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Regular version of the site

Research: It’s a Personal Affair

HSE University researchers talk about their research, the most important books, theories and unusual teaching methods. Part 2

© ISTOCK

Seven HSE scholars and teachers answer IQ.HSE’s questions about their research interests, favourite research theories, and academic and popular science books that have impressed them, as well as offering advice to current and future students.

Maria Poptsova
Head of the HSE International Laboratory of Bioinformatics, Associate Professor at the HSE Faculty of Computer Science Big Data and Information Retrieval School, Candidate of Science (Physics & Mathematics)

What are your research interests?

I study secondary DNA structures. It is an understudied field of molecular biology and genomics, since experimental methods for their discovery are still being developed. The reason for this is it is difficult to catch these objects: they appear, do their job, and disappear. Meanwhile, recent research has demonstrated that these structures are important for different classes of genomic processes. We want to draw a complete picture of where, when and how exactly secondary DNA structures (quadruplex, triplex, Z-DNA and others) appear and operate.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

At the Faculty of Computer Science, we build and test cutting-edge neural networks to detect secondary DNA structures and to study their relationship with the epigenetic code.

Today, we are studying the relation between Z-DNA to RNA editing and the triggering of internal cell immune responses. It turns out that inside the cell, before the level of antibody production in the metazoa, there already are ways to fight viruses. This fight happens between DNA and RNA as ‘friend or foe’ detection; we now know a big role in this process is played by Z-DNA – a left-handed DNA, unlike the right-handed B-DNA, for which James Watson and Francis Crick received their Nobel Prize.

Our recently created International Laboratory of Bioinformatics has managed to attract a scholar from the USA, Alan Herbert, who used to work at MIT with Alexander Rich, the discoverer of Z-DNA. Alan Herbert himself discovered a protein that binds with Z-DNA.

What draws you to research on a personal level?

Doing research is like being a detective. There is a secret, and the only thing you know is that it exists, and you are keen to discover it. In the beginning, you can’t even say what kind of secret it is. You start to understand it by asking the right questions. Then suddenly you get a little clue. Then, your thought process follows the line ‘question-answer-question-answer-question-answer’ etc, and the further along you go, the more interesting it gets. This line is not going to end within the span of one human life, so it will always be interesting, till the end of your days.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory or the archive every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

People usually do research 24/7, because you can’t avoid thinking about your ‘investigation’ of the universe’s secrets. It’s good when you have good working conditions. The only thing you need for bioinformatics is a computer and an internet connection. I love coming to my laboratory because of our beautiful working atmosphere. I love our HSE University campus on Pokrovsky Boulevard – the modern design motivates me to work harder. I enjoy the laboratory itself, the classrooms, the glass lifts, the atrium with columns, the Durasov mansion, the view of the boulevard, the cylindric cafeteria, and the library with encyclopaedias on the bookshelves. Everything is motivating!

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

I can’t name just one in bioinformatics. Since I graduated in physics, I have been most impressed by papers in which equations are suggested suddenly: in fact, it’s not actually sudden – one needs to read the original sources and references in them in order to understand the initial logic. And these equations can be used for a long time, for a century at least. For example, Albert Einstein’s 1916 equation, which predicted black holes and gravitational waves, or Erwin Schrödinger’s equation, or Paul Dirac’s equation. Many physicists who have taken on biology would like to write similar universal equations for biological processes, but it looks like it is impossible. Here, we need a different logic – the logic of DNA.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

Speaking about bioinformatics, this is a very fast-moving science, and recently, many discoveries have been made. I would recommend reading original papers which were later awarded Nobel Prizes. For example, the original paper by James Watson and Francis Crick, or papers by Nirenberg, Khorana and Holley, who interpreted the genetic code. Or papers by Frederick Sanger, whose method we are using to get genome sequences as texts. You can also look at the references in these papers. Open the list of Nobel Prizes in physiology, medicine or chemistry, and follow the list. All of them will be important and inspirational.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

No, unfortunately I don’t have time for this. But if I had, I would watch the ones that have got the Prosvetitel prize, and would start reading from these world-class books. Speaking about resources in English, TED Talks is brilliant.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

I’ve worked with the creative team of the Polytechnic Museum that developed its research exposition. Their ideas on how to present academic knowledge through images and stories are mind-blowing. I hope at least some of them will be implemented, and we’ll be able to see these in the museum’s permanent exposition. They came up with expositions for all fields of science – from elementary quarks to the Universe. I have never seen a better representation of research outcomes. Visitors will be able to see our Galaxy as a map of Moscow, to use the contents of a genomic bookshelf, to watch a cartoon about robot-proteins in a city-cell, and many other things.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

The genome carries lots of secrets. We have received texts; we know that it is coded by specific parts; we also know what parts of the genomic text are needed in different situations. We don’t understand how these different parts agree on simultaneous work under different conditions and in different places. This is a fundamental problem for us to solve.

Speaking about applied ones, there are lots of useful and socially important tasks in genetics and personalized medicine. There is a need for big data analysis in molecular biology, and specialists in bioinformatics are in very high demand.

It is easy to find jobs abroad at research laboratories, as well as in companies and bioinformatics centres. It is likely that the need for bioinformatics experts will grow in Russia as well, and competitive jobs will appear.

 


 

Andrey Korotayev
Head of the HSE Laboratory for Monitoring the Risks of Socio-Political Destabilization

What are your research interests?

Initially, it was the general theory of social evolution. But in order to explore socio-evolutionary processes, an understanding of the historical background is important, hence my interest in the mathematical modelling of historical processes. When applied to today’s reality, it is the qualitative analysis of contemporary development processes, their transformation and dynamics, including political ones. Another of my areas of interest is the risks of socio-political destabilization – a topic I look at as part of the Laboratory at HSE University, which I head.

To understand social evolution, it is useful to understand the biological one, and to understand the latter, one has to look at deeper types of evolution. Hence, my other interest – Big History, an attempt to find objective laws at least from the moment of origin of life on Earth, and, if possible, from the moment of the Big Bang.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

We look at different questions in different fields, but right now, we are focusing on revolutions the most. We are now finishing a collective monograph on the new wave of revolutions in the 21st century for Springer together with Jack Goldstone, a renowned researcher in this field. It investigates the main revolutions in the 20th, 19th and previous centuries, but with a focus on the current century. One of our tasks is to understand the reasons for the growing protest activity which has been observed since 2010 on all continents, except for, of course, the Antarctic.

What draws you to research on a personal level?

I acknowledge the value of idiographic research, the attempts to study unique events from the perspective of their uniqueness, but most of all, I’m interested in nomothetic approach, which aims to derives laws where they can be found. That’s why I mostly migrated from history to sociology and political science.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory or the archive every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

Going to laboratory and doing research is not the same. Today, research is largely done outside the laboratory, at home, on the computer. There is no need to be at work, but the workplace is very important. What mostly motivates me to go to the laboratory is the need for personal contact. My relations with online communication are not ideal: it is not a satisfactory replacement for face-to-face contact, and brainstorming is still more effective when organized face-to-face.

What is demotivating? I don’t look at research as a hard work. Hard work is when you have, as Thomas Edison said, one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Everyone who has carried out research know that it involves a lot of non-creative work, but still, I can’t say that it demotivates me. It is rather the opposite: creative work motivates you to do the dull part of the research job.

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

My interest in science, particularly in natural science, was inspired by the popular science books in the Eureka series, which were published in the Soviet times. It was a brilliant series and it’s a shame it no longer exists.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

I believe it was the classical theory of biological evolution dating back to Charles Darwin, together with a new synthesis. It is basically very simple but explains a surprisingly amount. While it can’t be directly applied to social evolution, those who deal with social evolution have a lot to learn from those who have come so far ahead in developing the theory of biological evolution.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

Speaking about my current interest in revolutions, they are Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World by Jack Goldstone, Historical Dynamics by Peter Turchin, and From Mobilization to Revolution by Charles Tilly.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

I’m rather attached to specific authors than resources. Regardless of the place of publication, I try to follow the works of my colleague Alexander Markov, a renowned author of popular science papers at the confluence of biology and sociology.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

It is not the most unusual, but the one that first comes to my mind is ChronoZoom, a method that visualizes history from the Big Bang to today, including an online presentation. There is an opportunity to ‘zoom in’ and study a certain period within the huge era of 13 billion years. It is an exciting use of technology to present the outcome of work performed by people dealing with the Big History.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

My experience tells me that the interdisciplinary approach is very promising. That’s why I would recommend my fellow researchers in humanities to master mathematics and natural science methods, while my advice to specialists in quantitative research – sociologists and political scientists – is to take on humanities, and to understand the qualitative side of the processes they investigate.

 


 

Vladimir Shchur
Head of the HSE International Laboratory of Statistical and Computational Genomics, Associate Professor at MIEM HSE, PhD

What are your research interests?

I study populational and evolutionary genomics, not from a biological perspective, but as a mathematician. At our laboratory, we build mathematical models that demonstrate how populations have developed, what evolutionary forces have altered them, how, for example, migration or natural selection have changed the appearance of genomes. Then, we convert our models using methods of analysis and apply them to experimental data, in order to see how the population size has changed over thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, or to study the ways the coronavirus spread across the world during the pandemic.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

Our laboratory was created about a year ago, and is working on several projects at the same time. One of them is related to coronavirus. One point mutation can increase this organism’s adaptiveness, and thanks to natural selection, it will quickly spread in the population. But the ‘British’, ‘Brazilian’, ‘South African’ and, probably, the new, ‘Californian’ variant have several specific mutations. Probably, the effect of these mutations is cross-enforced, and a nonlinear interaction evolves. In other words, there is epistasis – dependence of mutation effect on the genetic context.

It is hard to characterize this phenomenon in numbers: lots of data is required. We now have a unique opportunity to catch it, since there is an unprecedented and constantly growing number of coronavirus genomes. We are developing mathematical methods and models that will allow us to study these phenomena, to understand the genetic nature of the coronavirus: the factors impacting its development, and the patterns of its distribution and adaptation.

Another large-scale study we are conducting is trying to use deep machine learning to evaluate populational parameters, such as population size changes or the presence of migration. Deep machine learning can help us learn more about the history of populations, about how humanity has been populating the planet, and how it was happening on different time scales.

For example, an interesting task is to find out how we interacted with ancient people – Neanderthals or Denisovans. These branches separated from the anatomically modern human about 700,000 years ago. About 60,000-40,000 years ago, we were still interacting with them, but then, they became extinct.

We are looking at a hypothesis of so-called ‘ghost’ human populations, which are unknown to us today, but with traces in our genomes. It looks like one such population, which separated from the ancestry branch of the modern humans over a million years ago, lived on the African continent. We can find information on this population only by trying to find small parts of DNA in contemporary genomes. These tiny fragments can talk about very distant events that do not have any archaeological evidence.

What draws you to research on a personal level?

Undoubtedly, it is the opportunity to get knowledge from primary sources and find it on my own. It is also the freedom to choose a new area of studies. This happens when I talk to colleagues, on the sidelines of conferences, during research seminars – this is the way new projects evolve. And it is thrilling: sometimes, you think about one problem 24/7. Then, you take a step away, take a rest, switch your attention. But most often, a researcher is in the former state.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

Speaking about motivation, I’ve already mentioned my reasons above. I also like the academic environment, I feel at home here, and its values are clear to me. And that is an important thing to me. Speaking about demotivation, the older you get, the more administrative responsibility and organizational tasks you have. They can take a lot of time, stealing it away from research.

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

It’s hard for me to answer this question. I grew up in Chernogolovka, on campus, in a family of academics. I could almost say that I didn’t even have a choice of what to do in life. The environment itself was inspiring and yet also something ordinary at the same time. When I was in school, my dad took me to his conferences and was very surprised when I didn’t understand a certain presentation – ‘but it is clear to any physics student!’ Of course, I looked at the alternatives during my student years and, for example, tried to work in banking, but quickly understood that research is my life.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

I graduated from the MSU Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, Department of Mathematics. And despite the fact that today I work more in biology and genomics, I often remember how beautiful Lebesgue integration is: when compared to Riemann integral, the points on the function graph are grouped not by close argument values, but by close function values. This small change provides an opportunity to considerably expand the class of integrated functions, which, in its turn, allows us to develop probability theory. And thanks to this theory, I keep reminding myself that any problem can be seen from different perspectives.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

The first is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, since the theory of evolution started with it. The second is the founding paper of coalescent theory, On the Genealogy of Large Populations by J. F. C. Kingman. It’s hard for me to name the third, but probably, it might well be a paper by Gilean McVean and Niall Cardin, Approximating the Coalescent with Recombination. This paper introduced a model that considerably simplifies the analysis of experimental data. It helps us to apply probability and machine learning methods to analyse genome-wide sequences.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

Now, I’m reading Svante Pääbo’s book Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. It is interesting for me, because it is about the evolution and development of ancient DNA research. When I read it, I see familiar names of senior colleagues and see how academic cooperation was built in the 1980s. This is an opportunity for me to see the professional historical view, since I came to this science only in 2013.

The other day I also subscribed to the Nature Briefing newsletter. From time to time, I scan N+1 and the research sections of BBC and CNN websites. I’m also planning to look for an interesting podcast.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

Honestly, I can’t come up with anything right now.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

I would advise them to be bold and provocative, not to be afraid of working and making mistakes. They shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their senior colleagues, many of whom are always willing to help.

Balance is also essential: it is important to listen to your academic supervisor, since they have experience, but it is also important to insist on your idea, since it can be really interesting and it is sometimes hard to communicate this to others without the relevant experience.

You also shouldn’t be afraid to lose out in financial terms. If we don’t talk about yachts and extravagant cars, one can earn decent money in science. And academic supervisors usually try to provide sufficient financial reimbursement to talented students.  Work you love, in an environment of like-minded people, is more than enough compensation for the lack of a yacht.

 


 

Vasily Klucharev
Director of the HSE Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, Head of the HSE International Laboratory of Social Neurobiology, Candidate of Sciences

What are your research interests?

Currently, I have two key areas of research interest. The main one is the brain mechanisms of social influence – studying how others manipulate our decisions.

The second area appeared comparatively recently and is related to the fact that a year ago, we opened the new International Laboratory of Social Neurobiology and received a substantial grant for studying those brain processes that are related to our perception of complicated information types, from videos to films and novels. It allowed us to start studying the impact of various narratives that we regularly face in our everyday lives. It is an important field of my research interest today.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

Our main question is quite specific: to what extent and how exactly do narratives impact our economic behaviour, our willingness to take economic risks?

We came up with this idea under the influence of Robert Shiller, an American economist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, who believes that popular stories and viral narratives have a great impact on the economic behaviour of masses of people. For example, if everyone keeps saying that one should invest in high-tech today, in the ‘new economics’, such narratives lead to an investment boom, and may cause economic bubbles. Shiller believes that the impact of such narratives on mass behaviour, on the evolution of economic booms and depressions has been understudied in economics.

Our task is to try to explain how popular narratives, including personal ones – the stories people tell each other, – impact our brain, our readiness to take on financial risks or the choice of more conservative behaviour. We are looking for experimental paradigms that will help us investigate this and demonstrate the impact of narratives on the inclination to risk, to discover the brain mechanisms of this impact.

Meanwhile, our laboratory has launched a lot of other projects. For example, we have joined our colleagues from the HSE School of Media Communications to study how narratives influence the brains of humans with different abilities to perceive the information critically. We are also looking into the way our brain perceives the ‘urban narratives’, how it reacts to parks, boulevards, highways etc. However, our main focus for the forthcoming three years is risky economic behaviour.

All these studies would be hard to carry out using traditional methods. That’s why we have invited Iiro Jaaskelainen, an outstanding Finnish professor, who is an expert in the neurobiology of narrative perception. Together with him, we are using a method that is unusual for Russia: we observe how brain activity synchronizes in a group of people watching, reading or listening to information (different narratives) and see how such synchronization reflects and predicts their behaviour.

What draws you to research on a personal level?

Probably, my interest emerged when I was a school boy and was interested in animal behaviour as a young nature watcher. I became curious, and curiosity remains my main motivation for new questions and unexpected projects.

There is a different kind of motivation when you become part of a large project. For example, we are now building a new laboratory: you need to bring together a team, to learn new methods, to overcome lots of technical issues, and all these efforts need some kind of internal rationalization, you start to value your research interests even more. But the main driver is, of course, research curiosity.

I have also found that as I get older, students are becoming a more important part of my motivation; they energise me with their fresh interest and new ideas. Today, I’m involved in several projects which students convinced me to participate in. For example, in one of these projects we look at how people choose their life partners. I told my students about a talk with journalists who said that my research can explain the choice of one’s partner. I was surprised, since I had never thought about it from this perspective. When the students heard this story, they suggested studying it. And now, we have launched this project together with our biologist colleagues.

I am still a little confused about this idea, while the students are enthusiastically planning experimental speed dating sessions and inventing some unimaginable experimental paradigms, in order to try to answer the question about how we choose our partners from the perspective of our brain operations.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

I have already talked a lot about motivation, while the main demotivating factor for me is coronavirus. We are very serious about epidemic regulations and try to meet in large groups at the laboratory as rarely as possible. However, this also has a big advantage: I want to believe that these serious hygiene precautions in research will remain with us forever.

I am very hopeful that our new laboratories will be our strong motivation in the near future. A week ago, I was walking around the building in Krivokolenny Pereulok, where a new HSE laboratory complex is being built. It looks incredible. Finally, we’ll be able to deploy our equipment to its full power, we’ll be a real world-class institution. It looks exactly like I dreamt of when I first came to HSE University.

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

I have always been interested in animal behaviour. My first interest emerged a long time ago, in a pioneer camp somewhere on the Karelian Isthmus, thanks to a friend who showed me a popular science book World of Animals by Igor Akimushkin, a renowned Soviet popular science communicator. I was amazed by the stories about the Australian wildlife, the photos, and the fun facts.

I used to have a serious interest in natural scientists who explored rare animals. I still have books by the English natural scientist and writer Gerald Durrell on my bookshelf: when I was at school, he was my hero. I should also mention the books by British researcher Jane Goodall, a pioneer who first studied chimpanzees in their natural habitat.  Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist and zoopsychologist, has been my idol since I was in high school. All in all, they all had such a huge impact on me that I’m still seriously considering studying animal behaviour.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

Actually, there is a lot of such research. The fact is that I don’t have a degree in biology, although I studied physiology, including brain physiology. I passed through a stage of a very strong interest in social psychology, although I wasn’t trained in this field: we were taught everything, from molecular biology to physics and chemistry, but not social science.

That’s why social psychology studies have amazed me. For example, the renowned conformity experiment by Solomon Asch, which proves that humans tend to knowingly give a wrong answer only because they want to be like the others and they feel uncomfortable if they give an answer that is different from what the others have said.

I was impressed by this, because it always seems to us neurobiologists that our behaviour is programmed inside our brain. We don’t notice that actually, our brain depends on the behaviour of people around us. This means that a decision is made not by one brain, but by dozens, hundreds and thousands of brains: many of our decisions are actually made by social groups.

Of course, I experienced the influence of many other studies and theories in biology and neurobiology. This is the kind of science I’m doing today: I’m trying to bring together the ‘boring’ natural science approaches of neurobiologists who study biochemical processes in the brain with the ‘striking’ approaches of social sciences.

I can even say that social psychology experiments made me change the area of my own studies. Once, I studied human emotions, and today, I instead look at how others manipulate our emotions and decisions, how humans are impacted by the social context.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

We happen to be the first in studying the brain mechanisms of social impact. Before our studies, there was probably only one scholarly publication about how the others manipulate our brain. By the way, I wasn’t aware of this publication when we carried out our research. We had already completed it, and only after that, I met Gregory Berns – I recommend his book about dogs’ brains to everyone – What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience. Nevertheless, our research outcomes have turned out to be a real breakthrough. My development as a scholar was strongly influenced by Wolfram Schultz’s (Cambridge) brain studies and Robert Cialdini’s book Psychology of Persuasion.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

I love popular science books, and not only in my field. I try to monitor how researchers from other fields see our research areas. Now, I’m slowly reading  Robert Sapolsky’s huge book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. It mentions our studies as well, which was a nice surprise. The book describes a huge volume of information related to our subject in a thrilling manner and from unexpected viewpoints.

I also love books by Frans de Waal, a primatologist. He is a world renowned researcher into chimpanzee behaviour and heads the biggest primatology centre in the USA.

Honestly, I don’t have time for popular science radio shows. Instead, I sometimes prefer to listen to history podcasts. For example, I’m interested in the history of Russian revolution. I sometimes find something on the internet on those issues that are puzzling me at the moment.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

I don’t really have time to track the new formats. Many journals present the results of research in new formats today, but I leave it to my fellow doctoral students to track these changes. Recently, some of the journals have been trying to present the results of studies in graphic form – very concisely and visually, in addition to the text of the paper. I haven’t embraced it yet, but the idea – to communicate the paper idea visually – seems interesting to me. Some journals offer new formats of video communication.

I know that many colleagues love numerous virtual formats after the transition to online learning. I haven’t really had enough time to try these. But academic communication is sometimes starting to look like a video game, a talk between avatars.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

I have two main pieces of advice. And I would like to address those who are really interested in research. The first recommendation is rather unusual: try to look at academic careers and try to convince your parents that an academic can be a very successful and wealthy person. After my popular science lectures, parents often come up to me, worrying that their child is interested in neurobiology, and that they are going to starve to death. It is important to ensure that your family supports your intentions.

I was lucky in these terms. My father supported my interest in biology, probably because he used to dream about it as a kid. He is a physics professor, but always wanted to be a biologist or a doctor, and I brough his plan to life. It is very valuable when you are supported in the family. It is also important to know that you can have a good, interesting and rich life. Enjoy doing your research!

My second recommendation is to think in advance about the steps you are going to make in your academic career: the university you are going to apply to, the laboratory you are going to carry out research at, the organization you are going to defend your thesis at, etc. It often seems strange to me that students are afraid to ask questions and discuss the key steps in their careers with senior colleagues. It often seems to young people that many doors are closed, while in fact, they are surrounded by lots of people who are ready to recommend something useful.

 


 

Anna Almakaeva
Deputy Head of the HSE Ronald F. Inglehart Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR), Senior Lecturer at the HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, Candidate of Sciences (Sociology)

What are your research interests?

Overall, it is comparative social studies, cross-cultural and international. This research is carried out in the framework of Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel’s modernization theory, which describes the evolution of societies. As part of this field, I look at the topics of trust, social capital, subjective well-being and values.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

Currently, we are conducting a study in Russian regions: we want to understand how homogeneous or heterogeneous Russian regions are in terms of values, trust and subjective well-being. It is a three-year project, with its first part having been completed, and now we are moving to the second part. Thanks to the support of Russian Science Foundation and VTB, we have gathered unique data on 60 Russian regions. As of today, we can say that Russia is quite homogeneous in terms of values, with the exception of the Caucas regions.

Another goal of our study is to determine how applicable existing theories of values, trust and subjective well-being are in the Russian context, what limitations are there, and what their reasons are.

What draws you to research on a personal level?

It is an opportunity to keep learning something new and to untangle the secrets of human nature. I also like using statistical methods in my research: I love the combination of mathematics and human life.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

Speaking about positive motivation, it is undoubtedly the opportunity of growth and self-realization, as well as communication with my colleagues. It is very important to find the right environment, people who do the same things and, in a certain sense, think alike.

As regards to demotivation, it is the negative trends that exist in research in general, and not only in Russia. I mean the race for quantitative indicators at the expense of the quality of research: a kind of commercialization of science. Today, scholars are assessed by the volume of papers they write, and, of course, this is the simplest way for universities. But it is not how good academic research should be done: real breakthroughs are based on a completely different kind of motivation. As a result, talented researchers often leave academia for some other fields, which are truly commercial. For sociologists, this means marketing, PR, HR etc.

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

I have always wanted to understand how people act; what motives move them; I’ve always loved observing such things. During my third year of university studies, I started to realise that I would like to pursue an academic career.

At that time, I was very inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, but of course, at that time I had no idea how close it would be to what I’m doing today. The story of the book is about a team of psychohistorians who use mathematics to calculate the development of human societies and evolution of crises.

I’ve also been inspired by the brilliant Strugatsky brothers’ books, such as Monday Begins on Saturday. Many processes described in the book haven’t lost their relevance. The Strugatskys weren’t sociologists, but they turned out to have a  genius for describing social life and potential social experiments.

I have also always been inspired by the people around me. They helped me to realize that it is interesting for me to understand them.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

It was a revelation for me when I understood that mathematics helps explain human beliefs and behaviour. I’ve been amazed by the fact that real human life can be, to a certain extent, described by mathematical formulas and laws. However, these methods also have limitations.

Speaking about the topics I’m dealing with today, it is, of course, modernization theory, which explains how values change, how people perceive various institutions, what priorities they set and how they organize their lives in this regard. Its undoubted advantage is a huge empirical base – the World Values Survey and other international studies, such as the European Social Survey and many others. These help us to make conclusions about how certain patterns change depending on the social, institutional and economic conditions of our life. They help understand how culturally universal or, on the contrary, specific, these patterns are.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

The first is Ronald Inglehart’s book Cultural Evolution. It was published in 2018. It is a very interesting book, which is, by the way, understandable for the non-specialist, since Ronald uses lively, comprehensible language to speak about modernization theory and suggests his forecasts for the future.

The second is Christian Welzel’s Freedom Rising, which further develops modernization theory. It is, on the one hand, an example of a thorough academic study, where everything is precisely catalogued and explained on complicated mathematical models, and on the other hand, an empirical trial of a macro-theory.

The third ones, speaking of my research areas (trust and social capital) are, undoubtedly, works by Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman, who laid the theoretical foundations in these areas of research.

I would also like to mention Robert Putnam’s most renowned work, Bowling Alone. This work may be controversial, but it has popularized research in social capital and trust and taken them beyond sociological and socio-psychological discourses, drawing, among others, economists’ attention to these studies.

There is another book I love, Trust. The Evolutionary Game of Mind and Society by Toshio Yamagishi. This book is a kind of detective story about trust-related academic research.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

I sometimes visit Theory&Practice, but most often I turn to YouTube with videos that seem interesting to me. I am also subscribed to several Instagram channels about nature and art. I also recommend Tatiana Chernigovskaya’s lectures.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

As an example, there are presentations with pictures from cartoons. I saw them by one of my colleagues – a family couple from Poland and Italy, who always have very colourful presentations.

Once, at Samara State University, where I studied and used to work, my colleagues tried to illustrate various theories with gestures, movements etc. It was an interesting experience.

Some colleagues write popular science books as a result of their studies. It is also an unconventional form of research presentation.

Generally, arts, literature and science deal with very similar things – they tell us about ourselves – so, various creative methods can be used in presentations.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

It is important to understand why you are entering this field and what you are going to do in it. There are various academic career trajectories: administrative, research, or teaching. It is important to choose yours.

It is essential to have internal motivation, since research is not a field where you are going to earn loads of money. You should be interested in doing it, otherwise it won’t turn out well.

Speaking about sociology, you have to be interested in other people, in their motivation and behaviour. If you are not into other people, I wouldn’t recommend this as a career. 

 


 

Peter Meylakhs
Senior Research Fellow at the HSE International Centre for Health Economics, Management, and Policy, Associate Professor at the HSE Campus in St. Petersburg Department of Management, Candidate of Sciences

What are your research interests?

My specific interests are various social aspects of drug use and related problems, and first and foremost, HIV. I move from certain social problems to different academic theories, not vice versa.

During my whole academic career, and depending on the specific task, I have used different theoretical tools, from cultural sociology, mass media sociology, and role theory. Today, it is generation theory, in relation to the new generation of drug users.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

There are several questions. First, we are continuing our study into what help is offered to drug users in Telegram and how they use it. We are studying the Remote Drug Therapist project together with Humanity Action NGO. This is particularly relevant today, since during the pandemic, people and organizations are seeking various ways to make their services available online.

The second topic is the Darknet. We study what is happening there, what is on sale, and what the relationships between sellers and buyers are.

And the third project, which is probably the main one for me personally, is studying the new generation of drug users. We have only carried out a pilot study so far, and its results were published in AIDS and Behavior. We have found that the new generation of drug users in St. Petersburg uses different drugs and does so in a safer way when compared to previous cohorts.

I am deeply interested in this phenomenon. Drugs that are used by people are often very dangerous. They may cause death, infection with HIV, hepatitis C, etc. People of the same generation can see this: their friends die and get sick, and it usually happens very fast. But examples of ‘here and now’ do not usually work well.

Only when a new generation comes along, for whom the previously popular drug is already strongly stigmatized (in our case, heroin), do they start seeing it as extremely dangerous, while sharing a syringe becomes something beyond their understanding.

And here, we come to the question – why in-generation learning works poorly, why people do not quit these dangerous practices immediately or quickly? Why does it take a generation (drug users aged 38-40 today, with HIV in 65% cases and hepatitis C in 90% cases) to teach the next generation? We cannot say that the situation has drastically changed today, or that drug use has become safe, but there is definitely a difference. If we specify, our research question is as follows: why does inter-generation learning about drug use work stronger in many ways than in-generation one?

What draws you to research on a personal level?

The main thing in research is curiosity and a willingness to solve certain problems. I am interested in the laws of human behaviour. Clearly, any question can lead to even more questions. But solving a problem, explaining a phenomenon with theory and empirical studies – this is very satisfying and motivating.

On the other hand, I have to be honest that the lifestyle of an academic is also attractive: a flexible schedule, the opportunity to talk to interesting people, chances to travel, as well as a friendly team and a good salary, if you invest certain effort and achieve success.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory or the archive every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

The team is very important, as well as the opportunity to share your results and get criticism or feedback. I remember being in New York as a postdoc researcher: I was going from home to work with lots of anxiety: I was anxious to share the problems I had solved with my colleagues, or, on the contrary, the difficulties I’d experienced.

Speaking of demotivation, it is, most often, the applicability of the research outcomes. For example, we can prove that the programmes to alleviate harm from drug use, such as syringe exchange, are effective. But unfortunately, there is no demand for these results from the government, or other bodies. This is upsetting. But I console myself with the fact that we are, primarily, scholars, and scholarly research moves slowly: not every paper can immediately play a role in practice.

The second thing I would like to mention is that research is occasionally censored. One example is about some things related to conservative administration practices in a state. Another example is when certain social or biological studies are censored due to political correctness, for example, related to gender or ethnical differences etc. It is not really demotivating, but it can be upsetting.

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

I remember reading Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters when I was a child: it describes the history of microbe discovery, and the work carried out by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. It was thrilling.

Another book that once inspired me is fiction, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, about a young researcher and his career.

I also read various kinds of papers, such those in Science and Life magazine. I was generally more inspired by natural science, since when I was a kid, social science was soaked with communist ideology, which did not interest me.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

The theory of the social construction of reality had a big impact on me a long time ago. At that time, I was studying sociology in Israel, at Tel Aviv University. I was surprised to discover that different social relations are not something natural, but largely something constructed socially. Anthropology studies helped me understand this: I learned that in other societies, social relations work completely differently. This theory helped me to look at many things from a different perspective: many of them can be understood and explained in terms of social construction.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

The first is Émile Durkheim’s Suicide, which proves that suicide is not only a personal choice, but is largely determined by the structure of society.

The second is The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I have already mentioned it above.

The third is Max Weber’s Economy and Society. I believe it to be one of the most fundamental academic books in sociology, which formulates many key sociological terms and which has served as the building blocks for various theories and interpretations.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

I have a special app that suggests academic papers according to my interests. Once a week, I look through what it has gathered for me. If I see an interesting paper, I download it and then eventually read it. That’s how it works.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

A video-abstract. A journal asked me to make a brief video summary of my paper.  It is a thing today, but back then, I wasn’t ready for it. Now I think it is an interesting form to present the results of academic research.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

First of all, go into what is interesting for them, rather than what is popular and prestigious, although these things may coincide. But if you are not interested in what you are doing, you will fail to get anything good out of it. And second, no matter how dramatic it sounds, you should follow your dream and not agree to compromise where you shouldn’t.

I can give you a personal example. When I defended my thesis, I was dreaming about a postdoc position in a good Western university. Then, I received an information letter about a free several-week internship in the U.S. on how they do science. I looked at the programme and understood I would learn nothing new there. I was interested in a real research project and participation in a good international-level team. It was mid-2000s, when many people in the U.S. believed Russians were willing to go abroad at any price. My refusal surprised the hosts.

Within three weeks, I got an invitation for a postdoc position in New York at a good institution, with reimbursed accommodation for me and my family. I think that if I had accepted that internship, I wouldn’t have got this postdoc. It was a good decision – not to agree to compromise, but to stick to my dream. I exhort  young people today to do the same.

 


 

Elena Gorbunova
Head of the Laboratory for the Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interface Users, Associate Professor at the HSE School of Psychology, Candidate of Sciences (Psychology)

What are your research interests?

On the one hand, it is cognitive psychology, and on the other, it is user interface usability. I am interested in how cognitive processes function in human interaction with websites and other interfaces, what errors may appear in the cognitive system during this interaction, and how they may be dealt with.

What question are you or your research group seeking to answer at the moment?

There are a few questions:

Why do users ignore or do not notice advertisements on a website? What cognitive biases are there in human interaction with an interface? For example, why do people usually like the old version of the website, even if the updated one is much better?

How do we perceive specific elements of the website (such as the fonts or icons it is using)?

What are the differences in our cognitive processes when we interact with a digital and a real environment?

What are the mechanisms of errors made by users in their website interactions?

What is the relation between high-level processes (such as categorization) and low-level processes (sensory and motor ones)?

What draws you to research on a personal level?

I like to learn something new, particularly if it is not a purely theoretical result, but something that can be applied in practice.

What motivates you to go to the laboratory or the archive every day, and what, on the contrary, lessens your motivation?

Like I said, an opportunity to learn something new motivates me, as do my colleagues. Paperwork is demotivating, but unfortunately, research cannot exist without it.

What scholarly work or popular science book (or article, encyclopaedia, etc.) inspired you to pursue an academic career?

It is a bit unpoetic. During my second year of university studies, I became a fan of subjects such as Psychology of Feelings and Perception, and Psychology of Attention and Memory, so accordingly, I loved Maria Falikman’s textbook Psychology of Attention.

What theory or experiment has made the strongest impression on you or significantly influenced your scholarly views/interests?

I have two favourite studies, which are only indirectly related to my research interests, but still.

The first is Godden & Baddeley’s experiment on how the context of memorization and recalling influences the success of recalling. The experiment participants were divers who memorized words on land or underwater, and then recalled them either in the same environment, or in the other. It turned out that when they learned the words underwater, they recalled them better underwater, and vice versa. What I love about this study in the unusual research method.

My other favourite study is by Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria, about optical illusions in residents of Uzbekistan. Luria assumed that optico-geometrical illusions that we experience are related to the fact that we live in a ‘rectangular space’, and people who live in round houses (such as residents of an Uzbek village) will not respond to such illusions. He went on an expedition, showed the illusions to the residents of this village, and really discovered that they respond as though they do not experience any illusions. He even sent a telegram to his colleague: ‘Uzbeks have no illusions’.

Actually, this study is often criticized. Most probably, the respondents experienced an ‘assumed requirements’ error and thought that the scholar wanted to cheat them, so they talked not about what they were seeing, but about what was actually in the image. I like this story because it emphasizes the importance of taking all aspects into account when planning experiments.

Please name three works (books, articles — domestic or foreign) that you consider to be fundamental in your field.

Alan Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity; Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things; and James Gibson’s The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.

Do you read (watch, listen to) any popular science resources or publications? If so, which ones?

Asya Kazantseva’s books, The Vert Dider group, The Neurochai podcast. I also have my own group, Cognitive Partymaker, which is more about humour than about popular science.

What is the most unusual format for presenting the results of a study (presentation, story about it) that you have come across?

I like the format of Science Battles – when researchers (usually younger ones) talk about their research in popular form.

What advice would you give to students right now who are contemplating an academic career in your field?

I would recommend that they find the topic they are interested in and the researchers who are working on it. It is also useful to subscribe to different channels and mailouts with information about conferences and other events, in order to not miss anything.

IQ 

Author: Marina Selina, March 30