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From Ingenious Fungi to Post-feminism: HSE University Hosts Season’s Last Science Battles Semi-Final

From Ingenious Fungi to Post-feminism: HSE University Hosts Season’s Last Science Battles Semi-Final

© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Season VI of Science Battles at HSE University is entering the homestretch. The June semi-final determined the list of finalists and helped many viewers choose their favourites. This time, young researchers decided to figure out how to conduct a police lineup without destroying a person’s life, as well as how to improve a child’s academic performance without instilling neurotic perfectionism. They also found out that fungi and mould help heal scars and save the environment, and that adherents of post-feminism have very mixed feelings about their own images on TikTok.

HSE University hosted the fourth semi-final of Science Battles this season. In 2023, the intellectual competition for young researchers will be six years old. The rules are unchanged: each speaker has 10 minutes to present their ideas and research to the public audience and the jury. There are no presentations during the performance—only charisma, charm, and sometimes props. Each battle has four performances. The winner is chosen by mixed voting: 40% of success depends on the opinion of the jury, 60% is determined by the public audience.

Is That Him?

The summer semi-final was opened by Inessa Barinskaya, a second-year undergraduate student of the Faculty of Law, with a report on the role of identity lineups in criminal proceedings.

The legal researcher began by explaining the essence of police lineups. They are usually carried out to see whether or not a witness to a crime recognises the alleged perpetrator among several people who roughly fit the description or are selected from among the suspects. If the witness recognises (identifies) one of them, the prosecution will receive additional evidence of the suspect’s guilt. But what is interesting about this procedural action? ‘The fact is that, according to various studies, about 69% of innocent people are sentenced precisely because of erroneous identifications, which means that the system is ineffective,’ explains Inessa.

As part of her research, she created a form that asked viewers to watch three short videos. One of them shows a bank robbery, the second shows a shootout, and the third shows a death threat. After watching the videos, each of the 112 respondents was asked to select the person they believe committed the crime in a procedure analogous to a lineup. The results were disappointing—according to Inessa, at best, 60% of the respondents recognised the criminal.

Inessa Barinskaya

The early-career researcher suggests that we should think about the modernisation of lineups as a procedural action, including based on modern memory research.

Reluctant Honours Student

Elena Sorokina and Elizaveta Sukhova, third-year undergraduate students of the Sociology programme, devoted their speech to the issues of academic performance. They conducted a quantitative study in which they tested various factors of family education that impact student performance. Only two were significant: educational violence and moral support.

The result of the study was unexpected and did not back up the generally accepted model of liberal education. The researchers found that students who were scolded for getting Bs in their childhood and praised only for excellent results (in other words, students who had experienced educational violence), achieved better results on average than those who received moral support from their parents.

However, of course, this idea must not be absolutised. ‘A balance should be found in everything so as not to nurture neurotic perfectionism,’ the students summarise.

Fungus as the World’s Saviour

The third performance took the audience into the world of biotechnology. Anna Shestakova, a fourth-year undergraduate student of the Cell and Molecular Biotechnology programme, presented the report ‘Versatile mould: How to rid the world of waste, bake bread, and cure the heart with the help of fungi.’

Anna started from afar: each section of our gastrointestinal tract—the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, and intestines—produces enzymes. These are specialised molecules that can break other molecules down into small ‘bricks’. Our body builds its own body from these ‘bricks’. But what do fungi (which do not have a mouth) do? ‘Fungi are brilliant,’ explained the researcher. ‘They came up with the idea of ​​releasing their enzymes to the outside, digesting food outside, and then absorbing only those “bricks” that they need. Perhaps fungi are even smarter than you and me, because they have come up with different enzymes for different needs.’

And this skill can benefit humanity, particularly in medicine. According to Anna, one of the possible applications is to introduce the necessary enzyme obtained from fungi to a patient suffering from thrombosis (the formation of blood clots in blood vessels). The enzyme is able to destroy only the blood clot without affecting the vessels and internal organs.

Anna Shestakova

Another possible use of fungal enzymes is the destruction of bird feathers. Every year, after defeathering, 11 tons of unnecessary feathers pile up during the processing of poultry meat. At the moment, they are simply burned, which leads to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. But this can be done differently with the help of fungi that synthesise special enzymes. Fungi grow in filaments that can penetrate into very thin places, such as between the villi of a feather, then secrete the necessary enzyme there, and thus destroy the feather, the researcher argues.

The fungus, Anna continues, is grown in a flask with water, mineral salts, and protein. When the flask is placed in a warm place, the fungus breathes and synthesises enzymes.

For example, the fungus that Anna is currently working with is able to secrete collagenases, the enzymes that break down collagen. Collagen is a skin protein that is formed in damaged tissues. As such, an excess amount of collagen is concentrated in scars. Thus, the enzymes that Anna’s fungus is currently working on, after a series of applications, are able to simply dissolve the scar.

Real Girls Do Not Care about TikTok

Elizaveta Voronezhtseva, a third-year undergraduate student of the Advertising and Public Relations programme, explored the modern phenomenon of the ideal girl who is productive, well-groomed, athletic, and self-confident. The so-called ‘that girl’ refers to the phenomenon of a modern girl striving for the ideal of a healthy lifestyle and female self-sufficiency.

What is post-feminism? Elizaveta emphasises that post-feminism is an ideology recognising that a woman has the right to choose her own path in life and emphasise her individuality. Unlike classical feminism, post-feminism notes that women can take pride in their femininity, beauty, ability to create home comfort, etc. However, upon entering the world of media, post-feminism faced criticism due to its conformity to the standards of beauty, the privilege of certain sections of society, and excessive consumption with an emphasis on material things. Elizaveta presumes that ‘that girl’ is a modern post-feminist. The researcher explains that consumers of ‘that girl’ content on the internet have a polar attitude towards it: some say that it motivates them, while others see an unhealthy rush towards success and falseness in this phenomenon.

Elizaveta Voronezhtseva

Summing up, Elizaveta notes that the new movement’s impact on our lives is not completely clear. One thing is obvious though: ‘We are all very different, and this is the beauty of our world,’ she summed up.

It was difficult for both the jury and the public audience to choose between four such different studies. In the end, Anna Shestakova, the researcher of the amazing world of fungi and mould, was named the semi-final winner. Second place went to the researcher of the ‘that girl’ phenomenon Elizaveta Voronezhtseva. The third and fourth places were shared by Inessa Barinskaya, Elena Sorokina, and Elizaveta Sukhova.

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