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‘A night owl and a morning lark are battling inside me’

Vadim Mykolaenko

Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Applied Mathematics from HSE University. Currently a third-year postgraduate student in the same department. Writing his dissertation on The Method of Studying the Deformation Behaviour of Superplastic Materials. Teaches programming and theoretical mechanics..

Vadim Mykolaenko is able to stay up working until late at night and then go for a run at seven in the morning—he gets so much energy from his life as a young HSE University scientist. In this interview with the Young Scientists project, Mr. Mykolaenko spoke about his subject area, his attitude to grades, and his love for music and cycling.

Why I decided to become a scientist

I went to a language school, but there was a group of guys, myself included, who liked math and computer science. I chose to pursue them and so I applied to HSE University to study applied mathematics. After getting my master’s degree, I was at an important crossroads: Should I start working or go to postgraduate school? I was determined not to combine the two, but to devote myself wholly to whichever path I chose. Nobody forced me one way or the other and I chose the latter. I don’t regret a thing.

I was admitted to the PhD programme. The scholarship is good and, although I am not allowed to work anywhere but HSE University, this is exactly the option that I was looking for. By the way, one thing academic postgraduate study requires is to go on an internship, which I find very interesting. So it’s perfectly suited for me.

I met my research advisor, Sergey Aksenov, in my second year of undergraduate studies. He explained a lot to me and gave me many opportunities, so I am very grateful to him for that. After you graduate, you realise that the institute is not only about the subjects or the knowledge, but also about the people who leave a major mark on your life. My advisor is one of them.

What I am researching

I work with superplastic materials. Under certain conditions (pressure and temperature) the material enters a state of superplasticity, under which it can stretch like chewing gum. It can be used to produce thin-walled products of complex geometric shapes that are in demand in the aerospace, medical, automotive and other industries. To produce such products, it is important to understand what properties this or that material has.

Photo: HSE University

We cooperate with MISIS. In their laboratory, they produce samples of alloys and run tests by stretching them and measuring how they resist. We receive the experimental data, process it and use it to build a model of the deformation behaviour of the material.

There are international standards that define how such experimental data should be interpreted. But there is a problem: these international standards assume that ideal uniaxial tension occurs, but this does not take into account the lack of homogeneity in the distribution of strain rates. Many studies say that it is important to take this into account, but no one has said just how important it is. Sergei Aksenov and I conducted an assessment and wrote an article, and now I am writing a dissertation. In the article, we estimated the margin of error to be 20%-25%. In my dissertation, I develop a methodology—how to interpret in order to take into account this lack of heterogeneity. And I lead a project to create a software solution. The user loads the data into our software and learns the properties of the material.

What I am proud of

Our article with Sergey Aksenov was published in Metals magazine. The second achievement is the methodology that I am developing in my dissertation. It has already been tested on real experimental data; I still have to automate it with the help of software and add text to make the full dissertation package.

What I dream about

I don’t have a distant dream or goal. I live in the here and now and choose the direction of my development based on my options. My dream is to do what I like. My worst nightmare is to have to go to a job that I don’t like. But here, there’s a sparkle in my eyes. I don’t remember exactly what a weekend is; it’s as though I'm always working because I love it.

I don’t know what burnout is. It’s not unusual for me to get so deep into solving some problem that I lose all track of time, only to discover that it’s four in the morning and I should be getting up in a few hours

It would seem that with such a schedule, something would have gone wrong a long time ago. But the excitement hasn’t diminished for a whole year now. I hope this continues. I fight burnout by staying constantly engaged.

Why I love teaching

I teach seminars on theoretical mechanics. Here’s an interesting observation: teaching is a cool way of learning. When you’re a student, you don’t dig as deeply as you do when you’re a teacher because you want to fill in all the gaps, all the holes, to know everything as deeply as possible.

Photo: HSE University

I don’t like it when questions remain unanswered. In a software development project, every code change goes through me; I analyse it, accept it, or say what needs to be fixed. And in another project, I had the opposite challenge—to not write code. I had to communicate with the team, explain things to them, keep an eye on everything, but not write code myself. It turned out to be difficult. We collaborated with IBM. We developed a library for analysing 3D models of buildings that scheduled for construciton. They are satisfied with the result and want to extend their cooperation with us.

Zeros, ones, right angles, and straight lines—such things don’t exist in the real world. But the whole scientific apparatus that describes and approximates the real world relies on these abstractions, and I admire how beautifully it turns out in the end.

What is the difference between physics and theoretical mechanics? Physics interacts with the real world: based on the results of experiments, it tries to deduce connections. For example, an object is thrown up and the speed at which it falls is observed. And when it turns out that in a vacuum, a feather and an iron ball take the same time to fall, physicists draw conclusions and come up with formulas that approximate the real world.

Theoretical mechanics has nothing to do with the real world. It does not conduct experiments. There is the concept of a ‘point’; we introduce the concept of a ‘solid body’—a body in which the distance between two points does not change, etc. Thus, we get science; all the conclusions came from abstractions and not from the real world.

What would I be doing if I hadn’t become a scientist?

Music, for example. When my parents saw how, after hearing my dad play ‘A Million Scarlet Roses’, I was able to play it by ear perfectly on my small piano, they sent me to music school to learn how to play the piano.

After eight years of study, experiments began—acoustic guitar, classical guitar, electric guitar, violin, bass. We had amateur performances at the military department of the institute. We were brought together on important dates to play patriotic songs. We formed a group, played together separately from the department and decided to play rock.

Then I decided to try to make money with music. I played in cover bands and we performed in clubs. It was an interesting experience. From that moment on, in a sense, I fell in love with pop music: it helps me unwind. The group was called the Banana Band. We performed songs in Russian and English. I played guitar and sang backing vocals.

But when the pandemic began, all this slowly died out. And I decided to outfit my home with a recording studio of sorts and since then, I have been creating there. I wanted to record an album by the age of 25, but I didn’t have time: science demands all my attention and there isn’t much time left over for music. Maybe by 30 I can do it.

For me, my home studio is also a sound laboratory.

I open the spectrum analyser and look: What will happen if I hold the string here and pull it like this? And what about the harmonic? In a class on theoretical mechanics, I demonstrate a parallel from the real world: you take a guitar, you touch a string, it vibrates—here’s the fundamental frequency and overtone for you in a real, practical example. So it’s both creativity and science.

Which scientist I would like to meet

There is no specific scientist I would like to meet, just as there is no specific dream to which I am aspiring. Basically, I like talking to smart people. At staff gatherings, it seems to me that no special programme is necessary; we all talk to each other and exchange information anyway. I love this process. As for established scientists, any smart person is a storehouse of useful thoughts, and one wants to absorb them, share them, and correct one’s model of the world.

Photo: HSE University

And if we look at specific examples, in Spain there is a scientist named Nagore Otegi Martinez. She also studies the model of deformation behaviour of superplastic materials. In particular, in her laboratory, she conducted uniaxial tensile tests using a camera to determine from the texture of the sample how exactly the deformations in the sample are distributed throughout the test. Simply, the camera captures where each piece of material floated. She reached conclusions similar to those that Sergei Aksenov and I reached. By the way, why do I say ‘float’? Because we interpret the material in this state as a very slow flow of a very viscous fluid.

A typical day for me

Every week, some little twist shakes up the routine. I might have to take part in some project committee, attend a staff meeting, or speak at a conference. I sometimes also get carried away with something and stay up all night. I try not to do this, but a night owl and a morning lark are battling inside me. I get up early to go for a run at seven in the morning. My father and I have a tradition: whenever possible, we push each other to go running. It’s good for both of us and it gives us an opportunity to talk. After that, I start teaching or preparing for lectures.

The ideal workplace

My home computer. It’s got everything: I program and run simulations on it. They are resource intensive and can last for hours. So I installed a program on my phone that can link to my home computer. After teaching a class, I access my computer remotely, look at the results and launch the next simulation.

What I like to read and listen to

I don’t have time to read much fiction. This summer, I read Orwell’s Animal Farm. But I do read scientific books. Among recent titles are Bjarne Stroustrup’s books on programming and Effective Modern C++ by Scott Meyers. I love books on psychology; I was strongly influenced by the Flow series of books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

When I want to be creative, I listen to music. I have broad musical tastes, from heavy metal to jazz. It’s hard to name a style that I don’t like. At least 10% of every genre is gems, and that’s enough to justify its existence.

Photo: HSE University

Of the Russian performers, I especially like Give Me a Tank(!) I first learned about this group from the song ‘Words-parasites’ and the video for it. The first concert I attended when I was little was a concert by Valery Meladze. When I started performing myself, I realized that I love the atmosphere more as a performer than as a listener, but one doesn’t exclude the other. I haven’t done enough in music lately and want to play in a band.

At staff gatherings, we always sing at night. I can pick up almost any song on guitar and piano if I’ve ever heard it.

I also like to take a popular song, for example, ‘There’s No Way Out’ by Spleen, and make a fingerstyle composition out of it. That’s when your fingers play the melody and harmony at the same time and it turns out to be a beautiful independent work. I recommend that you listen to the work of Maxim Yarushkin. He does very interesting fingerstyle guitar arrangements.

Advice for budding scientists

I would probably rephrase the question like this: What advice would I give my younger self when just starting out? I would say: Get everything you can from the situation, really go for it. But there is another extreme of taking on too much and burning out. So you also need to be careful about it.

I had many stages of awareness of what I was doing and why. For example, as a bachelor’s student, I studied for the sake of grades. From my second year onward, my grades were so good that I automatically didn’t have to take any exams except the required state exams. And then—I remember this feeling—you graduate from the institute with honours but it seems as if you know nothing, as if because I never had to take exams, the information was never set solidly in my mind.

As a result, I came to the conclusion that grades are not important, that knowledge is the priority. However, it is one thing to say it and another to actually do it. We once went to the Computing Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and there we were told about multi-threaded programming in C++. Then we took an exam, I prepared for it and received the grade of ‘Good’. The teacher offered me a chance to retake the exam with another group. I refused. I got on the tram, went home and thought, ‘Now the teacher gave me the opportunity to again invest my knowledge in myself and demonstrate it to him. Why am I missing this opportunity? What do the grades have to do with anything? I studied everything thoroughly for a week, came to him and said, ‘I want you to give me the exam; you don’t have to change my grade, but just listen to me’. I was able to answer all his questions. Since then, grades haven’t mattered to me at all.

I try to create conditions for my students in which they feel comfortable enough to ask questions.

As a student, you shouldn’t be afraid to go up to the blackboard and make mistakes because if you don’t make mistakes, how can you learn anything?

I am annoyed by a habit that people pick up in school: if you don’t understand something, better to keep silent. But this lack of understanding only increases, and then you have problems on your exams.

My favourite place in Moscow

All through my childhood, I spent all summer at our cottage in the countryside and rode a bicycle there. And then I got myself a bike in Moscow and it was one of the best purchases of my life. I plunged back into childhood. I like the feeling of inertia; I like how the centripetal acceleration lifts you a little while cornering and you fly like a bird. I love the bike. And I ride a bike in Moscow. I leave in the morning and return in the evening. I can ride 70 kilometers a day. It’s tough to name a favourite place, but one of the most memorable is possibly Poklonnaya Hill.

How does our brain work? Some people like to run in the morning along the same routes because running in itself releases dopamine and brings them satisfaction. I’m not like that; I need to see new places. Therefore, for me, a bicycle is the best solution, a compromise between sport and novelty.

My childhood hobbies

I made remote-controlled model airplanes and helicopters as a child. I also made a water-powered rocket.

I like to use fine motor skills: when you fly a model aircraft, you need to pull the joystick just a little bit. When I was learning to play the violin, the teacher told me that I had a good feel for how hard or weak to press the bow, which is very important for this instrument.

How I obtain information

I practice information hygiene, selecting sources that interest me. I developed an approach in which I don’t respond to what people offer me, but identify a need and then go looking for it myself. For this reason, I don’t like to scroll through the news feed or receive suggestions from Yandex Music. I decide myself what music to listen to. I have a large music library with everything laid out in folders. Automated recommendations only reinforce tastes you already have. I, however, want to expand my tastes. I like new things.