This year, Estonia is celebrating 100 years of statehood and you were chosen to be the scientist of the year. What were the requirements for the competition?

Obviously, you have to have publications but the main focus was on cooperation with industry, the amount of funds supporting the university as well as the number of successfully graduated PhD students.

I was certainly very pleased when I learned I became the scientist of the year. If you consider the technical requirements, however, you could assume that I might get the title. Moreover, last year was rather successful for me: I had a long internship in America, which gave me an opportunity to finish many projects. For example, not having any administrative duties there allowed me to finish several articles.

You studied in St. Petersburg. When you had just entered university, could you have imagined that you would become a scientist?

Absolutely, not. Moreover, initially, I was going to enter a medical school. After a tour around it, however, I realized that I would never be able to do this job. Theoretically, I was interested in healthcare and specifically genetic engineering, but it became clear to me that I could not work with blood and a living body.

So I chose my university at random, you might say. Or even against my own judgment, because my way of thinking and character are more humanitarian that anything else. I decided, however, that everyone should know foreign languages and literature and it is nothing that is worth five years of studying. Whereas physics and mathematics are not a prerequisite and it is worth learning so that you can go through life without any problems. Ultimately, I challenged myself. Of course, I knew that physics is interesting. But I didn’t know which way to go at the age of 17.

What helped you decide? Why did you choose optoelectronics?

I cannot say that I decided it myself. I was lucky to be led by the fate itself. I started with electronics and semiconductor devices, but after the collapse of the USSR, electronics in Estonia actually ceased to be a subject, so I switched to mechanics. This is a completely different area. When I entered postgraduate school I was offered a topic with only conjunctions clear to me in its title. I took it as another challenge that I could not but accept.

The new academic building of the Tallinn University of Technology. Credit:
The new academic building of the Tallinn University of Technology. Credit:

I literally started from scratch in postgraduate school, but it turned out quite well in the end. When I was writing my doctor’s thesis I realized I was interested in materials popular in mechanics. Then I started studying how I could demonstrate their best properties. I liked this work so much that I moved to another department and changed my direction yet again. As a result, I began to study the science of materials, chemistry.

Now we are dealing with materials in a broad sense: from biosensors, where very much depends on the knowledge of biology and chemistry to additive technologies that require deep knowledge in materials science and physics: for example, it is necessary to know how laser interacts with a material. Therefore, the fact that I have knowledge in different fields helps me a lot. Knowing only mechanics is generally a good thing, but today if you are both a chemist and a physicist you can see a problem from different angles. And with that comes a synergy that can be successfully applied.

You said that you consider yourself a humanities person. Does this also help you in your work?

I think it does. Articles come quite easily to me. I have no problems writing a text if I have time and research results. I only need a couple of days for that. It is just a question of time.

I even used to be a journalist in the 90s. I was an editor of a women’s magazine in Estonia. I had to make money so I wrote an article and brought it to a Russian newspaper for consideration. It was accepted. I worked as a freelance journalist for six months and then the editorial board decided to create a magazine.

How did you return to science?

Russian journalism quickly ceased to exist, and again there was no choice. In this sense I am very lucky because it is always difficult when there is a choice, you always have to give something that you’ve already started. In my case, the fate said “No”.


Last year was very saturated for you. What are the key projects that you have been working on?

One of the most successful projects was the production of scaffolds or substrates for rehabilitation healthcare. We managed to create a unique scaffold that allows us to grow neurons. In this case, neurons do not grow on any other scaffold. Different cells can be grown on aerogels; there are no problems with that. Neurons, however, require electrical stimulation and cannot be grown that way. They can only grow on an anisotropic, rigidly oriented scaffold. At the same time, these scaffolds must also be conductive.

We managed to get a ceramic substrate, put on a conducting layer of graphene and planted human stem cells, which then without any additional stimuli differentiated into neurons. This is very important. We have the opportunity to create a cheap scaffold; if we have a blank and a reactor that allows us to apply a specially modified carbon coating to it, the preparation would only take ten minutes. We wouldn’t need anything else.

In addition, this scaffold is reusable. And most importantly, the cells do not grow into it, they just stretch. Moreover, they grow even without the current. If we need to restore broken connection between neurons, we can force them to meet using light electric pulses until they come in contact and start transmitting a signal. Even if that turns out impossible and they never come close, the thread will still transmit the signal.

What can this bring to modern healthcare development?

There is such a thing as lab-on-a-chip. This miniature device allows one or several multi-stage (bio) chemical processes to be performed on a single chip with an area of several square millimeters to several square centimeters. Lab-on-a-chip allows us to determine a number of diseases even before their symptoms have shown. One can analyze almost any human organ with such a device. Until now there was always a lack of brain cells, we could not plant neurons. Now we can.

Lab-on-a-chip. Credit:
Lab-on-a-chip. Credit:

What does this mean?  If we know that there is a disease and something can be fixed, we can see how the whole body would react to the change. So that we don’t end up treating the liver while damaging everything else. This system allows us to see how the whole chain, the whole body, including the heart and the brain will respond to treatment. Yes, we are still very far from clinical tests. It is just the first step that allows us to get neurons in artificial conditions.

How else can you apply scaffolds?

There is another modification of the same scaffold. One important detail is again that it is very cheap and does not require any sophisticated equipment. Eventually, we found out that this scaffold could work as a cancer cell reservoir.

Why do we need it? If we look at how cancer cells grow, then we will see that each cell throws a kind of needle. Since cancer cells have a very low friction index, these needles pass easily between other cells and create metastases. Therefore, the main task is to increase the friction index of a cancer cell, so that it will not be able to move and release its needles into other tissues. This is difficult, although it is an exclusively mechanical task. Very few people are involved in this task. In my opinion, however, this is the field of the future.

The second thing that we learned to do is fixating the cell. This allows us to test anything on it. For example, we can create a tumor and see what happens after we start treating it. We can see how it grows and develops, how the treatment affects this particular tumor cell taken from a patient. This opens up a prospect for individual healthcare development which is a trend today.

In addition, speaking of healthcare, we’ve recently made a very sensitive biosensor, which allows us to detect only a few molecules of a certain substance. Right now we are working with dopamine, ascorbic acids, various hormonal drugs; we have not tested it on many substances yet. The tests we have done, however, had a very good outcome. In this case, unlike the existing highly sensitive biosensors, our biosensor is reusable: we can wash it and use it again without losing sensitivity. In addition, it is much cheaper.

Cancer cell and lymphocytes. Credit:
Cancer cell and lymphocytes. Credit:

Why are you interested in biomedical applications?

Healthcare and biology have always interested me. I have always wanted to know why something happens the way it does. Therefore, when we thought about the project a lot in the very beginning of it I thought it was my destiny. It did lead me to healthcare in a long and unusual way. I do not perform operations myself but I know how to help someone who does.

You are also involved in other projects.

Yes, I also work with additive technologies. Why are they unique? Many instruments involve complex geometry today, but it is almost impossible to work with ceramic parts. This is a big problem as any ceramic part needs to be adjusted before it becomes a part of the device.

We came up with an idea of powders that are a “core in the shell”: a metal shell surrounds a ceramic particle. As a result, we get a compound with a lot of ceramics. We have also developed a way to transfer this metal to ceramics during post-processing in the flow of certain gases. We get very complex structures that are also one of the promising fields today. We have already sent an article about it to one of the scientific magazines and it was accepted immediately.

Such materials can be used while working with high temperatures or friction. Undoubtedly, it is the military and space industries and other high-tech fields.

Last year there was a joint seminar of Departments of Modern Functional Materials and of Light Technologies and Optoelectronics and the International Research Center of Functional Materials and Devices of Optoelectronics and Electronics, where you presented a paper on “Electrically conductive ceramic compounds based on metal oxides”. How did you first learn about ITMO University and how did the cooperation begin?

This is a whole other story. The point is that Anna Kolesnikova was my supervisor when I was writing my thesis. We lost contact after I graduated from university. Then one day an employee of the Tallinn University of Technology came to the conference and asked me if I knew Anna Kolesnikova. It turns out that she told him that one of her students is working in Tallinn. He gave me her business card, I called her and we met. Then I learned that ITMO University does a lot of interesting research projects and we have a lot in common.

Joint scientific seminar of the Department of Light Technologies and Optoelectronics
Joint scientific seminar of the Department of Light Technologies and Optoelectronics

What are you collaborating on now? Do you see any prospects for further cooperation?

First, our common interest is graphene and graphene-based materials. For example, we have jointly developed the so-called ceramic wires. What is important here? Wires usually pass electric current. Ceramics, however, cannot do that. We have developed a system where there is a high-conductive ceramics inside and a non-conducting ceramics outside, to which we did not add the graphene rods. This way, on one side we have an insulator and on the other, we have a remarkable conductor that is no worse than a metal one.

There is no metal in this system, which allows one to use it at any temperature. This material does not oxidize, degrade or corrode. This is important for many areas, be it healthcare or space industry.

As for further cooperation, I am sure that we will create joint projects. Why are we interested in working together? Most importantly, we now have a lot of practical experience, but we do not have people who would be engaged in modelling and calculations. That is exactly what they do here, at ITMO University, at a very high level. If you combine these two components - experiment and simulation - you will get the top of the top research where a powerful theoretical background together with practical experience give good results.

What are your own plans for the future?

I have so many plans that it is sometimes difficult to bring together my PhD students; they are all involved in very different fields and sometimes cannot even understand one another.

Joint scientific seminar of the Department of Light Technologies and Optoelectronics
Joint scientific seminar of the Department of Light Technologies and Optoelectronics

But my dream is to make my own laboratory, which is specifically focused on research for the industry. How should this work? A minimum of bureaucracy, when a company says, “We need that and that” and we just start doing it, provided, of course, that we have all the material and technical basis for it. I underline this minimum of red tape because filling up endless stacks of papers can kill any desire to create anything.

Are you motivated to work on a daily basis in spite of that?

I'm curious what will come of it all. Even when my students come to me and say, “Everything is bad, nothing works”, I always say to them, “Come on, a negative result is better than a positive one”. After all, in this case, we know that we chose the wrong way and we know what to do instead. That's why we try to communicate every day, share ideas.

Interaction with PhD students is generally very important. We meet every week for at least an hour, and once a month we have one general meeting, where everyone presents their report and talks about their results. We solve different problems and questions: what happened, what did not, who is going to which conference, who has a broken display and who can they call about it. Such communication is very important. I think this is one of the things that make us happy to be working at the lab.

Translated by Pavel Vorobyev