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‘While Abroad, I Will Continue to Tell Students and Teachers about HSE University’

Daria Smuseva and Ivan Malakhov are HSE MIEM graduates who met when they were students at HSE University. They are now married and are studying for their PhDs at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (Italy). In this interview, they talk about their studies in Venice, local bureaucracy, learning Italian, and their research on blockchain systems.

— How did you two meet?

Ivan: We knew of each other before we met in person, when they posted the lists of students. All of the first-year students joined a chat group on VK. We became friends and agreed in advance that we would study in the same group. By the time our studies began, we had got to know each other well and we were always talking. Our friendship grew into love over time. We got married before our second year of master’s studies and we spent our honeymoon in Venice.

— When did you realise you wanted to study abroad?

Daria: We always wanted to travel abroad to see how other people live and study. We were thinking of travelling back when we were bachelor’s students, but Ivan was studying at the Department of Military Training. It was only at the beginning of the second year of our master’s degrees that we could travel to Italy under an academic mobility programme.

— Why Italy?

Ivan: We were studying Information and Analytical Systems as part of the master's programme in Computer Systems and Networks. We needed a university where we could substitute our current courses with similar ones. Although HSE University offered a fairly wide range of universities, most of them were humanities universities or did not fit our major. We found three options: one in Venice (Ca' Foscari), one in Norway, and one in Finland. We prioritised Ca' Foscari in the academic mobility competition because we had always wanted to live in Venice and get to know local life from the inside. We were lucky to get two vacancies here.

— How did you enrol in the PhD course at the university?

Ivan: We were among the top students in one of the courses at Ca' Foscari—the professor gave us a 30+ on a 30-point scale. Before coming back to Russia, we asked her to give us references for admission to a graduate course. Daria wanted to pursue a Master of Science degree at HSE University. We also thought we might apply for PhDs in the USA. The professor was happy to give us references and she was enthusiastic about the local academic community, saying we should think about studying for a PhD in Venice.

Daria: We really liked Ca' Foscari University. We were happy to learn that there were PhD programmes here and that there were even a few places available with a scholarship. Moreover, we really enjoyed life in Venice: the climate, the Italian food, the architecture, and travelling by vaporetto—the local water bus. We decided to give it a try and started preparing for the competition. We had to prepare strong applications because we wanted to get places with scholarships, and there were only four vacancies available. We had to provide a CV in addition to passing two interviews, writing a motivation letter, and describing our future projects.

Fortunately, our CVs turned out to be very impressive because we led an active student life at HSE University and we had always placed high in student ratings, with a large number of scientific articles and victories in many competitions

We were awarded the scholarship of the President of the Russian Federation in the priority areas of modernization and technological development of the Russian economy (Editor’s note: Daria received this scholarship in the 2016/17 academic year, and Ivan in 2017/18). I won the Silver Nestling contest in 2018. We also received the Advanced State Academic Scholarship (ASAS) for social, academic, and scholarly activities multiple times. A score-based ranking of students was published following the competition for admission to our PhD programme. Our names were at the top of the list of the 30 best applicants, which meant the scholarships were ours.

— What’s difficult about life in Italy?

Ivan: Local bureaucracy. You need a residence permit to stay in the country longer than a given period. Getting one is unbearably time consuming, as it takes about six months. We got our first residence permit when we were about to leave Italy. Even now that we are studying for our PhDs here, we have to renew this permit every year and wait six months for it to be issued every time. We are not allowed to travel to other countries while we are waiting for our permits. Fortunately, we can go to Russia on holiday and come back here during that period.

Daria: It is also worth noting that Russia, or at least Moscow, is much more technologically developed than Italy. Here, you can't use your phone to sort out bureaucratic issues, banks don’t have convenient apps, and it's harder to order a taxi. If you need to solve an issue, you either have to go in person or make a phone call. Italians don't see the point in digitalizing everything.

— What differences in education have you noticed?

Daria: There's a slightly different approach here. They don’t have the kind of groups we're used to in Russia. You make up your own curriculum and choose the courses you want to take. The main thing is to have the right number of credits and a certain number of courses in your specialty. You can attend any lecture on any subject. You have to sign up for an exam to pass the subject.

— Is the language barrier a big obstacle?

Daria: All undergraduate courses are still in Italian, while all graduate and postgraduate courses are taught in English. We are quite good at English, and during our studies in Italy, we have improved our English-language skills from B2 to C2. Now we can read scientific literature, write articles, and assist professors.

Ivan: We didn’t know any Italian before we came to Italy. We had to learn it properly to be able to communicate in everyday life. We recently took a language exam, and now my level is C2 and Daria’s is B2—she was on maternity leave for a year, so her studies were on hold. Once you’ve got B2, you can teach in Italian, and that's how I've been teaching linear algebra for six months now. It was very difficult at first because I had to learn all the definitions and concepts all over again, in a third language. Sometimes, it was difficult for me to express myself in my native Russian, let alone in Italian.

Daria: We're lucky to live in a palazzo with an Italian family, and we always have a chance to practice the language with them. Of course, you need to speak Italian everywhere—in shops, public places, and for all sorts of bureaucratic issues. That last one was particularly difficult at the beginning because almost no one understood us in English and we had to ask friends to help. Now we're coping very well.

— Can you tell us about your current research?

Ivan: We model systems and assess the completed models. We deal with blockchain networks. I specialize in Bitcoin, which is currently the most popular blockchain network, and Dasha works with Ethereum.

We model and analyze different processes that happen in blockchain, then use the data obtained to propose solutions to improve the efficiency and reliability of these systems

Daria: And their security as well. Blockchain systems ensure that nobody can take or change the data entered. They have already found applications in finance and banking, and people are now adopting them in medicine, business, and other areas. However, current systems cannot guarantee that your recorded data won't be altered. This data can be changed in certain circumstances. We're looking for and studying these extreme cases, how to avoid them and how to make them impossible altogether. For example, when Bitcoin was created, its documentation stated that security was not guaranteed if one of the miners (the owners of the computing structures used for blockchain blocks) had more than 50% of the entire network capacity.

— What are you planning to do in the near future?

Daria: I like my current university very much. 

I also have very fond memories of HSE University. I believe that it offers the most advanced education in Russia.

I’m extremely happy that I chose to study at HSE University

I worked in the MIEM-based 3D laboratory for almost three years, but I didn’t say goodbye to HSE even after moving to Venice. I've been working as an HSE representative in Venice at Ca' Foscari for over a year now. I will continue to tell students and teachers about HSE University, look for new opportunities for cooperation and implement joint international projects.

As for our studies, Ivan will graduate in a year. I still have two more years, as I was on maternity leave for a year. We were recently invited to Newcastle University in England for a research project. We hope we will be able to go there for three to six months in the near future.

Ivan: I’m planning to do a postdoc here at Ca' Foscari after I finish my PhD course. I will continue teaching and doing research. We might pursue academic careers in the future because we like doing research and we want to contribute to the global scientific community.

— What would you recommend to those who are studying at university now?

Daria: Don’t be afraid to try new things. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Success isn’t only measured by results, but also by the number of attempts. Also, don’t be shy—network with leaders in the field you’re interested in. Don’t hesitate to invite someone who works for the company of your dreams for a cup of coffee, particularly if that person is a graduate of HSE University—you might need a reference from them in the future.

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