• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

‘The Main Thing Is to Try to Learn New Things by Any Honest Means’

Polina Yurova

Holds a PhD in Chemistry. Graduated from the Mendeleyev University of Chemical Technology (MUCT) with a degree in Fundamental and Applied Chemistry. Senior Lecturer and Laboratory Assistant at the Basic Department of Inorganic Chemistry and Materials Science of the Kurnakov Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IGIC RAS). Teaches at the HSE University Faculty of Chemistry.

Chemist Polina Yurova works in the same laboratory of the IGIC RAS that she first visited as a tenth grader. In this interview with the HSE Young Scientists project, she spoke about the creation of ion-exchange membranes, the ‘hair’ of black holes and her favourite Moscow park.

Why I decided to pursue science

Since childhood, I have read encyclopedias and been interested in how the world works. I was indifferent to chemistry at first, but in one of my classes we were told that you can take acid, put two different metals in it, attach a light bulb to them, and it will light up. I was in a period of my life when I made flashlights from batteries, wires and other miscellaneous objects, and so I found this very interesting.

Then my school sent me to our city’s Academic Olympics in chemistry. There we were handed an advertisement for the Moscow Chemical Lyceum. My Mom said, ‘Let’s go to an open house and see where the brilliant children study’. And the director of the Moscow Chemical Lyceum, who was a very savvy person, immediately sent everyone who attended the open house to take an exam in chemistry.

As a result, in the 9th grade, I ended up in a lyceum, and in the 10th grade, project work began and I was assigned to the laboratory of the IGIC RAS, where I work to this day. Now it is called the Laboratory of Ionics of Functional Materials.

After the lyceum, I entered the Higher College of Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (this is a faculty of the Mendeleyev Russian Chemical Technical University). Since we were being trained as future specialists of the Russian Academy of Sciences, we had to spend at least one day a week in the laboratory. The curriculum required that we report on our scientific work. If you didn’t pass that, you could fail the whole term.

After graduation, I continued to work in the laboratory. I like everything here and the work is interesting. At the same time, I manage an internship in inorganic chemistry with HSE University undergraduate students. It is set up very conveniently, with everything situated in the IGIC building several floors above my laboratory. I also serve as an advisor for student term papers on inorganic chemistry.

The subject of my research

Ionic conductors. My task is to create membranes that work most efficiently, with the best indicators, including ionic conductivity, stability, mechanical strength and selectivity.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Ion-exchange membranes are used in fuel cells for cars and drones, and are also used in desalination and water purification plants. Fuel cells are considered the most environmentally friendly source of energy because their only byproducts are water and electricity. To work, all they need is sufficiently pure hydrogen. And with recent advances, even the purity of hydrogen is not so important.

Fuel cells can be combined, for example, with solar batteries—not to store solar energy in a battery, but to obtain hydrogen through hydrolysis of water and to use this hydrogen for fuel cells. Unlike batteries, hydrogen can be stored indefinitely.

What I am proud of

Unexpectedly, I obtained membranes that can be used in sensors for some drugs. A sensor is a device that understands whether there is a drug in the solution as well as its concentration. Based on the membranes I made, the sensor turned out to be the most accurate and less finnicky about the pH of the medium and sample preparation.

I made these membranes and some colleagues from Voronezh used them in a device. We have a collaboration with them.

In general, I would like it if all the materials we obtained found some practical application. This would accelerate scientific and technological progress in the world

But I understand that it would be difficult to retrofit production each time to implement the latest advances.

What I like about my lab

You can work a lot with your hands. It’s also a very clean laboratory in terms of chemistry. We receive samples and the synthesis takes only a few weeks. The rest of the time we measure these samples and test them on various devices. You don’t need to do a lot of chemistry. There is no risk of getting into acids and salts. I push buttons and calculate results. Based on the results obtained, I consider how to build the original experiment (the synthesis of materials) in a different way. We are engaged in a mixture of materials science, physical chemistry and electrochemistry.

I defended my PhD thesis

on May 12, 2022 here at IGIC RAS. The only thing that changed was that life got easier because I no longer had to worry about completing my PhD. Even before that, I never had any problems trying my hand at whatever I wanted. We also give the students in our laboratory a chance to put their ideas into practice—if they are good.

For me, science is a search followed by a long period of reflection over everything that we found. Science allows you to push the boundaries of the known world.

In The Distant Rainbow, the Strugatsky brothers wrote: ‘In order to do something in science, one has to think about the same thing day and night, read about the same thing, talk about the same thing …’ That’s how it is.

There are fashionable trends in science. For some time in our field, membranes were modified with oxides. Then they came up with the idea of introducing polyaniline. That was a success. And everyone got excited about jumping on the polyaniline bandwagon. Something else will come along later. The focus gradually shifts. It is very important to stay current in order to remain in demand, including with your publications.

If I hadn’t become a scientist, I might have become a teacher. I am teaching now. I really like to interact with undergraduate students and help them master the subjects. I love to explain. And in very early childhood I had a dream to become a pilot. I don’t know where that came from.

I would most like to have met

Stephen Hawking. In addition to chemistry, I am interested in the structure of the world, the universe and space. Hawking wrote amazing books. He did a great job of explaining things that popular science cannot fully cover, of making them clearer than before. But I still didn’t understand everything. For example, astrophysicists have come to the conclusion that the universe will expand at an ever-increasing rate. How did they calculate that? They also say among themselves that black holes don't have ‘hair’. I know what this means: that an object that became a black hole retained only three parameters—mass, an electric charge and angular momentum. But why do they call it that?

A typical day

Depending on what I need to do that day, I choose the room where the device I need is located. I do research. Then I calculate the results I got, compare the properties with the original sample to see if the modification was successful, and go home. I go to the gym several times a week because otherwise I would start feeling the effects of hypodynamia.

How I deal with burnout

I got burned out when I was finishing my university studies. I only got over it after laying on the sofa for two days straight. At work I sometimes don’t get the experimental results that I should and the reason isn’t immediately clear. Or a lot of work piles up, my brain gets foggy and I can’t even think about simple things. Then the best solution is to listen to music and go skating or cycling. Doing something physical helps me relieve stress.

From what I know of biochemistry, when a person is engaged in physical activity, he produces pleasure hormones that have a beneficial effect on the body as a whole. If you are sad, then you can do exercises. True, there are people who really don’t like to work out, so they have two competing processes. But for me, it helps. Of course, I also love eating.

My interests besides science

I used to love going to the movies, but now there are not many films and I switched to the theatre. The Moscow Provincial Theatre is close to my home. And I also like the Moscow Operetta Theatre on Teatralnaya. It happens that these are the only ones I attend. I used to really like the production of The Count of Monte Cristo and I recently watched it again. And during my third year of studies, I watched a new arrangement of the musical The Phantom of the Opera. It was great.

Advice for budding scientists

The sooner you start doing science, the better. But even if you started relatively late, the main thing is not to be afraid. There is nothing wrong with suddenly realising at the age of 30 that you want to do science and deciding to enroll as a freshman in chemistry at the university. Feel free to ask people whatever questions you have. And if they are unresponsive, ask others. It’s natural to help people who want to know something. We are on the same team and have the same goal. The main thing is to try to learn new things by any honest means.

Photo courtesy of Polina Yurova

My favorite place in Moscow

Gorky Park and Neskuchny Garden. I like the sunsets over the river, how the park looks with lights in the evenings. In summer you can sit on the lawn. There is a skating rink in winter. There are cafes with delicious food. You can walk with the crowd along the embankment or go deeper into the park where there are hills and forests and fewer people. It’s a great park and very clean.