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'My Nickname at School Was 'Professor'. I Had to Live up to It'

Why do people become researchers and pursue careers in science? What is more important for them – self-fulfillment or financial incentives? On the day before Russia celebrated Science Day on Feb 8, HSE’s news service talked to researchers working at HSE about what motivated them to become scientists. 


Evgeny Yasin, HSE Academic Supervisor

I have to say that I’m an elderly person and such fascinating things as business enterprise were not permitted for my generation in the Soviet Union. The most appealing alternative for me was economics. I graduated from Moscow State University specialising in Political Economics. But as it was in the university, the course was largely academic but I liked that as I was always attracted to research work. So I started a post-grad as soon as I graduated. Then I was invited by my teacher, Aron Y. Boyarsky who was Head of the Department of Statistics to go and work in the newly opened Research Centre at the Central Statistics Office. At the same time, the famous Central Economics and Mathematics Institute RAS opened. While CEMI focussed on planning, the statistics office gathered information and statistics. Since then I’ve been involved in research and I’ve never regretted it.


Fuad Aleskerov, HSE Honorary Professor 

I come from a family of scientists, my mother was head of a department at the academy of oil. Our home was always full of famous Soviet academics. Since I was ten, my nickname at school was ‘Professor’. I had to live up to it.


Valery Zusman, Director of HSE campus in Nizhny Novgorod 

My teachers were Professor Zoya I. Kirnoze (she is alive and well and still working) and Professor Boris I. Purishev, people with a natural modesty who love literature and writers more than themselves and combine a deep interest in European culture with an endless and active (protecting monuments for example) love of Russian art. The desire to follow their example, at least trailing along behind them, has lead me to be an academic.  


Ronald Inglehart, Academic  Supervisor at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (HSE, Russia), Professor at the University of Michigan (USA)

During my first year in college, I took a course in the history of science, called "Changing Views of the Universe:  from the ancient Egyptians to the Big Bang."  The idea that the way people saw the world wasn't constant, but actually changed over time, was new to me and absolutely fascinating.  It started a life-long interest in evolution.  After college, I spent two years in the U.S. army during the Cold War.  Every week, I gave troop information lectures on the world situation-- and a recurring theme was, "Be ready-- war could break out any time."  I began to take my own lectures seriously, realizing that war could occur-- probably by a chain of accidents-- and the results would be disastrous.  I decided that the most important thing I could do, would be to help prevent World War III.  I started studying political science, hoping to find ways to reduce the danger of war, and became convinced that economic and political integration, such as was occurring with the European Union, made it extremely unlikely that closely integrated countries would fight each other.  My first research was on international integration.

Ian Miles, DSocSci, Professor of Technological Innovation and Social Change at Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, University of Manchester (UK); Head of the Research Laboratory for Economics of Innovation, HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge

My progress was straightforward, if unusual. My father bought us a comic to read, whose lead story was about the epic adventures of space explorers, which fascinated me considerably; so I read through the astronomy section of our local public library. Next on was extraterrestrials and UFOs, and I progressed through those books and other fields (like anomalies and occultism) to wind up in psychology. This seemed like a more plausible line of work than being a cosmonaut - and did not mean having to join the military, so it was psychology for me! But at University, psychology seemed to be too much to do with rats, and I was still very interested in future technologies - so I wound up working on social and economic aspects of innovation.


Panos M. Pardalos, Director of the Center for Applied Optimization at the University of Florida, Florida, USA. Academic Supervisor, International laboratory of Algorithms and Technologies for Network Analysis

My educational background started in a small village in Greece, when I was six years old. It was a small school with all six grades inside the same classroom with only one teacher. In my elementary school we had no books. At home I had no help. My mother never went to school, being an orphan of war. Despite all these difficulties, my elementary school teacher managed to give me the first most important thing for a successful academic career — the thirst for knowledge, which is still with me after all these years.

After the elementary school, I went to different high schools supported by the Greek Ministry of Education. After high school I studied Mathematics and Physics at Athens University and I was offered a fellowship to do PhD work in USA. I was always interested in learning new things and I had a dream to study new areas. In addition to my passion for knowledge,  I had a desire to see the world. Since graduation from the University of Minnesota with a PhD in Computer Sciences, I worked at Penn State University and then The University of Florida. I have also visited many institutes and universities all over the world.

The journey of my life resembles that of Odysseus's adventures. Doing research and making new discoveries are adventures that make life interesting for me until I reach Ithaca. Then, I hope that my students follow my example and start their own journeys with new exciting ventures.


John Widdup Berry, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Queen's University, Canada,   Leading Research Fellow, International Scientific-Educational Laboratory for Socio-Cultural Research

There is one main source of my motivation to work in the areas of cross-cultural and intercultural psychology. I worked as a merchant seaman [in Africa, Asia and the Arctic] for some year before studying psychology. When I began my studies, I realized that almost everything that I was being taught was wrong, because it was both culture-bound [limited to concepts, theories and data from one small part of the world] and culture-blind [not taking into account the substantial role of culture in shaping the development and expression of human behavior]. I set out on a personal journey to change this, by working in many parts of the world, and then attempting to link features of the cultures to features of human behavior. My guiding principles in this work were hedonism and social activism: if it is not fun, and if it will not make a difference to peoples’ lives, don’t do it.


Alexander Veretennikov, Leading Research Fellow, International Laboratory of Stochastic Analysis and its Applications

My story is simple. At school I was interested in various subjects. I was uncertain what to choose and I had excellent teachers in many of them. One day in a popular mathematical book I read a phrase by Kolmogorov, which impressed me: "To all school students who like mathematics: I invite all of you to come and study it in a High School (i.e., in a university); I do certify that our country definitely needs your talent in this important area; so, do not hesitate." (The citation is by memory and, hence, approximate, but I am sure about the main message.) Perhaps, this turned out to be decisive for my motivation, although, certainly, my teachers also helped.


Christian Welzel, Leading Research Fellow at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (HSE, Russia), Professor at the Leuphana University (Germany)

What motivated me to become a scientist was the experience that finding out something about why things are as they are creates an inexplicable feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment, and a drive to repeat that experience. In that very sense, science is an addictive drug, albeit a more healthy one.


Nina Dronkers, Academic Supervisor of HSE Neurolinguistics Laboratory

When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I took a class called "The Biological Basis of Language". When the professor began speaking about the human brain, I was fascinated. He spoke of how some people with brain injuries could write, but couldn't read; how some could speak fluently but the words made no sense; and how some who spoke many languages had lost the use of one language but not another. The more I learned, the more I realized that I had to explore as much about this as I could, and decided to continue my studies and do research in this area. Now, I work with people who have suffered a brain injury and who have lost their ability to use language. They have taught me much about how the brain processes language and what we can do to help them recover their lost skills.

Seger Breugelmans, Deputy Head of the International Scientific-Educational Laboratory for Socio-Cultural Research

Sheer curiosity and great mentors. As a child, I was already fascinated by trying to understand how things work. Luckily, I was born at a time and place where that fascination could be converted into a job at an academic institution. As a student, my academic supervisors played a crucial role by ever challenging my ideas and encouraging me to look beyond the stories that we all hold to be true. It is thanks to them that I decided to pursue a PhD instead of going into business and I’m happy to say that the job has never disappointed me since.

See also:

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Two HSE University Researchers Among Winners of Research Excellence Award Russia 2021

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