Since 2014, MIPT has been selecting scientists with international work experience to conduct research at the Institute’s labs. This postdoc contest has seen the return of more than 10 Russian researchers from the world’s leading schools, such as Oxford University and MIT. In his science column, Sergey Novikov shares his experience of returning to Russia. Novikov, who now works at the MIPT Laboratory of Nanooptics and Plasmonics, moved to Dolgoprudny half a year ago from Odense, Denmark, where he studied the interaction of light with nanostructures together with professor Sergey Bozhevolnyi. Novikov now develops Raman spectroscopy at MIPT.
Russia, Denmark, Spain, Denmark … and Russia
I graduated from the physics department of Lomonosov Moscow State University and defended my doctoral thesis there in 2007. It was on the effect that weak magnetic fields have on nerve cells. There were hardly any prospects for doing science in Russia, so I was faced with a choice: either leave Russia or remain here and be over with science, like most of my quite talented fellow students, who have nothing to do with science now.
After graduating from MSU, my course mate Valentyn Volkov [now head of the Laboratory of Nanooptics and Plasmonics] gave me a recommendation for work with his academic supervisor in Denmark, when they were looking for someone from Russia for a postdoc position. The research group was led by MIPT alumnus Sergey Bozhevolnyi. He is now one of the most prominent scientists in nanoplasmonics, heading the Centre for Nano Optics at the University of Southern Denmark.
I passed the interview with professor Bozhevolnyi and went to Denmark in 2008. At some point I thought it would be interesting to work in other European laboratories and I chose the group of the renowned professor Luis Liz-Marzán and the Bionanoplasmonics lab in Spain. The latter focuses on the synthesis of plasmonic nanoparticles with controlled composition, size, and morphology, as well as on the use of these metal nanoparticles as biosensors. There, I worked for two years on a project related to biology. Its main objective was to develop new nanostructured materials based on crystalline assemblies of plasmonic nanoparticles. They were used to detect signaling molecules via surface-enhanced Raman scattering. We tried to apply the said materials for monitoring of the population kinetics in bacterial colonies, determining the mechanisms of interaction between mixed colonies, and manipulating them. When the project was over, I went back to Denmark, where I worked until 2017.
By then, many of my friends and Russian colleagues working in institutes across the world started returning to their home country to work at ITMO University, MIPT, and elsewhere. I think it had finally dawned on those making the decisions in Russia that something had to be done about the nation’s best researchers working abroad, that science had to be promoted here and the researchers need to be reclaimed. Europe is sapping good researchers from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, it’s like a vacuum cleaner. Of course, one gets used to living abroad: It becomes convenient, easy, and comfortable, but it’s not home. When I found out about such programs in Russia, I got interested. I applied for a grant at MIPT to work at a lab that has an excellent Raman microscope. This was precisely the area I wanted to advance, and what I do now. Based on the favorable working conditions and family circumstances, I decided I needed to go. And I have not regretted it since.
MIPT: The first among equals
I did not notice much difference between Denmark and Russia. The conditions in Phystech.Bio — the building on the MIPT campus housing my lab — are mostly no different from those I got used to abroad. It is by far not every European research group that has as much equipment at its disposal. This typically depends on the chief researcher: how much and where they publish, how much traction they gain, and whether they can receive grants to upgrade the lab. In addition to lab equipment, MIPT has a Center of Shared Research Facilities. Should you need something, you can do it there. I have also retained the contacts I made abroad, so I am bringing more of my colleagues to work in Russia. Our lab is international, and we often make partnership agreements with colleagues, friends, young professors. This enables student exchange and interesting joint research with partners in Denmark, Spain, Mexico, Israel, and other countries.
There is a major bonus to working at MIPT: The students are extraordinary. They are motivated, hardworking, and quick to learn new things. Once you teach them to handle the equipment, they are ready to work on a project by themselves, which is a great advantage. There is no doubt that good supervisors in other countries attract students with a decent background in physics and mathematics, too, but we get more of them. In our lab alone, we have multiple winners of international olympiads and students from the general and applied physics department, which is one of the hardest places to study nationwide. This background is very noticeable, because the students are quick to grasp and learn things, and they are independent.
At MIPT, I do work on high-sensitivity biosensors, ultrathin metal films, and two-dimensional materials. This includes fundamental research and applications in medicine and optoelectronics. One of our new objectives is the synthesis and study of an entirely new class of materials — 2D metals — which suggest the prospects for flexible and transparent electronics. A further focus of our research is on biosensors. Combined with plasmonics, Raman spectroscopy enables the detection of compounds at concentrations as low as single molecules. This means that sensors can be developed for diagnosing diseases at their earliest stages. One of my projects is on early-stage heart disease diagnostics. This requires nanostructures in certain configurations, and we are currently testing the appropriate structures. Both biological and fundamental research provide for a large field of work.
Science in Russia
Compared with Europe, many more opportunities are opening up in Russia now, and this is part of the reason I took the offer to return. It had become fairly difficult to find a permanent position and then obtain grants to move the group forward in Europe. Here, for one thing, I can work on the projects that I find interesting. I can also apply for grants to various funds, and my salary scales up with my professional activity. In Denmark, I received a fixed salary regardless of the number of projects I was engaged in, and the workload was increasing. Here, the increased workload in compensated financially, and it is always more exciting to implement one’s own ideas and engage other people in that work. Right now, I see much more prospects in Russia, and the experiences I make here support that view. I think the conditions in Russian science started improving with the launch of Project 5-100 and the support programs of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Over the past five years, my colleagues and friends began to partner with Russian universities, and feedback started coming in that things are not as bad here. People holding permanent positions and recognized researchers began to consider the possibility of returning to Russia.
What did I do in Denmark? I took part in many projects, I’ll just name some of them: developing and characterizing plasmonic nanostructures for detection of biomolecules with low-concentration, color printing using plasmonic nanostructures, thin film research, studying the effects caused by field enhancement in vanishingly small gaps between gold Islands in thin films near an electrically defined percolation threshold. Another line of work had to do with biology. For example, for stromal stem cells and human embryonic stem cells, we showed using Raman spectroscopy the difference between genetically abnormal, transformed cells and their normal counterparts.
Plans for the future
I am planning to advance the field we work in and create my own laboratory, upgrade the equipment and expand its functionality. An important project we are working on involves diagnosing heart diseases at early stages. Along with a group from the MSU biology department, we are developing a sensor that would enable the pathologies to be diagnosed early on. Heart pathologies may progress or temporarily halt. So far, our country has emphasized addressing the problem right away, but we suggest it may be useful to observe the pathology progressing at an early stage. That way, we can see the mechanism behind this process rather than just recognize the onset of the disease. We want to know what gives rise to the disease? There is no answer now, but hopefully we can find it.
We are preparing several papers reporting our latest results, which we will also present at international conferences, such as SPP9 and METANANO 2019. Besides, the MIPT Center for Photonics and 2D Materials is organizing its own conference — 2D Materials 2019 — in September in Sochi, Russia.