ITMO Graduate Anastasia Svarovskaya on Promoting Space Science

This year, Anastasia Svarovskaya graduated from Russia's first Master's program in science communication. During her studies, she visited the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Now, Anastasia conducts space-themed projects and writes for Russian and international magazines, as well as manages popular science communities in social networks. In an interview for ITMO.NEWS, she spoke about the issues of promoting space science in Russia.

Anastasia Svarovskaya

Tell us about your background: what did you do before joining ITMO's Master’s program in science communication?

I completed my Bachelor's program at the Novosibirsk State University with a degree in journalism. The Novosibirsk State University is located in the city’s Academgorodok. This place is all about science: as of now, there are over 30 research universities there. For four years, I lived in this place, walked its roads, watched how different professors go to their laboratories by bike and do all kinds of research. And I really liked all that.

Novosibirsk State University. Credit: gelio.livejournal.com
Novosibirsk State University. Credit: gelio.livejournal.com

I was greatly influenced by Grisha Tarasevich (Grigory Tarasevich - Russian journalist and science communicator, editor-in-chief of the Schrödinger's cat popular science magazine -- Ed.). Seven years ago, it has been my first time at the Summer School event, and I've never missed it since. I still remember that time when I first heard students sitting in a military tent speak about physics. I think that this experience has become ground zero for my future path. I decided that science journalism was exactly what I wanted to do. I've started focusing on this field since my very first year at the university: I communicated a lot with Grigory, went to different science events, wrote about universities and research organizations.

I picked up science communication a bit later, during my third year as a Bachelor's student. Back then, I still hadn't decided on what I wanted to focus on: writing articles or organizing events. I did a lot of the latter during my third and fourth year when I worked at the university. This was also the time when I got to know Dmitry Malkov (Dmitry Malkov is the head of ITMO's Science Communication and Outreach Office -- Ed.). He came to the Summer School and spoke about the plans to open Russia's first science communication Master's program. I remember thinking: "Great, I should do it! This involves it all: writing, organizing events, and dealing with science". So, after I got my Bachelor's degree, I applied for the program and entered ITMO via a portfolio contest. I have to say it all worked very well for me.

Summer School. Credit: social networks
Summer School. Credit: social networks

It was during your Master's years that you chose your main focus, space. How did this happen?

It was my close friend that got me involved with the topic of space exploration; that was during the last year of my Bachelor's program. With time, I started to get deeper into this field, I began managing several communities in VK, editing posts and so on. I really liked that. At the same time, I kept in touch with many science communicators, attended popular science events and conferences. Having moved to St. Petersburg, I established close contacts with the Russian Cosmonaut Federation, started to interact with space exploration and astronomy communities in Moscow, became a frequent visitor of the Cosmonaut Training Center, and continued writing articles about astronautical congresses and doing interviews with astronauts.

We had to do many practical assignments as part of our Master's program, so I always asked for projects that had to do with space. This way, I could conduct projects that contributed to my field of interest by simply doing my home assignments.

A lesson on space sciences at Sirius. Credit: sochisirius.ru
A lesson on space sciences at Sirius. Credit: sochisirius.ru

During my second year as a Master’s student, I understood that my project work was over and I now had to look for a side job. I spoke to several people and told them that I was looking for a job. I got several offers, but I didn't like any of them, even though the pay and working hours were OK. Then, I got an offer that had to do with the topic of space exploration. This was when I understood that I was ready to forgo science communication in order to focus on space.

Do you have any article or event that you would call a milestone one?

Yes. This was a great interview that I still show to everyone. At the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, I got to know Ivan Kruchkov, a flight instructor who taught Yuri Gagarin. I talked to him for about five hours, and that was a really good interview. I understood how great is it that I can just come and talk to a person who's been working in the aerospace industry for so long.

Ivan Kruchkov. Credit: Slava Zamyslov
Ivan Kruchkov. Credit: Slava Zamyslov

Tell about your trip to the International Astronautical Congress 2018 (IAC2018) in Bremen.

This was my first time attending an event abroad. Actually, this was also my first time going abroad by myself. I had been wanting to go to IAC for a long time already, as this is an event where all major figures gather: people like Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos, heads of space agencies and such. Why did I decide to go this year? Well, last year's IAC took place in Mexico, and the year before that it was in Australia. It would've been too expensive to go there. Next year, the congress will take place in the USA, and the year after - in the UAE. So, this time in Germany was just the perfect opportunity for me to attend the event, and I couldn't miss it.

I have to say that I don't have very good command of English, and upon returning home, I understood that I’d have to study it thoroughly. What was most special about this event was that you could meet and get acquainted with heads of space agencies and best specialists in the field. Astronauts from the ISS say that from the space, you don't see any borders. At IAC, you get to feel the same. You walk around and speak to specialists from JAXA, NASA, ESA and private companies, just like that. I think that's really great.

IAC2018. Credit: esa.int
IAC2018. Credit: esa.int

What are your current projects?

For now, I am writing texts for different media. For instance, I collaborate with a Kazakhstani popular science title OYLA that's released in several countries in different languages. I also write for Noj, an outlet with a specific audience that's also interested in my topic. For some time, I collaborated with Taiga.info from Novosibirsk, and oLogy, a popular science title. I'd like to write even more, but I just don't have enough time: I am a member of the youth section of the Russian Cosmonaut Federation. Whenever possible, I am helping them with conducting different projects and events.

I am also managing social networks for the Open Space VK community. Together with Vitaly Egorov (Vitaly Egorov aka Zelenyikot, space exploration enthusiast, blogger, journalist -- Ed.) we have lots of ideas and plans for developing this project. We understand that many people are interested in the topic of space exploration, the demand for associated materials is colossal, so we are currently looking into the many different ways of working with our audience.

In your opinion, what is the reason for such popularity?

I think the development of the Internet and mobile networks had a part in this. Such technologies made it possible to use various formats in promoting space science. At one point, the administration of VK launched a community called VKosmose ("in space"), which attracted many people who probably never thought about space science before. And the development of YouTube made it possible for those who build rockets to create associated web content and make it accessible to a wider audience. Astronauts began making videos about their life on the ISS, and this became very popular.

I believe that Elon Musk also contributed to it: people stopped dreaming, became focused on everyday routine, while he showed that you have to dream and attain your goals.

Elon Musk. Credit: fortune.com
Elon Musk. Credit: fortune.com

Nevertheless, there's a downside to this tendency, as well. We science communicators often discuss these issues: for one, space as a topic is now being used to promote merchandise that has nothing to do with it. What should one think about “cosmic” leggins or “Saturn” toilet paper? Opinions differ. Some say that it’s no good, others believe that it's cool and helps promote space science.

And what about you?

I'm reluctant. I can't really say whether this is very good or terribly bad. On the one hand, I don't really like it when people organize a conference on management and call it something like "Space Way", or create websites totally unrelated to space science save for their futuristic design with planets, rockets and so on. I can't help it but ask: why? What does space even have to do with things like that? Still, when people have really good merchandise, why not? For instance, NASA and a particular company designed cool sneakers that resemble the footwear astronauts wore on the Moon. Sneakers and T-shirts with NASA logos are really popular; it's a shame we don't have anything like that in Russia.

Well, it's obvious that Roscosmos has it quite differently. On the whole, what are the key problems that Russian science communicators who work in the field of space science face?

First of all, those are difficulties associated with getting information. In Russia, this field isn't very open, and you can't be one hundred percent sure that you'll get particular information at a particular time. NASA, for instance, seeks to invite journalists to its conferences, and speak about its current issues in the open. Roscosmos, however, has been becoming more and more restricted, and that doesn't make it more popular.

Inviting speakers from the aerospace industry enterprises is also very difficult. You have to write official letters with lots of signatures and stamps, get special invitations and so on. For example, when I was working on last year's Starcon, they asked me to send an invitation by fax, and I had to search the whole university for a fax machine.

Visiting some aerospace enterprise is also associated with many issues. For one, you have to undergo lots of different screenings. This is why lots of people who are interested in space science and want to commit themselves to it have second thoughts.

Space zone at Geek Picnic in Moscow.
Space zone at Geek Picnic in Moscow.

Is there any hope that science communicators will change this situation?

Well, that's a complex question. Most young people who work at aerospace enterprises are quite open to communication. And how do young people get interested in space and everything that has to do with it? They get information from science communicators. Still, how much time will it take for this new generation to grow up? Won't the older generation become too closed-minded? I believe that there's still hope. When official institutions get lots of applications for inviting particular speakers or visiting their facilities, the people in charge start to understand that such activities are necessary and relevant.

What did completing a Master's program in science communication give you?

Most importantly, the program showed me the whole range of methods for promoting and interacting with science. As for my field of interest, in particular, it was much the same. Despite having a background in journalism and experience in organizing different events, I only had a vague understanding of such issues like developing PR campaigns or establishing internal communications; there were even things I knew nothing about. Having completed the Science Communication Master's program, I now know of the whole range of formats and opportunities that I can make use of.

 

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