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  • The Sooner You Try to Make a Scientific Contribution, the Sooner You Will Manage to Do So

The Sooner You Try to Make a Scientific Contribution, the Sooner You Will Manage to Do So

The Shemyakin and Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry  (IBCH RAS) is one of the institutes of the Russian Academy of Science involved in the development of new faculties at the HSE University. It is also where first-year biology students come for hands-on training in research laboratories, and, in some cases, internships. HSE News Service visited the Institute to speak with first-year students at a zoology workshop.

Though it is called the ‘Cellular and Molecular Biotechnologies’ Programme, even cellular biologists are supposed to gain insight into the animal world during their first term. Since the beginning of the year, the students have had a chance to study protozoans, worms, and cockroaches. This time, it is edible snails’ (helix pomatia) turn to go under the microscope, but not until the students examine the gastropods’ structures. At the first lecture, students draw the snail’s anatomy based on a model the instructor draws for them on the board. Then they have to recreate the structure again in the lab based on what they see under the microscope.

@ Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

‘It's not only about seeing, but handling the material as well’, zoology lecturer and Deputy Dean Sergey Slobodov says.

Getting hands-on experience is crucial: feeling the weight of a flask, properly placing the specimen on the microscope stage, and so on

As Sergey puts it, the sooner students begin their lab life, the better. ‘To do so, high quality chemical agents and optical tools are needed—otherwise, what's the point of describing it all to the students if they don't see it or find it misleading? Biologists are supposed to be used to working with state-of-the-art, high-quality and expensive equipment and know how to treat it properly".

A number of stereoscopic microscopes for low-powered magnification and 3D imaging were purchased specifically for the IBCH RAS lab. Sergey prepared special scissors and wax trays for the lab session, which the students used to position their specimens.

The snail has its most important parts, such as its digestive glands and reproductive system, under its shell, which is why it is necessary to remove it with a special mallet. The snails are preserved in water, but many students still find this exercise displeasing. Some students actually take some of the test snails back home.  

First-year student Maxim Sorokin says that this has been his third dissection, and each time the process gets easier and easier. Maxim chose this area of study after completing a summer internship in the research lab: ‘I got in-depth experience with molecular biology there and worked with genetic materials. It was then that I realized that this is the only field I can see myself in working after graduation. However pretentious this may sound, I believe that the future lies with biology and biotechnologies. Scientific advancements will allow us to be able to control unfavorable processes in the human body and promote advantageous effects, which will definitely improve everyone's lives. There are few biotechnological programmes in Russia; I chose HSE University because it is a new programme designed to comply with all international standards, which I believe is crucial. Sure enough, we started with snails. It would be silly to expect something else, especially during the first year.’

The students must choose their areas of specialization during their fourth year. They will have the following options: immerse themselves in biotechnologies and study bioprocesses kinetics; focus on biotechnological production engineering, management, and control; or work with living cells studying gene therapy and gene engineering.

@ Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Irina Tsypina, the Deputy Dean:

We offer our students an opportunity to select the disciplines they actually need.  Not just a specific field with all corresponding disciplines, but something in each field they are interested in.

This individualized approach to education is largely due to the demand by biotechnological enterprises we cooperate with. There are not enough biotechnologists out there, and the industry needs professionals. We have arranged for our partner companies to award individual scholarships to students, and right after graduation, the students will be hired. The only condition is to choose specific disciplines to study during year four, the ones that this particular partner needs.

If a student is interested in pursuing an academic career, IBCH RAS is a good place to start. Students ask how they can get into a neurobiology lab or say that they would like to work with fluorescent plants. We have the opportunity to help them get them involved with these labs, participate in grant projects and conferences, or write articles. The only thing we consider is a student's rating score and his or her academic papers on a subject.

The department adheres to a policy of transparency. It holds weekly meetings between students and the dean, where students say what they like and what they don't like about the programme.  With the feedback received, we respond to it immediately. People of my generation have never thought to do this: they got admitted to a school, and that was it—they had to study the given materials. But our students may say: ‘We don't have enough math classes’; and we arrange additional sessions. The same happens with physics or chemistry—nowadays students know better what they should study.

According to first-year student Anna Mikhaylova, she has already picked an academic advisor and is now officially becoming part of the IBCH RAS lab staff. She is thinking of dedicating her life to molecular chemistry, biochemistry, or biotechnologies. ‘Having done chemical studies at Moscow State University for a year and not getting the opportunities I expected, I transferred to the new faculty of HSE. For now, the university has kept the promises we were given at the admission stage.’ Anna says that all teachers here are young and proactive, and the Study Office is cooperative and always willing to consider any proposals. She also likes her practical training in the labs: ‘We work in the RAS, which is cool in itself. We are still working under supervision. They give us tasks that we fulfill to the best of our abilities. We study the materials on a topic independently, and attend additional seminars on any specific question. The sooner you start working in a lab and try to make a scientific contribution, the sooner you will actually manage to do it.’

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