Physicist Maxim Gorlach on getting ahead in science: "The worst scenario is to just drift with the tide".
Four years ago, a researcher at the Department of Nanophotonics and Metamaterials, Maxim Gorlach, decided to move from Minsk (Belarus) to St. Petersburg to enter a Ph.D. program at ITMO University and study metamaterials as part of Pavel Belov's research group. Since then, not only did he manage to join in on a new field of research, but also work in the US and Australia, defend his Ph.D. thesis and win a grant from the Russian Science Foundation together with his colleagues. He told ITMO.NEWS about what dividends does doing research give, why the academic competitions can become a real social elevator for a high school or university student and how to not miss the opportunities for personal development while being a university student.
When did you first decide that you will focus on physics, and later specialize in nanophotonics and metamaterials?
Back in school, I was very lucky: we had a wonderful physics teacher, Mr. Alexander Zezyulya. He conducted additional courses for us, trained us for the competitions. Mr. Zezyulya always managed to find an individual approach to each of his students, to engage and excite children and deliver information in an interesting way. In addition to that, he was a young specialist then. He started teaching our class right after his graduation from the university. It was evident that he was very much into teaching and treated his work very responsibly. And this is always appreciated: such enthusiasm always wins schoolchildren over, and even students. I think that Mr. Zezyulya has a great teacher's talent. We are still keeping in touch with him. And he also taught my younger brother.
My friend and I came to his additional course in the seventh grade and have ever since then continued to study physics in depth. We also participated in the different competitions and were quite successful. For example, I got into the university via one of them. Thanks to these studies, by the 11th grade I clearly understood that I wanted to do science, and I knew what branch of physics I would be doing. And since I grew up in Minsk, I had two basic options to get education in physics: the Department of Radiophysics and the Physics Department of the Belarus State University. BSU is the largest and most prestigious university in our country, so the choice was obvious.
Why after the graduation from the Physics Department of BSU did you decide to continue your education and career in St. Petersburg, at ITMO University?
While in my fourth year at BSU, I began to think: "Well, yes, soon I will get good fundamental education, but the question is: where can I work with this education and what options and prospects do I have in general?" I understood that I wanted to work in science, but was aware that I needed to think about a specific plan and its realization. It was clear that there are not so many places where theoretical physicists are needed.
I first found out about metamaterials at one of the seminars of the Department of Theoretical Physics, where they told students about various new and promising fields of science. This was in the beginning of 2013. And after that, I started to gather information and found out which good research groups are seriously working in this area, and where I could have a shot at working in this field. I was told then about Pavel Belov's group at ITMO University. This group was very active at that time. The group was actively growing, and I got invited to come do an internship with them. In the summer of that year, I published my first article. Later I worked under Dr. Belov. He became my research advisor. And in 2017 I defended my Ph.D.
Quantum computer. Credit: geektimes.ru
All this time we were actively studying metamaterials - artificial composite structures with unique electromagnetic properties. As it is widely known now, metamaterials have a wide range of applications: MRI, improvement of signal-to-noise ratio, even things like materials invisibility. I was assigned a specific task: we investigated new effects taking place in metamaterials due to spatial dispersion. This feature of their electromagnetic response is very rare or does not occur at all in natural environments.
What projects and research are you doing now?
Science, of course, does not stand still. And although I continue to research metamaterials, now we are more focused on the so-called topological photonics. This is a new field that enables control over the propagation of light in the structure in such a way that, even if a defect is placed in the structure - that is, the structure is somehow damaged locally - the light, nevertheless, simply goes round the obstacle and does not dissipate. Now a lot is being said about the possibilities of creating optical computers and the development of quantum computing. Just in the context of such applications, topological photonics looks very relevant. That is why the leading research groups of the world are working in this field now. This year we managed to prepare a whole series of research on topological photonics, and in the future, we plan to develop this field.
In addition to research, you also teach. How do you manage to combine these two jobs? Do they help and complement each other?
In this context, I will quote the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who was actively teaching and is widely known for his "Feynman’s lectures on physics". He said this: “I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don't have any ideas and I'm not getting anywhere I can say to myself, "At least I'm living; at least I'm doing something; I'm making some contribution"- it's just psychological... In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you've got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it's the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You're not getting any ideas, and if you're doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts!”
Therefore, if we are talking about immediate practical benefits from my work, then the one that brings practical results the fastest is, of course, teaching. But overall it does not take much of my time. I'm teaching the course "Dedicated Topics of Electrodynamics" for the master’s students of our department. Normally, I teach one or two classes a week. The rest of the time I do research.
What are the main challenges in your profession?
In my opinion, the most difficult thing in our profession is to keep oneself in shape and to keep track of what is happening in science. Nowadays, it is very difficult because every day there is a huge number of publications. For example, a journal like Physical Review publishes 12 articles a day on the average. Eight or nine of them are on research in the fields of my interests, but it is hardly possible to read so much printed material every day. And there are a number of other respected physical journals: Physical Review Letters, Nature and others. It is almost impossible to cover this pool of information, so one has to somehow filter: by subject and authors, for example.
How do you take your mind off work?
My colleagues and I play volleyball. This is my hobby. Occasionally, we go to the University gym, sometimes we rent other playgrounds. Once a week we get a chance to do it, sometimes we get to play twice a week. It helps me to take my mind off work, to shake off the thoughts of work, because one can not always concentrate on the same task for long.
Of course, in our field there are people who work very hard, much more than eight hours a day. Also, almost all the people who actively work travel a lot, and combine scientific work with traveling. Both, to some extent, are the specifics of a scientist's work.
You also travel a lot: not long ago you traveled to Vladivostok, you’ve also been far abroad - to the USA and Australia.
Trips to the United States and Australia were the most distant foreign work trips I have taken yet. There I did joint research with our foreign colleagues. In Australia, I was at the Sydney University of Technology, where we prepared a paper on nonlinear metamaterials together with my colleague Mikhail Lapin. Since then, our cooperation continues. And in New York I was as part of our project with the Russian Science Foundation supervised by Alexander Khanikaev. There we worked together on a paper on topological photonics. This paper is currently pending. The trip to Vladivostok was a recent experience. "Metanano" Conference was held there. It brought together almost all of the faculty of our department and other scientists from many countries of the world.
Each such trip gave me a whole range of new sensations and emotions. In Vladivostok, I was most struck by how, in just a few years, they managed to build a modern campus of the Far Eastern University on an empty place, virtually from scratch. In Australia the nature and wildlife are really curious. After all, many animals of Australia are not found anywhere else in the world. In the United States, I was really impressed by the skyscrapers of New York. Especially when you go up to the top floors and take a look at the city from there.
METANANO conference in Vladivostok.
My next trip will also be to New York, and it will happen quite soon. There, I will continue to develop research on topics related to topological photonics. Besides, there is a group in Japan, which is actively involved in this field. Maybe I’ll get a chance to visit Japan as well.
What are the main opportunities and prospects your profession gives you?
First and foremost, pursuing science gives me the opportunity to develop and grow personally. The specific nature of scientific work is that a person can not master a certain amount of knowledge and just stop at this. To be a scientist, one must constantly study something new, ask questions and try to answer them. This work is creative, which is very important for me. Secondly, this profession gives a chance to be surrounded by talented, intelligent people, each of whom is a full-fledged person, an interesting companion and a great colleague. This is valuable enough. Of course, this job also gives a great opportunity to travel, see the world, communicate with foreign colleagues in one language, because the language of science is the same anywhere you go.
How do you plan to continue on with your own research? And how do you see your personal prospects of working in the field of science in Russia?
As for me, I see many opportunities for development here and I do not think about moving abroad. Russia provides a whole range of opportunities for a scientist. However, their accessibility and feasibility depend on the activity of the researchers themselves. Success depends on one’s ability to overcome various difficulties, including bureaucratic ones. Our country has a system of grants of various types. And generally, any young researcher can apply for them. The chances of winning significantly increase if you work in a large scientific group with a worldwide reputation.
One of the opportunities that we have already used is the one for research on topological photonics: we won a grant from the Russian Science Foundation to do this research. As we speak, our work with Alexander Khanikaev, an assistant professor at the City University of New York, continues as part of this project.
"I am a professional" - the recently started academic competition - gives its winners an opportunity to get into the best universities of the country as Master’s or Ph.D. students and be discovered by major employers. At some point, winning an academic competition became a real chance for you to get into the university of your choice. In your opinion, how does a future specialist who plans to work in the field of science make a name while studying at the bachelor’s / master's level already? What opportunities for further development should not be missed while one is studying at a university?
Firstly, I would advise one to reflect on what they want to do in their life after the graduation. It is good to at least ask this question and try answering it. The worst scenario is to just drift with the tide: when the moment of graduation comes, and only then you start to think about your future.
Secondly, if a person has already made a decision for themselves, then they need to think about what opportunities they can use: how to get an internship, in what laboratory or company it is worth to try it out. After all, in this case, even at the stage of training, they will be able to acquire initial experience and understanding of what employers need. And the employer usually expects to receive a solution to a specific problem here and now. Academic competitions, grants, scholarships and internships abroad can really become good options for social mobility. In my opinion, it’s good to not neglect these opportunities at the stage of studying and choose among them the opportunities closest to your interests.
Translated by Eugenia Romanova