Tell us more about the award you’ve received: how does it benefit you as a scientist?

The award is given out by the IEEE – the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. It is a well-known and respected organization that unites academic societies in all kinds of fields: medicine, biology, power industry and many others. Among them is the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society, which brings together electromagnetics experts. Each year they hold competitions for scientists and postgrads – I participated and won an award in the latter. To apply, one needs to present a project, CV and references from other scientists. If you win an IEEE award as a postgrad, you can easily expect to be accepted for a research position in some of the leading research teams in the US, if not the world. Taking part in IEEE activities abroad is very beneficial for one’s career. There are permanent positions that are open to those with publications in top journals, and there are ones that are for scientists who are recognized by IEEE societies for their contribution. At the very least, in the US such experts are seen as equal in terms of respectability and qualifications. In Finland, for instance, some universities employ a tier system to evaluate the status value of scientific journals: the top tier includes Science, Nature and IEEE journals. To sum up, yes, the Institute’s award is indeed a very significant addition to a scientist’s résumé.

ITMO University's Nanophotonics and Metamaterials Lab

What was your project about? What are the criteria for eligibility for this award?

The project has to do with electromagnetic substitutes for topological insulators and devices that use them. I’ve been working in this field for quite a while. I think the jury liked my project because it shows how we can, in theory, create compact optical waveguides using topological photonics without loss or signal reflection. Few could do this; few even knew about this. Meanwhile, we have already done experiments and showed how two-dimensional topological insulators can work when they protect electromagnetic waves instead of electrons (you can read more about this in our previous article).

The competition accepts all kinds of projects that deal with electromagnetism and wave propagation. Still, nobody will give an award to some dead-end research, for instance, if a project doesn’t describe an entirely new concept, or exciting results of some experiment, or an important discovery in a well-known field.

A few months ago, the #actuallivingscientist hashtag went viral on Twitter, with scientists using it to make the public aware of their work in various fields of science. What would you have said if you took part in such an initiative?

In Australia, where I did my postgraduate studies, we all had to take part in the Three Minute Thesis competition. Everyone had to describe their thesis paper in three minutes in a way that any regular person would understand. I work in two areas. The first is medicine – we make metasurfaces to improve the performance of MRI machines. The second area concerns super waveguides, which have no retroreflection and are protected from defect scattering, meaning they can make your internet connection much faster.

Use of metasurfaces in MRI testing

The Three Minute Thesis competition is held all over the Asia-Pacific region. First, you compete with others from your research center, then with those from your department, your university, your country and so on. It’s very popular among scientists. University winners get 10,000 dollars; a slightly smaller prize is given to the Audience Award winner. I think it’s great that researchers participate in such events.

You pick a lot of new research subjects. Is it hard to switch between them?

I try to devote three days to each subject, so I’m already used to switching activities. I actually think it’s beneficial – when you’re tired of something, you go and work on something else. And while you’re working on it, you might get an idea for how to solve a crucial problem in the other project. If I need to write an article and I have time for that – I’ll switch to that and when I tire of it I might switch to manual work: assemble something, conduct an experiment, make measurements. Maybe do some computer modeling. I’m never bored and I try to stay sharp.

What are the stupidest and the smartest questions you’ve ever been asked about your research?

A very smart person once told me this: when people are asking you about science, there are no stupid questions. If someone genuinely wants to understand some scientific topic, they can’t ask stupid questions. It’s the scientist who can see it as such, but that’s their problem. As for smart questions, there are a lot. At my thesis defense, this woman, who is a physicist, too, but from a different field, had asked me a really interesting question that actually moved me to look into a new area of study. I won’t tell you what it is yet, as I still need to complete the project I’m doing on that. So, in a way, all questions motivate us towards something. And if you can’t answer one, it means you haven’t fully understood the topic either.

Australian National University. Credit:

As a scientist, where do you prefer to live and work: in Russia or in Australia?

I generally prefer living in my home country, Russia. I’ve had six great offers from different universities, even though I didn’t really apply anywhere. It’s just that when I went to conferences, colleagues would come up to me and talk to me about collaboration. But I’d like to stay and work at ITMO University, the university where I was “raised”, and to bring back from Australia the knowledge and competencies that I could introduce to science and the industry here.

What accomplishments do the top universities look for when offering work to scientists? Should they be involved in relevant research? Or have publications in prestigious journals?

A bit of everything. The number of publications you release matters, but if they don’t know you, they don’t know about your publications either. The first impression you make at a conference depends on your appearance, your presentation, your topic. If people come up to you after a presentation, it means they’re interested in your work, they know what research team you’re in and, granted they have positions available, they might be interested in giving you one. But, anyway, there is a formal competition that you’d need to win for most university positions. Anyone can apply for those, and they might come out ahead of you – even if that research team really needs you. There are different grants, too, that have different conditions for how a team is selected. For example, there are grants that are given for the formation of a scientific team, and that’s when whoever is in charge can open up positions on their own with whatever criteria they want. All in all, you just need to show a quality performance and conduct exemplary research. You could earn a PhD, but come off terribly and then your scientific supervisor won’t give you a good reference. It’s important to apply for grants and win them because that means you’re gaining important experience. There are really a lot of factors at work here. One of the key ones, I’d say, is the choice of a supervisor; this is the person who has a direct impact on your future career. I’ve been very lucky with mine (Pavel Belov and Yuri Kivshar) – they are both amazing experts who taught me a lot and always supported me. For which I thank them greatly.

ITMO University's Nanophotonics and Metamaterials Lab

Speaking of grants; there’s this common joke in Russia about “British scientists” who always discover obvious or silly things. It stems from how the UK spends a great deal of resources on science and it’s not always clear why this or that research is necessary. What kind of research do you believe is currently wasting money for no reason?

First off, about the British scientists: this joke is mostly used by Russian popular science media, where, understandably, they tend to write about what’s simple and understandable. It might just be simple propaganda. But, in truth, I have a lot of scientist friends in the UK and they are very glad that the nation is spending so much on research, and a lot of it is really good. In China, on the other hand, quite a lot of scientists who study electromagnetism and wave dispersion are dealing with problems that were relevant 15 years ago, but they are trying, so to say, to reinvent the wheel. Another popular practice is to take a 10 year old article, repeat the results and have it published in small journals. If the reviewers in these journals don’t keep track of modern science, they might let it through, since it’s technically correct. Although there are scientists who tend to dig deep and who might find something interesting where others might have missed it, there are those who prefer to do the bare minimum and waste the taxpayers’ money.

The Science journal, for instance, has a Technical Reports section that contains scientists’ feedback on the published articles, meaning that they welcome criticism. Have you ever written anything like that?

Not yet. I wanted do, but didn’t get around to it. But I can tell you about a very telling example that’s well-known among physicists. There is a great scientist who has done a great deal to advance our field, John Pendry. He proposed a superlens that would be made from a material with a negative refraction index which, in turn, was predicted by the Soviet – Russian physicist Viktor Veselago some decades earlier. What is a superlens? Well, there is such a concept in optics as a diffraction limit. It means that it’s impossible to discern objects that are located very close to each other, at a distance of half the length of a wave – they appear as one object, not two. Yet Pendry said: “I can make a lens that will let us see these objects”. It could be used to look at microscopic viruses, for instance. So when he published his article in Physical Review Letters, he received a bunch of comments, the very same technical reports. No one believed him. Because what he described in the article was akin to saying that Maxwell’s equations are all wrong. But it can’t be – we’ve been told since our school days that they’re correct. But Pendry replied to all the criticism, he went to conferences trying to convince his colleagues that he was right. In the end, the scientific community recognized that they were wrong and he did come to an impossible, but correct result. The British Queen knighted him and he holds a number of prestigious titles and awards.

John Pendry

Or, in another example, two years ago scientists from ITMO University, Pavel Belov and Alexander Krasnok, wrote a response to an article by a research team from Cambridge University about the reduction of antennas in electronic devices to an unprecedentedly small size. Our researchers pointed out how their British colleagues wrongly interpreted the results of their research.

So the moral of technical reports is that…

…such comments are a popular thing, and journalists and scientists who read these articles really do pay attention to it. An incorrect article will mislead people as long as someone doesn’t write a response to it, and will baffle the next generation of scientists: why are we taught this, but the article says that?