"Science seemed like the most interesting thing"

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become a scientist?

It was, one might say, a challenging path. At school, I liked everything, so when it came time to choose a career, science seemed like the most interesting thing, so I picked it. That’s how I ended up at the Lomonosov Moscow State University’s (LMSU) Faculty of Biology. But since that moment, I spent all five years of my studies wondering: “What am I doing here?!” (laughs).

This went on until I graduated. Then, I realized that I did, in fact, enjoy science, and went and got my PhD. Actually, today is the fourth anniversary of my thesis defense. Right now, I’m writing a doctoral thesis on structural biology – the subject are transcription systems within cells and how they work.

You were also able to build a career in the industry at the same time. How did you manage that?

In my fourth year, I was looking for a summer job and ended up at the clinical research department of the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. At the time, my work didn’t actually call for a scientific background: I dealt with safety reports, which describe critical events and other undesirable incidents. It seemed interesting to me, so I decided to continue. My career in big pharma began with the sort of clinical trials that are now the talk of the town because of the coronavirus vaccine.

From there, I went to PepsiCo to do clinical research on yogurt. Then, I came to Danone, where I became the head of a team at the research department.

Olesya Volokh. Photo courtesy of subject
Olesya Volokh. Photo courtesy of subject

“You learn a lot about yourself and what you eat”

What motivated you to take up BioTech’s offer to join the ITMO team?

There are several reasons. Firstly, training foodtech specialists has been a major part of my life for the past five years. My colleagues and I often find ourselves unable to find young specialists who have recently graduated, but already possess the necessary basic knowledge and a scientific background. They just don’t exist.

The second reason was ITMO’s name. I’ve known of it for a while, and my brother, who studies mathematics, considered applying here. If the university is now also interested in the food industry – that’s great.

Thirdly, a year and a half ago I started teaching at LMSU. It’s like a whole new world opened up for me. I realized that this is, too, a major part of my life. This work gives me energy and I enjoy influencing other people’s futures. ITMO’s efforts to transform its educational programs and adapt them to the needs of today’s industry are yet another opportunity for me to do that.

What are your current responsibilities at ITMO?

I am the head of the Bachelor’s program Biotechnology and the Master’s program FoodTech.

ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies
ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies

Will you be teaching a course yourself?

I’ve got a course on nutritional science in the works. It’ll be a separate discipline for Bachelor’s students and part of the general Applied FoodTech discipline for Master’s students.

And what is it about?

In layman’s terms, nutritional science is the science of food: what our ration should include so that we feel good, live long, and feel happy. But it’s actually a very wide-ranging field of science. The course includes many things that concern us all; after all, we all go to the store and buy food, but we often don’t even know how to read an ingredients list correctly.

Students of our nutritional science course at LMSU learn how to properly analyze a list of ingredients and how much of what should be in any product depending on its role in the nutritional process. We learn what the various food categories are. We also look at how much dairy or cereals a person must consume daily, what functional foods are, and what are the benefits of fermented foods. Other topics include how food is tested on human subjects and food-related legal regulations.

ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies
ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies

Finally, we learn how to count calories and fill out a nutrition diary so that the students would be able to test it on themselves and figure out if they’re eating too much, too little, or just enough. And it’s important to know what is “just enough” and why you should eat that amount. As a student, you learn a lot about yourself and what you eat.

Exams are done in the form of small research projects on topics chosen by the students. Some want to work with sweeteners, others – to find out whether chicken or quail eggs are the healthier ones. Working on something they’re personally interested in helps students stay involved. That’s why for me every time teaching the course is like visiting a new world. And you gain useful knowledge, too. For instance, if someone comes in for an interview at Danone and says they’ve done the nutritional science course, I’ll be very glad – because I know I won’t need to explain to them the things that usually take up the first couple months of work.

“Graduates must feel science”

Tell us some more about the programs you’re heading. What are they about?

The Bachelor’s program in biotechnologies provides recent school graduates with good basic training which, we hope, will be further developed in our Master’s programs. It includes three specializations: food technologies, agricultural biotechnologies, and environmental biotechnologies. The main idea is to give students a solid scientific foundation from which they can grow further.

It is my belief that graduates must “feel” science. It shouldn’t be something you learn by heart, but something you allow to pass through you, something that is almost intuitive. If you learn to see the world through the lens of science, then even if you don’t know something (and we always don’t know something), you’ll be able to find a solution to any seemingly incomprehensible scientific challenge.

ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies
ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies

The Master’s program FoodTech provides complex training for future researchers and employees of food industry companies. We teach students about the various categories of food products and their types – such as functional, sports, or active aging foods.

We also look at the issues of sustainability and eco-friendliness of food production. Of course, special attention is given to matters of safety, quality control, and longevity, since ITMO has a lot of expertise in this field. We’ll cover the entire spectrum of disciplines that a future specialist will need regardless of which area of the food industry they’ll be working in.

Both of the programs have existed for some time now. What are some of the key changes that have been made to update them?

Indeed, both programs existed before I came to ITMO, but the university’s administration tasked us with transforming them so as to make them relevant and in keeping with the needs of today’s industry. We’ve spent the month of November actively reworking the programs, which was an exciting process. We looked at familiar things from new angles, found the right balance between science and practical work, and are continuing to look for new corporate partners.

Our jumping-off point was the image of a perfect graduate and what we’d like to teach them to make them fully familiar with their future sphere of work. It would be great to allow students to “have a taste” of what they’ll be working with while they’re still at university. I believe this to be of great value; personally, I would have loved if things were that way back when I was a student.

ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies
ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies

Were there any subjects that were added or removed?

The programs were very specific and specialized, formed over many years. Universities merged and courses were expanded, combined, and so on. As a result, a program often included subjects of completely different levels, while logically connected parts of the curriculum were found in different specializations.

We’ve now optimized the programs. Some courses were merged and some split off of existing ones. We covered all the many disciplines a young specialist might need, but put them in a logical sequence one after another.

I’ll note that all Master’s students will be taking a course in biochemistry and biotechnologies, as well as a general course made up of blocks of key “food science” disciplines – we’ll touch on quality control, technical regulation, packaging, and nutritional science, all in order to form a general understanding of the role of nutrition in life, lawmaking, and national infrastructure.

In addition, at the core of the program there will be classic disciplines that are included in any Master’s program on food science and technology around the world. These are food microbiology, food chemistry, and food technologies. These are courses that all FoodTech students will take. There are six specializations within the program, ensuring that the students can pick what they are most interested in and study that subject in depth.

ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies
ITMO University's Faculty of Biotechnologies

“We’re not setting any boundaries”

Students are, of course, interested not only in the subjects they’ll be learning, but the practical training they’ll be given, too. What are your plans for collaboration with the programs’ industrial partners?

Collaboration with the industry is a very important part of our strategic development. This, in part, is what defines the “corporate” nature of the Master’s program. We want our students to receive practical training, work with our industrial partners, and, as a result, understand what they’d like to do after graduation.

We have this idea: we’d like to find a relevant partner for each of the program’s specializations. Right now we’re at the discussion stage and are already planning a number of negotiations on the subject of strategic partnerships with companies in the real sector.

There are several possible collaboration scenarios here and we’ll be as flexible as we can be. Collaboration can take the form of summer internships and thesis projects that would continue the work started during these internships. Students could write their theses on tasks set for them by a company that’s interested in a specific kind of research. Everything’s possible, and we’re not setting any boundaries.

As a staff member of LMSU, you also represent the scientific community. Do you plan to develop partnerships not only with members of the industry, but with your colleagues from other scientific institutions, too?

I actually believe that practical challenges cannot be solved without fundamental science. There are a number of scientific issues that businesses are concerned about, but they don’t have the resources nor the equipment to do the necessary research – and, truth be told, their employees’ goals are totally different. I believe that this is exactly the ground on which we can build relationships with corporate partners and other universities.

Olesya Volokh. Photo courtesy of subject
Olesya Volokh. Photo courtesy of subject

“The sky’s the limit!”

What kinds of students are you expecting to see at the program?

I feel that the ability to make a conscious choice of what you’ll study is something very important and, at the same time, beautiful. It’s the moment when you can take some time to think and ask yourself: “What do I truly want?” Unfortunately, it’s not common practice in our country. Students choose what appears promising or what their parents tell them to choose.

In 2006, when I chose the Faculty of Biology, I was thought of as a lunatic; people asked me what I was going to do with a biologist’s diploma – become a schoolteacher? Even though that is, too, a very important and crucial profession, this choice is often looked down upon.

Nobody knew that in five years, biology would blow up. That’s why the most important thing is that the people who come to us are truly interested in the subject. Because if they are, their chances of success are much higher than if they were simply trying to jump on the bandwagon. Although if we’re talking about what’s trendy, food will always be in fashion (laughs).

What are your graduates’ career prospects?

If you take a look at the job market, you’ll see that there are plenty of players in the food sector, including some very big ones. They’re always looking for specialists to fill the ranks of their research, marketing, legal, and any other departments.

As for science, there are even more opportunities there: the industry always needs scientific results. That’s our future, too. And this scientific future will be forged by tomorrow’s graduates – who else? It’s best to think not in terms of limitations, but of opportunities – and then the sky's the limit!