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‘People Should Have Freedom of Choice’

The new dean of the Faculty of Mathematics, Alexandra Skripchenko, talks about the world’s best mathematics department and student freedoms

Though she is still in the early stages of her academic career, Alexandra Skripchenko has shown herself to be a brilliant researcher: she completed a postdoc at the Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu in Paris, and she won a Metchnikov Scholarship in 2015 and the Lavrentiev Prix in 2014. In October 2020, she was appointed Dean of the HSE Faculty of Mathematics. In an interview for HSE University Life, Alexandra Skripchenko spoke about what this appointment means for her, and what she is going to do in the position.

What is it like to become a dean at 31?

It is a bit weird. Honestly, I was surprised to learn that I was being considered for the position.

Were you surprised in a good way? Or did you want a different career for yourself?

I, of course, thought mostly about an academic career. Actually, I hope to continue being a researcher after taking this position. And yes, I spent some time thinking whether I would be able to effectively combine academic and administrative work, whether the one would hamper the other. I was also thinking whether this would be a strain on the family: I have a four-year-old. And I had almost zero administrative experience: I was responsible for international cooperation at the Faculty, sat on a couple of committees, and that is all. But I decided to accept the offer. I am extremely interested in it, and the Faculty made it clear that they really want it. And if my colleagues are sure that they want to see me in this position, I’ll do everything I can to meet their expectations.

Is it true what they say about mathematicians – they either build a career when they are young, or don’t do it at all?

There is indeed such a stereotype. But it is only about academic achievements and, by the way, is far from being completely true. As for an administrative career, my situation is rather unique. I am an associate professor, and associate professors take such positions extremely rarely in European countries and the USA; mostly, they are taken by full professors. Full professors are usually older. There are, of course, some people who have advanced in their careers very quickly, but I’m not one of them. Meanwhile, there are young deans at HSE University: I’m not the only one. For example, the geography faculty has a young dean [Nikolay Kurichev, Dean of the HSE Faculty of Geography and Geoinformation Technology — ed.]. My predecessor in this position [Vladlen Timorin — ed.] became a dean when he was rather young. I believe it is a matter of whether a person feels capable and ready to take on this administrative bureaucratic responsibility, and who has the trust of the colleagues.

The HSE Faculty of Mathematics has a reputation as one of the best in the world – is it true?

It is undoubtedly true: it was created with this ambition, and it is keeping up with it completely. The faculty is slightly over 10 years old, and our first dean, Sergey Lando, attracted outstanding mathematicians and had the best students in mind when he was creating the faculty. It has always had well-known figures from the discipline among the teachers, but in the beginning, it was a kind of chamber faculty, with several dozen students. And today, we enrol a hundred students every year in the bachelor’s programme.

We have two bachelor’s programmes: we enrol 60 students in pure mathematics, and about 30 in the joint programme with the Centre of Teaching Excellence, which prepares school teachers with a strong mathematical background. We already have three master’s programmes. The number of students has grown over the years of the faculty’s existence, while the number of teachers has grown multiple times – with their high level of expertise remaining the same.

How do you manage to lure eminent mathematicians to the Faculty? Is it about money or something else?

This is definitely not only about money, but rather about the prestige of being part of the Russian mathematics school. Undoubtedly, we offer competitive salaries, but people who are coming from the best American and European universities to teach here definitely do not earn less there. But quite often, though not always, they represent the Russian mathematics school, and it is natural and prestigious for them to participate in the development of this institution, which is important for mathematics. The top mathematics school in Russia in the 1960s – the MSU Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics – used to be the world’s best faculty, there is no doubt in it. There were no Russians among Fields Medal winners only in 2014 and 2018, and before that, there always were. And this is maybe because the Fields Medal is awarded to people under 40, and this is a generation in Russia that has fallen a bit out of academia.

Do you mean your generation?

It’s rather about the previous one. Almost all of the previous generation of graduates left Russia, and most of them did so with the intention of emigrating for good. People of my generation went abroad rather to widen their perspective and find their place in research. There is nothing dramatic about these departures. Four people including me graduated from our department in 2009, and all of us went abroad, but then all of us came back, and today, we are all at HSE University. One of my classmates works at the Faculty of Computer Science, another one came back just recently and is now associate professor at the Faculty of Mathematics, and another is at MIEM. Today, quite a lot of our bachelor’s graduates also go to other countries, and I don’t think this is bad. I believe people should have an international experience, which is extremely useful for their development in academia.

You, after all, worked in France after graduation, right?

Yes, after completing the doctoral programme at the MSU Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics and my thesis defense, I went to France for a postdoc. One of my supervisors was Artur Avila, a French-Brazilian mathematician, who won a Fields Medal just about when I was finishing my postdoc. My second supervisor was Anton Zorich, a Russian-French mathematician. Then, I went back to HSE University as part of the international postdoc programme and spent a year here. However, I spent some part of this year in France, since I received the Metchnikov Scholarship for Russian scholars who want to work in France for a few months. And then, I became an associate professor here, and have been an associate professor at the Faculty of Mathematics for five years. In addition, I have been a researcher at Skoltech for the last three years.

By the way, I haven’t had considerable administrative experience, but I have experience in corporate finance, which is quite unlikely for a theoretician in math. In addition to studying (during my senior year at university and all three years of my doctoral programme), I evaluated businesses at one of the market’s oldest international valuation companies.  I believe this experience helped me get a better perspective of what life is. This is not a common thing for mathematicians: they are usually wrapped in their community and do not have a good perspective of other fields of life. This was also important for my growing up: I was 19 when I started to work there, and I got experience interacting with completely different people and doing real work aimed at a clear result. I had to find a common language with people whose background and interests were different from mine. I believe these skills were one of the reasons my colleagues trusted me with this position. They think that I like talking to people, very different people. This is not a common skill among mathematicians, and it is in high demand here.

Do you in fact not really like talking to people?

No, I think I really do like it. But the experience of leaving my comfort zone at my first workplace was very important, since in my teenage years, I inhabited a cosy mathematical world. I studied at Second School – this is a renowned mathematics high school in Moscow. There are only a few similar schools in Russia, which means that several dozen people from these schools interacted at the same mathematical games and Olympiads; then we entered the same universities together, and so on. I believe, my outlook has widened a lot since then.

As for the renowned mathematicians who come to teach at HSE University from abroad – do they come to stay, as you did, or do most of them stay abroad part of the time?

It depends. Some of them return completely, while some of them do it part time, as, for example, Igor Krichever: he teaches here for half the year and spends the other half of the year at Columbia University, where he has taught for the last two decades. Some, such as Sergey Lando, have never left Russia completely, and have always worked mostly in Russia. I believe, the most important thing here is that our school is really strong; everyone has personal relations, and everyone understands that here, we offer an opportunity to work with top colleagues and top students, which is also motivating.

Do you already have an idea of the direction in which you want to develop the Faculty?

I have ideas about some things and don’t when it comes to others. In this sense, my predecessor is a great help: today, he is in fact doing a full-time job familiarizing me with all the details. It is hard to get used to the paperwork, to the fact that the lack of my signature may hamper certain processes. Today, we are working with the roadmap developed by the Academic Council, and all the roads we are taking  are clear. Meanwhile, I have some ideas on what might be added to it.

What is the main direction of the roadmap?

We see our key task as continuing our development and evolution as one of the world’s best departments of mathematics. And we have to thoroughly elaborate the steps that need to be taken in order to reinforce our position and improve it in formal and informal rankings of mathematics departments. This process includes a lot of components. We have to work on the popularization of mathematics, so that our prospective students come here with an understanding of what we are going to teach them here, so that their choice would be conscious. We have to involve strong students in this field, to improve mathematics teaching at school. We also have to create the proper conditions for those who already work here, so that they are most productive.

This process also includes a lot of steps related to study process organization at the Faculty, with diversification of our areas of studies etc. The roadmap outlines each of these problems in detail – who we want to teach, where we get such people, how we want to teach them, who will teach them, and what the outcome for the fundamental science will be.

HSE University is switching to project-based learning. How much does this concern your faculty?

This very much concerns us and I can say that in terms of research, we have always implemented the project-based approach. We understand project work, first of all, as fundamental research work, which our students carry out from early on, independently or in close collaboration with their academic supervisor. Our students start writing term papers in their first year and go deeper from the second year. We give them 10 points at the bachelor’s thesis defence only if their paper has already been published, or the academic supervisor has a clear understanding as to when and where it is going to be submitted. In terms of projects in teaching, we have a joint programme with the centre of teaching excellence: they have their own active projects that they begin in their first year of study, and they learn to teach at schools. They are also implementing the project-based approach: there are teaching workshops led by outstanding school teachers, and then, our students develop teaching and learning materials as part of these workshops, and practice with school students in various formats.

In our applied projects, we are going to further develop this. On the one hand, our faculty is focused on fundamental mathematics, and we are not going to change that. But we see that there is a student demand for applicability, and we are willing to meet this demand. Probably, we will attract colleagues not only with a strong mathematical background, but with industry experience, in the present or in the past. And here, we also see some prospects for project work.

Do you have anything specific in mind or under development?

For example, speaking about diversification, on October 20 we launched a new seminar. It is called ‘A Mathematician Knows Best’, and we invite people with a strong mathematical background who are successful professionals in other fields. For example, our first guest was Dmitry Dagaev, who graduated from the MSU Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics a couple of years earlier than me, became a Candidate of Science (Physics & Mathematics) in discrete mathematics, and at some point, started to work in sports economics and has become a leading expert in the field. We already have appointments with our next speakers, and they are very different people involved in areas such as high-frequency trading, investment banking, air companies, television and radio companies, and more.

What is your goal? To improve the image of math? But these are already your students who have chosen the profession…

First, they also may have multiple career interests. If, for example, my classmate who wrote a thesis in geometry and now works in bioinformatics tells them about his career, they may get some new ideas. I think it will be useful for our students to talk to people who have changed their profession but have a clear mathematical background. This may also be useful to external people who may have misconceptions about who mathematicians are, what they look like, and what they do; or for parents who have a kid with talent in math, but doubt whether choosing this field makes sense and are afraid to let them take it on. The competition in mathematics high schools in Russia is high: people believe that a strong background is no harm to anyone. But when it comes to choosing a university department… Even my parents had their concerns: they were not ready for me to take on fundamental math, and when I was applying for university, they supported me but were very cautious about it. We’ll be posting these seminars on YouTube, so that people not only listen to the lectures, but see our students and graduates: they are very diverse and brilliant.

I’ve noticed that. When I was walking to meet your, I realized that I had had a completely different idea of what math students look like. But they are… colourful, with dreadlocks, with music in their headphones…

It seems like the students have changed a lot, even since my university years, let alone earlier years. I think that today’s students are freer, they have a freedom of choice – one of the basic HSE University values, which I share is that we give our students much more freedom of choice than they used to have at classical universities, and we give them much more responsibility for it. This impacts their mentality: they expect having a choice, and they make a lot of decisions about how to learn, what to learn, from who to learn. They are less dependent on the grades than we were when I was a student; they are cool if they don’t get 10 out of 10, and this isn’t their main task. At the same time, they are extremely vulnerable when they think that they are not noticed as a personality. It wasn’t like this when I was young, of course. We were not thinking about personalities: here’s a teacher, here’s a student, there’s subordination and linear relations: the former is the absolute monarch, and the latter is the servant [laughs]. It is also very important that today’s students feel part of the global academic community. When I was a student, it was a huge event if you could participate in an international conference as a student, and only a few people had research experience outside of Russia by the time they graduated. It was different during the doctoral programme, but hardly many could boast such experience as bachelor’s students. Our students participate in international conferences from the first years of their studies: the university reimburses academic mobility; they take part in various research programmes, visit summer schools all over the world, and personally meet great mathematicians from different countries. Their outlook is wider, and they have a clearer understanding of the area they are going to work in. If they want to go abroad, they already known the country, and most probably, they have already been there. I think this is a very good thing. International experience is essential for a mathematician. It is important that a person has freedom of choice and an understanding of what they are signing up for.

Author: Ekaterina Drankina, October 22, 2020