIS countries, would have a hard time adjustig. That’s probably the key characteristic of an international lab: a comfortable working environment for everyone. Right now two other foreigners are working with me, one from China and one from Bangladesh. I think that in general, the lab’s development trajectory is correct.

-          What are your plans for the future?

Right now it’s hard to tell what I’ll be doing when I get back to Germany. Possibly, I’ll pursue my PhD. But I’ll also be satisfied with interesting research work at a good company. In either case, I hope to come back to St. Petersburg to do a joint project with my Russian colleagues. I’ve already discussed with Pavel Belov that no matter what I will be doing I’ll keep him in the loop. I’m also considering employment in Russia. The fact that I planned to come here for three months and stayed for two years speaks volumes. But right now I want to go back home and assess my options.

-          In June you’re going back to Germany. Is there anything you didn’t get a chance to do in Russia?

The last month I’m planning to spend realizing what is probably every European’s dream: at the end of May I’ll board the train and travel along the Trans-Siberian railroad across Russia. I’ll spend three-four days in larger cities, including Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, and Ekaterinburg to get to know them better. I’m lucky to have friends all around the country that I can stay with. In Vladivostok, I’ll take a photo on the Pacific Ocean beach and send it to my friends with a caption: “Look! I made it to the edge of the world!”  

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