Female Scientists on Their Work, Inspiration and the Magic of Science

On February, 11th, it was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Scientist is one of the world's most interesting jobs, but it sure is not easy. We've asked female scientists from ITMO University to share about how they came to work as scientists, what they dream to achieve and what inspires them.

Maria Borovkova, staff member at the Terahertz Biomedicine Laboratory of the International Institute "Photonics and Optical Information Technology"

When I was a child, I dreamt of doing things that are not really possible. I was always interested in everything new that scientists invented, and not just that — I always wanted to try researching something myself. There were even times when it got out of hand — once, when I was 10, I was measuring my temperature with a standard mercury thermometer and decided to see how it would work for boiling water. Luckily, no one got hurt. I understood that I want to do science when I came to ITMO University on an Open Day. At the School of Photonics, they've explained me that photonics has a bright future, that devices based on optical technologies have numerous uses, including those in the medical field — which was the decisive factor for me. I want to invent a method to diagnosing cancer which would be both precise and affordable, want to create something really meaningful and useful.

ITMO University. Maria Borovkova

Yet, I aim to be more than just a scientist well-versed in a particular field — I want to be apt in all areas of human activity: know what's what in opera, be a good talker. A scientist is someone who's good at learning new things, who aims to learn something new. When thinking about it, I always remember characters from the "Monday Begins on Saturday" novel, those academics who hid in their laboratories in the evenings so as to stay the night there and work a little more. This thirst for knowledge, this curiosity defines scientists.

As for being a female scientist, I believe that now, it is even easier for women. As of now, everyone is concerned with how hard the world can be on us, so a lot is done to make women’s lives easier. I constantly get invitations to conferences like "Women in Optics" and the like. Surely, there are still fewer women in exact sciences than men — even though women are usually more attentive and diligent.

Research doesn't take all of your time. A lot of it is spent on writing articles and filing different papers. I would've never imagined that this will consume more than half of my time. Also, I came to understand that research is not only successes, but failures as well. Often, you theories and ideas prove to be false; yet, you shouldn't get caught up in them. It is a lot better to switch to a different project, or look for alternative ways to solving the task. Yet, sometimes you just can't accomplish a task, and you have to live with it.

Irina Livshits, Head of the "CAD Opto-Information and Energy Saving Systems" Laboratory

I think it was back at school when I understood that studying and discovering new things is what I want. I studied at the School #30 in Leningrad, and I had a great Physics teacher. He once said the words I still remember by heart: "Optics is the land of wonders and uncharted possibilities". This is why I went to ITMO — to discover this "land". By the way, my mother was also a science officer, though in a different field — she was doing climate science.

ITMO University. Irina Livshits

Surely, doing science was hard at first, but I think everything's hard when you only begin. I sought inspiration in such examples as Sofia Kovalevskaya, Marie Curie, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, as well as my school teacher. I believe that being a scientist is a lot harder for women than men, especially in our country, where equality of rights is still developing. Science is most interesting, so I always recommend children to try it if I see the spark in them.

Science is about solving a set of tasks that benefit people. With time, these tasks are becoming more and more complex, but more interesting as well. I was sure about it when I started doing science, and science didn't let me down. As for dreams, I always have a dream, though it may change sometimes. As of now, I want to develop an educational game for designing optical systems that would be fun, interesting and useful. It would be great if I find like-minded people to help me, — and I believe I'll surely find them at our university!

Irina Melchakova, Head of the Office of International Research, Associate Professor at the Department of Nano-Photonics and Metamaterials, Head of the Applied Radiophysics international laboratory

In school, I loved solving Math problems and always participated in contests. My mother was a Math teacher. Also, I liked contests in physics, geography, sometimes even Russian language. Yet, I can't say I've always dreamt of becoming a scientist. Actually, I wanted to become a ballet dancer or a figure skater. Yet, I grew in a small town where I had no chance of doing that, so I started to develop my other talents. I went to ITMO because I wanted to do something interesting, research something. Still, I didn't dedicate myself to science right on the spot: for the first years at the university, I was enjoying my student life away from home. Towards the start of my third year, I understood that I don't want to work anywhere but in science. Once, I came to my department when they were admitting Research students. There, I met my future scientific advisor, and soonstarted doing serious research. After getting my degree, I stayed at the university so as to develop further.

ITMO University. Irina Melchakova

Research work was all like I expected it to be: you come to the laboratory, you have a task you want to solve, you discuss it with your colleagues, you conduct research. It was more the organizational side of it that I didn't expect to be what it was then. Yet, a lot changed since. For example, we could only do theoretical research and modeling, and couldn't even dream of conducting experiments at our laboratory. Now, we check everything with experiments and can't even think of doing research any differently. There are some problems typical to just Russian science, as well: there are no stable science programs or long-term projects.

To be successful in science, as in any field, one has to put in a lot of efforts. I get inspired by those who never yield to difficulties, overcome any hardships, but still remain good people. Women have all the opportunities in science. Surely, a woman can drop out of active experimental research for several years, but she can always continue working on theoretical things. Motivation is the key here. As of my dreams, I want more of my and our team's inventions be applied to practice, benefit the people and be in-demand.

Arina Buzdalova, tutor at the Computer Technology Department

I always wanted to create something that could work independently. When I was a kid, I built a special structure from constructor parts filled with balls of different colors. When I threw another one inside, one rolled out, and I tried to understand why and at what condition a particular ball rolled out. In essence, that was a complex probability system, something similar to what I work on now. I study evolutionary algorithms. These are algorithms that allow solving optimization tasks — for example, creating work schedules. At that, these algorithms work based on the principles of biological evolution and are a system that solves tasks without my participation. Speaking in child's terms, that is magic.

Actually, till my third year at the university I didn't know that I would be doing research. Then I started working on a term paper, and had to participate in creating a library of evolutionary calculations. And I understood that I can do that, I can create something new, not just write regular programs. Also, Anatoliy Abramovich Shalyto did a lot to inspire me to do science.

Science has a lot to do with developing as a personality. I always wanted to do this "art", but as opposed to the art that artists do, science is objective. A scientist never depends on some critic's opinion.

ITMO University. Arina Buzdalova

As I started doing science, I understood that scientists are not some unapproachable geniuses as I thought when I was a kid. They are people that do a particular kind of work, just like everyone else. This work has its own rules and methods. It's impossible to understand whether you will become a scientist or not, unless you try. What's more, "trying" will take much time: you can't just do some research for some three days, then get upset and bail. You'll have to listen to your colleagues, learn from them, and try again and again. Also, science is great because it doesn't matter whether you are male or female, where you are from and what age you are. The results are all that matter, and it can be approved only by objective criteria. Many articles' authors and reviewers don't even know each other's names.

I try setting many scientific tasks for myself; I also want to know how to easily and comprehensibly explain what I do. And from the practical point of view, I want to bridge the gap between theory and practice that exists in my field. Theory allows to precisely describe the mechanisms that evolutionary algorithms are based upon, and forecast their effectiveness. Yet, there is a problem: in this field, there are theoretical results only for simple tasks that are nowhere close to real ones. To solve the problem, we take practical tasks, derive their properties and use them in simple tasks that can be researched theoretically. Theoretical analysis gives insight into which properties of particular algorithms are better for solving particular tasks, so that we know which algorithms to use in real tasks, how to develop existing algorithms and create new ones.

Ludmila Vidyasova, head of the Monitoring Research Department of the Electronic Government Technologies Center

I started my scientific career in 2005, when I came from Penza to Saint Petersburg to study sociology at Saint Petersburg State University. During my studying there, I was sent on an internship under Chugunov Andrei Vladimirovich, who showed me what research is like. In 2013, I defended my thesis — "Sociocommunicative structure of electronic government in modern Russian society on the example of Saint Petersburg" - ahead-of-schedule. To be honest, before coming to Saint Petersburg, I had no clear idea that I would do science, even though I grew up in a family of professors. During my education, I always did sports, participated in competitions, knew how to set goals and achieve them. Maybe this defined my personality, and now helps me in research work.

ITMO University. Ludmila Vidyasova

Now, four years later, I can say that I actively fulfill myself in science: I win grants on conducting research, speak at international conferences, and publish articles. For me, a scientific career is a permanent creative process and search for something new. My field of interests is processes that go in the society, so there will always be interesting topics and regularities, as the modern world changes so fast that it is almost impossible to predict these changes. Working in science is most interesting: it gives the opportunity to exchange experience with other scientists from different countries, participate in international conferences, which is tremendous experience. At the same time, this work can be difficult: you are always in search, you are led by your scientific curiosity. Speaking about scientists, I get inspired by such qualities as precision, self-discipline and good reasoning.

I believe that in today’s science, it’s harder for women than men. This was determined by history. If you look at Thesis Boards even in non-technical sciences, they would be 70% men. I also had to face stereotypes: I am a blonde, so there were problems with misjudgment of my scientific results. Also, to have a successful career, a female scientist has to feel the support of her family. I am very thankful to my husband: he always shows interest in my accomplishments, reads my articles and discusses them with me. I wish my female colleagues in science to always be true to their dreams, be successful and feel the support of their families!

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