"Travel Is The Key To A Career In Science": Biophotonics Specialist Maria Borovkova On How To Be Successful, While Studying And Working In Three Countries

Photonics is a scientific field which studies the applied aspects of working with optical signals; for many, it is still an obscure area. According to Maria Borovkova, PhD student at the University of Oulu and ITMO,  who studies in Finland on a double-degree program, photonics, first and foremost, is a source of countless applications for optical signals. Photonics research makes possible the invention of devices and technologies that are designed to make people's lives easier. Biophotonics, which Maria is currently doing research in, helps solve some of the most challenging issues on the planet: cancer detection, Alzheimer's disease and many others. Maria Borovkova told ITMO.NEWS why photonics is one of the most important areas today, what is so special about the life of modern scientists and what opportunities should not be missed while you are still studying.

You are a PhD student at two universities: in Finland and Russia. How did you get involved in research at several universities at once?

I am currently based at the University of Oulu (Finland), where I am studying as a PhD student. At the moment, the agreement on a joint educational program with ITMO is being finalized. So, if I successfully complete my training, I should receive two degrees at once: Doctor of Science (Technology) from the University of Oulu and Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (Optics) from ITMO University.

I have been working in Oulu for a year already and I am a part of a scientific group here. It’s a four-year program. At the same time, I’m working on my Russian thesis with a scientific advisor from St. Petersburg. I will be defending my Russian thesis at ITMO. According to the program’s rules, I will be able to come back to St. Petersburg for a period of six months to two years to finish my research in Russia. I got my Bachelor's and Master's degrees at ITMO, but I also have a degree from the University of Rochester. I studied there for a year on another double-degree program.


Maria Borovkova and Evgeniy Strepitov

You have been doing fundamental research in photonics for a number of years already. For those who are not in this research field, it’s mostly a grey area - unlike programming or hacking. Tell us, what does research work in photonics mean to you and what's so special about it that you decided to devote your life and career to it?

My field of research is biophotonics – an area of photonics. This means that I'm working with optical radiation, which I’m using to study biological objects. Samples of tissues of human and animal organs, tree leaves, food, etc. For instance, at the moment I’m conducting various research on samples of human cancer tissue, of human brain tissue with Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy, as well as  samples of animal skin and muscle tissue - quite a few different biological samples.

In general, I send out light signals to biological samples and analyze the light that comes out, and thus, has interacted with their structure. I conduct such experiments both in transmission and reflection modes. I then analyze the properties of light, which change after interaction with the sample: radiation intensity, spectral composition, polarization properties. So, part of my work is related to spectroscopy - the study of the spectra of various substances in a given frequency range.


Teraherz spectroscopy. Source: dailytechinfo.org

My research in St. Petersburg is on terahertz spectroscopy. In the range of electromagnetic waves, Terahertz radiation is between infrared radiation and radio emission. It is also called far infrared or submillimeter. The advantages of using terahertz radiation are the following: many objects are transparent in this range, many molecules have specific spectral characteristics in precisely the terahertz frequency range, and, in addition, this radiation is not ionizing, and therefore, much less harmful to humans than X-ray radiation, for instance. At the moment terahertz biophotonics is a very actively developing and very promising field of science.

At the University of Oulu, I’m conducting research on the polarimetry of bio-tissue. For this I use polarized visible radiation of red color; it is within the range of the so-called "therapeutic window", which, due to the scattering and absorbing properties of the components of biological tissue, provides the greatest depth of penetration into the biotissue. One can see the peculiarity of red light in a simple experiment. Turn on the flashlight on your phone and close it with your finger. You will see two things, namely: first - the finger can not completely block the light, and second - the light that passes through the finger is red. Basically, the white light of the phone’s flashlight is not exactly white. It consists of a spectrum of colors from infrared to ultraviolet. Due to less optical dispersion, only the long-wave part of the flashlight's spectrum can pass through the finger - therefore we see red light.


The University of Oulu. Source: unipage.net

We use circular polarization in the research on the polarimetry of biotissue because this kind of polarization is the most stable when interacting with matter. We direct the red circularly polarized radiation to the tissue at a certain angle, it passes through the tissue and dissipates in it. On the same side of the sample as the radiation source, but at some distance from it, we register the radiation that comes out of the sample and analyze its polarization properties. Such technology is very sensitive to the morphological structure of the sample, it is possible to distinguish even subcellular structures in it. So, the subject of my dissertation is: Polarization and terahertz imaging for food and biomedical diagnostics.

So, how did you get into biophotonics in the first place?

I've always been enormously interested in this area. There is a Laboratory of Terahertz Biomedicine at ITMO. And I did my Master’s there. Most of all I was inspired by the fact that this area of science has great potential for application. Anything related to human and animal health is always highly important, and everyone values research and its applications in this field.

Everyone knows why we need new technologies to diagnose cancer, what Alzheimer's disease is or that we need to eat high quality foods - our health and quality of life depend on it.


Penetration of light through the tissue. Source: biophotas.com

However, working with biological objects is a rather complicated process. On the one hand, unlike any other objects, biological objects are unstable. For example, you are working with a piece of meat, measure its properties - and then it simply starts to dry out in the process of your work. It simply changes its structure and optical properties - and in just 5 minutes the sample is not the same as it was when you started. Taking this into account, sometimes it  is very difficult to evaluate the results of some experiments and to separate the effect from our manipulations while doing research from the effect of processes that occur independently in the sample.

In order to study the sample well and without any hurry, it must be preserved in a fixed state. This is a complex process, and a researcher needs to be extra careful while conducting it: treating agents should never be touched and their vapors should not be inhaled. Such valuable samples as those of organs with pathologies we, naturally, study already in a fixed state.

You went to the University of Rochester in the US as part of your Master's studies. Tell us about some of your experiences studying abroad.

It was a joint educational program of ITMO and the University of Rochester. I am very grateful to my university, which sent me to the US, where I spent a year at the University of Rochester (New York). I have to mention that this is a very special place for everyone who knows what optics is and has worked in this field. Such famous “giants” of optics as Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb started their journey there. Interesting fact: glass digital optic fiber was invented there. The University of Rochester has a remarkable Institute of Optics, where I and two other students from ITMO studied.


The University of Rochester. Source: enrollment.rochester.edu

We studied geometric optics, quantum optics, optical systems design, production of glass, had lab classes and other subjects. On the one hand, they gave us a broad fundamental education; while, on the other hand, this education was meant for practical application. We were given specific tasks in the classroom. Each professor had great experience in the industry and gave us real cases from their practice. We received unique first-hand knowledge. You couldn’t learn that from an article, or a textbook or find it on the Internet. The program was only a year long, so it was very intensive.

Do you have any experience participating in competitions in your field?

I’m doing my current research at the University of Oulu as a result of one such competition, in fact. I won a Maria Sklodowska-Curie grant from the European Horizon 2020 to conduct research at the University of Oulu as part of a four-year PhD program. My program is called I4future - Imaging for the Future: Novel Imaging and Characterization Methods in Bio, Medical and Environmental Research and Technology Innovations. 20 young researchers in various fields are involved in this program: biologists, physicians, chemists, physicists, biophysicists, environmental engineers, metallurgists. And all of them are united by one topic - new visualization technologies. In addition to that, I won the "Best Thesis" nomination for my Master's thesis "The Method for Determining Water Concentration in Biological Objects using Pulse Terahertz Spectroscopy" at my Department, at my School and at the Inter-University Competition.

I have also won several international grants. Alaudi Denisultanov and I were the first Russians to receive the prestigious scholarship from the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society. This scientific community has an impressive history and accumulated great experience over the years. It is represented by both scientists and people from the industry.


Maria Borovkova and Alaudi Denisultanov

Why did you decide to apply to the University of Oulu upon completing your Master's program?

My scientific advisor, who saw the I4future program, gave me this idea. Up to that point, I did not know anything about Oulu. Although, later, I realized that many scientists, whose publications I read at the time, worked at the University of Oulu. Now I am a member of a scientific group of biophotonics specialists. Here, I research various biological processes using such technologies as: optical tweezer, speckle interferometry, Raman, infrared, visible spectroscopy, photodynamic therapy, polarimetry, confocal microscopy and others - all of them contribute greatly to a comprehensive research in the field of biophotonics.

What are the prospects for doing science research in Russia and other countries?

There are good prospects for doing science research in Russia and in many other countries. I’m happy with where I am right now. After completing my PhD course, I may try to stay in the scientific group, but this is not quite what I want. The fact is, the key to a successful life and career of a modern scientist is travel. It's normal to get a Master’s degree at one university, go on to do your PhD. at another and then work at a third university.

Moreover, such horizontal mobility is inspired by academia itself because when you move from one university to another for your research, you bring to the table your connections, networking and work experience - and that is already a lot. I would like to continue my research and get into a PostDoc program. I really like Oulu, but I will probably consider other universities for my next professional move.


The Optical Society (OSA) site. Source: osa.org

Based on your experience: what opportunities should not be missed while studying at the university?

Do not neglect any contests. Even if it seems that there is absolutely no chance to win, you must definitely participate! Even if you don’t win this time, you can at least use the materials you prepared as a base for participation in the next contest. This is very important, especially for those who would like to pursue a career in science after they graduate. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), in the field of science, everything happens now on a competitive basis. Therefore, these contests never end. However, with time they become more and more serious. So, the skills of writing motivation letters and compiling the bidding documents come in quite handy.

Actually, scholarships and grants “attract” each other. So, if you have won one scholarship, it will be so much easier for you to win the next one and so on. You can find out on the sites of large scientific communities, such as OSA, SPIE and IEEE about all kinds of international competitions in the field of photonics. In addition to that, ITMO has an Optical Student Chapter, which, among other things, tracks the information about various competitions and helps participants fill out their applications. I believe it’s great for students to participate in such activities. This is a very good space where students can both express themselves and acquire new skills.

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