Interdisciplinary Innovations at ITMO University: In Conversation With ChemBio Professor Ekaterina Skorb

Last September, ITMO University chemistry professor Ekaterina Skorb won the L’Oreal – UNESCO “For Women in Science” contest. For the past year, she has conducted research as part of ITMO University’s ChemBio Cluster in the past year. ITMO.NEWS met with Prof. Skorb to talk about the results of 2018, Russia’s scientific prospects and her love of opera.

Ekaterina Skorb

We have last spoken with you a year ago about chemistry and your work. What has changed since then?

Every single day brings something new. We have an active group, we are always waiting on some results and thankfully we are getting them. I would say that most important to me are my students’ achievements. Now we have a team of like-minded people working towards a common goal and of course that motivates us greatly. Right now the work in the group is in full swing, we propose ideas, try to prove them and wait for nature to surprise us again and again. Mostly we hope that our suggestions will help us to better understand the world around us.

There have been great results in terms of interdisciplinary studies here at ITMO University. We are chemists and we are interested in Infochemistry, an experimental field of chemistry that studies the storing and processing of information on the molecular level. This is something that will allow ITMO University and Russia to be true pioneers in the entire world.

We are trying hard on this project, working with the chemistry side of things, but we also need a deeper understanding of information and informational systems, which is why I chose to work at ITMO University. There are a lot of people here who work with us and help us: computer scientists, specialists in robotics, physicists and even designers. We have Bachelor’s students come to us from all over the University with their own knowledge telling us that they want to work with us: though they don’t know chemistry that well, they can always assist us in various ways, for instance, to develop alphabet for our informational systems or do MatLab simulations for our out of equilibrium chemical systems and self-organisation.

However, bringing a chemist, a biologist, an IT specialist, and a mathematician together in the same room is not enough, as we don’t have a common language, we speak differently. This past year we have had a lot of success in achieving better mutual understanding. My students attend lectures on mathematics, the theory of epidemics and others; and listening to these they understand that there are chemical structures that have the same mathematical description as other structures in physics, biology, and sociology. Together we can build both chemical and mathematical models which would allow us to revolutionize material studies. Knowing the reactions and the laws of nature we can create structures with mathematical formations. We think that chemistry is the most promising way to describe nonlinear systems because we can understand the role of each block, which can help us in reviving an artificial cell.

Of course, that requires meticulous mathematical work. And the main reason we have been so successful is the fact that we are open to communication and had an opportunity to gather a great interdisciplinary team.

What about your educational work? How is that going and what emerging trends do you see in the field?

Fortunately, we have a very interesting English-taught Master’s programs at ChemBio Cluster where our Master students are involved in education and science. We haven’t had our own Bachelor’s degrees in chemistry yet. However, we have a chance to create an entirely unique education model here in ITMO, unlike the one from anywhere else in the world. We’ll take on students with strong mathematical abilities who are interested in chemistry and biology and we will teach these subjects to them. We will teach them the chemical side of things, a physicist will teach them the physical side, a mathematician will teach them the mathematical side. It is fully possible using an existing ITMO infrastructure. Together we will train a specialist of the future, a person who knows the matter from various perspectives. If anything is for certain, it’s that the world moves towards the future where it is important to know more than one trade.

As a university, we are working towards creating world-class education, as a research lab, we are working towards creating world-class science. Right now I am going to Germany to give an important presentation on our interdisciplinary results because few teams can afford themselves such research, but luckily ITMO can. Moreover, of course, it is important to be able to work on your own. Currently, we are in the process of publishing papers that have only one affiliation and no foreign colleagues, demonstrating that we can perform a study by ourselves.

There are also papers with our colleagues from different Schools of ITMO University, and such openness allows us to do great work together. If we open ourselves even more and work with foreign research teams, we can achieve much more than that. Our partners from other countries show their interest by financing internships for some of my students, and that includes Harvard, Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, National University of Singapore, Institut de Chimie Separative de Marcoule, University of Strasbourg and others. I am very glad to know that all of them return because of course, I train them for working here. There is no other place like ITMO University.

If I had to choose two words to describe this past year, they would be “openness” and “swiftness”.

Does your field integrate well with the industry? Is it easy for your students to find work?

The top-level industry is interested in our students, which I think is the main sign that we are doing well. In general, I believe that the future of education is when there are companies that are interested in students, and we engage in a dialogue with them and together are working to create the above-mentioned specialist of the future who can see things from different sides and make real breakthroughs. I think ITMO is the perfect place to train such students.

There is a gap between the industry and universities: the image of a person sought by the industry changed significantly, whereas education didn’t manage to move on and stayed the same. It used to be that the first-class specialist needed to be just a chemist, and I used to study like that too. If we were given a recipe, we could synthesize you any molecules, materials, nanoparticles you want, but nowadays that’s just not enough.

Our society is very privileged, we don’t have to think about how our laundry is done or how our dishes are washed – a work of thousands of scientists is behind this, and thousands of chemists also. Life is getting better and better all the time, the industry incorporates our findings and it is great to be a part of this.

You have just received the prestigious L’Oreal – UNESCO award “For Women in Science”. Have you heard about it before, and what is your opinion of it and its role for women in science?

I have heard about the contest, yes, and it is always nice when you are getting noted for your work; it is always nice to win stuff. It is also very motivating that there are things in Russia to win. This exact award is for my previous work, but there are also plenty of organizations in Russia that encourage future studies and assist us greatly. Russian Science Foundation supports my group, and recently we have won the “Stability” grant from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. Both of these are great foundations, they help scientists all over Russia and helped our laboratory.

As for the difficulty of being a woman in science, there is a lot of talk about that sort of problem and of course, it exists. But personally I have never had any problems due to being a woman; my colleagues have always treated me as a specialist and a professional, which is what all of us must strive towards. However, it is great that there are such awards and programs that help combat these issues. It is very significant that I have never been discriminated as a woman, but have now been awarded as a woman.

What is it like, working in Russia?

Of course, conducting traditional chemical research is much harder here in comparison with Harvard or Max Planck. That has to do with such trivial nuances as the fact that it is difficult to find necessary agents. I hope that it’s getting better. It would be great if I could order an agent and have it delivered in a week instead of three months, and of course, that makes it hard to perform “traditional” chemistry. However, Russia has its own advantages. This country has woken up and started to look around, figuratively speaking. There is a great need for advancements here. And while that agent is being delivered we can carry out computer simulations, discuss our models and then conduct experiments with great precision and with a clear aim in mind.

Tell us about your moving to Europe and the USA. How did it feel?

Well, for me the transition was very smooth because I never abandoned anything and made any sudden moves. I was just doing my research and it took me to various places, which is why I didn’t really notice a lot of change. I have always worked in the best places in the world: Max Planck Institute is the best in Europe, Harvard is the best in the USA and ITMO University is the best in Russia for me.

What about education in various countries? What have you seen in your career?

The German education system is somewhat similar to the classic Soviet system. In the USA though, the students get to listen to a lot of courses and they also have this interdisciplinary vibe. I used to think that it was very interesting to work with chemists, but it was there that I realized that in order to understand the world differently, you must go somewhere where you feel a little uncomfortable, where you have to catch up and work with different people, suggest new systems, find mutual paradigms etc. Chemistry and biology have always been close, so we created a ChemBio Cluster, and now we are introducing physics and mathematics into the picture as well as the paradigm of Art and Science. It’s very difficult to find new concepts in an established area, but we are confident that it is necessary and that it is the future of Russian education. So that is exactly what we are trying to do.

Now that you are in Russia, have you had an opportunity to travel around? What do you enjoy here besides work?

I’m not a fan of traveling just for fun, I like communicating with colleagues if that leads to something. Science is my life. I have traveled Russia visiting various conferences and on invited seminars, where I described our results to various scientists, and in doing so I have found a lot of people who are interested in our work. We are trying to integrate into Russian communities (there are many good chemistry groups here), as well as International science (more in the area of System Chemistry and Interdisciplinary fields).

Besides science, the best thing in St. Petersburg is the Mariinsky Theater because it is the best place to contemplate and reflect on science. I happen to like opera a lot and I visit it at least once every two weeks.

What are your plans?

This year I want to defend my Habilitation, which I have been writing all this time. We are always finding new things, having new results, publishing new articles, but at some point, it is necessary to draw a conclusion of sorts. After that, all I want is for my team to progress, we need to support each other and keep working. We are waiting for new talented Master’s students and I want to take on at least three more PhD students in addition to the ones I have now. Also, we have an open post-doctoral position in nonlinear chemistry.

Working in Russia, integrating into its systems, bringing forward new ideas, developing chemistry with the help of our interdisciplinary approach – these are our plans for the coming months.

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Personalities
  • Ekaterina Skorb

    Professor at the ChemBio Cluster. 

    Researcher at the International Laboratory "Solution Chemistry of Advanced Materials and Technologies" (SCAMT).

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