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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

ICEF graduate Nare Meloyan is now a researcher at the Sberbank Laboratory of Neurosciences and Human Behaviour. After ICEF, she enrolled in a master’s programme at the HSE Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience and successfully used her education in finance to work in cognition studies. In this interview with Success Builder, Ms Meloyan explained how programming skills help in research, how she used an original approach to get a job and the way Sber tries to understand how the human brain works.

What led you to choose an education in finance?

At school, I was interested in many things, from various branches of math to languages and programming. I wanted to do everything and so it was a tough choice. Ultimately, when the time for admission was approaching, I learned about economics, got interested in it and, along with my parents, opted for HSE. I understood that such a major enables a person to do what they want in the future. The ICEF programme in particular attracted my attention because it provided a wide array of opportunities, thanks to instruction in English, dual diplomas and great teachers. My parents supported my choice. They have a similar education, approve of my choice of profession and take great interest in it.

Have you ever wanted to study programming in greater depth? This skill is in high demand in every way.

Yes, I did have a desire to continue with that. I initially planned to enroll as a programming major, but then I realised that programming could be part of a wider education as an economist. Actually, I can’t get by without this skill now. You can’t manage in any area without programming; it’s even necessary in neuroscience, in any analytical field. After earning my bachelor’s degree, my programming knowledge really helped me excel as a master’s student.

What other interesting things did you discover about economics once you were at the university?

I could see the economy in its full context. It explains the world around us. Indeed, economic theory addresses all the processes taking place before our eyes.

Economic models explain almost everything around us

In my third year, I became interested in behavioural economics because classical economic theory didn’t provide all the answers. In fact, the main premise of traditional economic theory is that agents or participants in processes act rationally. In life, though, everything happens differently. Behavioural economics rejects this premise, arguing that agents are irrational, and tries to study the world from this point of view.

An economic model is something of a simplification: to describe what is happening in the world, you must reach a compromise between assumptions and reality. If we want a deeper understanding of how a person makes decisions, then we must turn to such fields as behavioural economics, cognitive science and psychology.

As a result, I wrote my final thesis on behavioural economics under Alexei Belyanin. He is an important figure in this field and an excellent research advisor.

How, in general, can you teach yourself to think academically?

I focused more on applied things at ICEF and encountered academic work only during my master’s programme. That was probably where I began thinking like a researcher because the programme Cognitive Sciences and Technologies: From Neuron to Cognition was academically oriented. Most of its graduates are engaged in science or enrolled in graduate or PhD programmes. We took special courses where we learned how to do research in a structured way, formulate and test hypotheses, write scientific articles and conduct research and analytics.

For me, the scientific method is first and foremost about objectivity. It is important to critically evaluate the degree to which experiments and results are valid in relation to the theory being tested. You can’t put absolute faith in any statements, even if they come from reputable scientists, because all data can be tailored to the required result through various manipulations.

Why did you go into cognitive science?

After graduating from ICEF, I wanted to continue studying the phenomenon of decision-making and I decided that the best way would be to try to look into the human brain. I chose a focus in graduate school that enabled me to learn more about neuroscience, cognitive science, emotions, genetics and other areas, as well as learn how to work with equipment.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

I looked at many programmes, both foreign and Russian, but Cognitive Sciences and Technologies: From Neuron to Cognition seemed like the best choice. First, it was at my alma mater, HSE. Second, it was taught in English. With professors from all over the world working in this programme’s labs, I had the opportunity to continue my undergraduate research on seduction and self-control, now with a greater focus on neuroscience. I enrolled and studied with great pleasure.

We were taught a huge number of subjects – neuroscience, cognitive science, genetics, emotions, the use of special equipment for data collection, etc. This didn’t correlate much with economics, but each student chose his own focus and research advisor. You could adjust the training track yourself depending on the goal. We could apply one or another related science to our research, and this opened up opportunities for experiments and new hypotheses.

Thanks to this knowledge, when I did my master’s thesis under the guidance of Ksenia Panidi, I had the opportunity to study the relationship between a person’s impulsiveness over time and his propensity to take risks. They say, ‘No risk - no fun’, but they also say, ‘Good things come to those who wait’. My research showed that those who like risk aren’t very fond of waiting. That is, I confirmed the hypothesis about the relationship between impulsivity over time and the appetite for risk.

Is cognitive science part of neuroscience?

Cognitive science studies how the mind works, functions and behaves, while neuroscience studies the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. We can say that neuroscience helps to study cognitive processes, along with the methods of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology and artificial intelligence. This is what attracts me more as an economist. Going deeper into physiology is where medicine begins.

How are research skills useful in business?

It’s great that large corporations such as Sberbank and Google are interested in academic pursuits: they have funds that they are ready to invest in solving global issues that have challenged humanity.

What makes research in the industry different is that you’re expected to find innovative approaches to problems that have defied solution

Researchers working in corporations are given a great deal of freedom in choosing which methods they will use to solve problems and establish expertise. This is very creative and varied activity that also promises a real and very concrete result. It seems to me that graduates of financial and economics programmes can work in any field. The main thing is to choose a field that interests you.

Had you wanted to work at Sberbank?

I started with internships and, based on that experience, realised that research is more interesting. Sber has many divisions devoted to analytics and research. This company is now much more than just a bank: it is growing actively in all areas. There are a number of labs focused primarily on science, but people with academic experience are also in high demand in classical banking divisions.

A large number of HSE graduates work at Sber at the intersection of technology, psychology and finance, and are involved in marketing, HR analytics and products. A graduate with a background like mine can find himself in any one of a number of fields. The main thing is to understand what interests you, try different things and, through trial and error, choose where to focus.

Sber also has a robotics lab, an AI lab, a cybersecurity lab, a VR/AR lab, a blockchain lab and a host of other research centres.

You started out in the risk management department. What role does cognitive science play in that?

I wanted to work in the risk management department, representatives of which had read lectures to us at ICEF. They needed an intern who understood behavioural economics and could help substantiate the methodology.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

There are behavioural risks in addition to the main risks that arise in the course of a bank’s activities. In the workplace, these are associated with potential threats from an employee’s actions or inappropriate behaviour. The purpose of my internship was to try to identify cognitive biases to which employees might be subject in order to eliminate work errors.

Cognitive biases are the systematic mistakes we make, the so-called thinking traps, the main source of which lies in the very principles of the functioning of cognition. To work with cognitive biases, certain tools were created that can be used to prevent, among other things, the possibility of making mistakes.

What is the Sber Laboratory of Neurosciences and Human Behaviour? How did you wind up there and what do you do there?

The Sber Laboratory of Neurosciences and Human Behaviour is a division whose goal is to solve a huge spectrum of problems: customer satisfaction, improving the efficiency of work processes, building external and internal communication using scientific research in the fields of neurophysiology, social psychology and cognitive science, as well as implementing the results of scientific developments in the daily practice of Sberbank Group companies. Thus, we make recommendations based on both our research and international experience.

I began working in the lab in 2019, as my first year of graduate school was coming to an end. There was news that Sber was opening a neuroscience lab headed by the well-known psychotherapist Andrey Kurpatov. Of course, when I learned of this, I wondered how I could get in. However, there was no information about vacancies, so I decided to attend Andrey Kurpatov’s presentation of his book and find out more about the possibility of getting a job.

After listening to the presentation, my classmate and I took a book each and stood in line for an autograph.

Mr. Kurpatov asked to whom he should dedicate the books. We answered, ‘To the future employees of the neurolaboratory!’

Laughing, he told us whom to contact, and after being interviewed, I ended up in the ranks of the employees.

In the laboratory, I work as part of a scientific unit that deals specifically with research tasks, with the experimental confirmation of hypotheses based on neurophysiological data. There is also a data unit and a social research unit that solve problems using other methods.

What role do neurosciences now play in business and in the banking sector in particular?

The industry is very interested in neuroscience and the study of the human brain in general. This is due to the need to explain consumer and customer behaviour in a business context. In general, interactions between clients and business are very traumatic in many areas because these systems were created for profit and made only passing efforts to guess what people wanted. But now, outdated ideas about customer experience are being replaced by a science-based approach. The banking and financial industry is very involved in a variety of research and is interested in young scientists.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

They are trying to understand how to approach the client, how to predict their choice and offer the right product, what mechanisms come into play when we make decisions, and how we assess risks. Such research is being conducted in order to put this into practice, which is why more and more companies are acquiring research departments and employees with an academic background.

Which technologies do you use in your work?

Companies are now showing great interest in human brain research that helps explain consumer and customer behaviour in a business context. The banking and financial industries are not far behind. They are trying to answer a variety of questions: How to find an approach to your client? How to predict his choice and offer the right product? Which mechanisms come into play when we make a decision? How do we assess risks? How does a person make financial decisions? How does he invest?

To find answers, research is conducted using special equipment. In the academic environment, these studies are carried out with the aim of making scientific discoveries, studying the capabilities of the human brain. In companies, the goal is to find practical applications.

We use many tools, including EEG (electroencephalography), that measures brain activity. We use GSR (galvanic skin response), a bio-electrical response that is recorded from the surface of the skin as a result of a reaction to certain events. We also use the Eye Tracker to study the points of fixation of attention and to follow a person’s gaze. We also have a transcranial stimulator that can, for example, help us in the study of anxiety or the control of emotions.

As a rule, Sber employees act as participants in the experiments, especially when our task is to positively influence work processes. In other cases, we use our databases of subjects, inviting those who wish to participate in our research.

What are your prospects?

Sberbank pays a lot of attention to the development of science within the banking business, allocates budgets for it and hires specialists so that such a large and influential company can develop society globally.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

The field of cognitive and neurosciences in business is just beginning to develop, especially in the Russian market. Many companies have joined the trend and are opening similar divisions, seeking graduates of proven programs, especially in the disciplines of finance, sociology and technology. It seems to me that in this sense, neurosciences are very promising, in both business and banking.

Neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neuromanagement, neuroethics and many other neurosciences that are at the intersection of sciences can find answers to questions that classical theory cannot. I believe that a specialist like me has a wide range of opportunities before them. Still, I am thinking about applying for a PhD in order to improve and deepen my skills and gain a greater understanding of the industry.

Have you already used cognitive science to study and ‘optimize’ yourself?

Probably, yes: understanding how your brain functions and what processes take place in it helps you react more calmly to certain things. You understand that this is just human nature, that some processes occur due to brain chemistry and you cannot control them. In fact, my master's research was aimed at understanding how impulsive a person is, how prone to taking risks, and whether this can be somehow controlled. One of the conclusions I made was that if you knew in advance that you could have an impulsive attack of shopaholism, you would have time to readjust yourself and stay cool-headed even when tempted.