Russian Female Scientists Discuss Work and Gender Stereotypes

PHOTO by AndreyBezuglov / Depositphotos
We spoke with three women who work as scientists in four different Russian cities. They talked about their research and gender issues in science

Nastya Naumova, Quantum Chemist

Post-graduate student at MIPT and a Skolkovo PhD student

"I was trained as a chemist. I graduated from the University of Chemical Technology and then, by accident, I got into the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, or MIPT, and began to study quantum chemistry, which is at the intersection of chemistry, physics and materials science. Now I'm completely immersed in two projects, one at Skolkovo and the other at MIPT. One project is practical while the second is scientific. It would be difficult for me to work in science, dealing only with theoretical problems and isolated from reality. The practical project is devoted to the search for a new material for computer processors. We are looking for a material that will have better characteristics than those currently used. It will make devices even smaller.

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As for purely scientific stuff, this is very interesting to study but it's not applicable at the moment. For example, the study of planets and what's going on inside them: that's what I'm doing right now. I have a project on the chemistry of nitrogen-based compounds. Potentially, such compounds can be found inside Uranus and Neptune.

The choice of topics for study evolves. While you're a student, it's difficult: you lack experience, you feel insecure and your supervisor checks everything you do and gives you the smallest tasks, like "go and calculate." But then, becoming a post-graduate student, you start to understand all the details. Your supervisor only defines the project's outline.

I used to work at the Russian Academy of Sciences in its Institute of Organic Chemistry. I studied at the chemical lyceum and started practicing in the laboratory in tenth grade. Cones, test tubes; it was amazing. The laboratory frightened me at first because it looked like a Soviet wreck, but this fear passed very quickly and I managed to work in the laboratory for five years. During this time I went to America for an internship to see how science is done there.

However, I understood an unexpected plus of working in an old Soviet laboratory: you don't have everything that your heart desires. There’s a minimum set of equipment and a minimum set of substances, and with this minimum you need a result. In the States, everything was different. When I started to "cook" the substance I needed, my American colleagues looked at me like I was a madman. "Why are you doing this? You just need to order it and tomorrow you'll have it in the laboratory." Due to this, they were very relaxed and they weren't ready to handle unusual situations.

There weren't many women in the laboratories where I worked. In my first laboratory I was the only one out of about 14 people. Now I work at Artem Oganov laboratory and when I arrived there, I was the only one as well. Now there are three women out of about 30 people. It seems to me that it's not about physics, chemistry or mathematics. It's just that women have a different view of life than men. We are focused on results in the nearest future, so it's difficult for us to work for ephemeral purposes. For me, the main thing in life is family, not science. However, I don't think there is such a thing as female and male roles in this profession. This division for me is only within the family. It's not difficult for me to combine family and science at the moment. Let's see what happens next (Editor’s note - at the time of the interview, Naumova was nine months pregnant)."

Elena Kochanova, Hydrobiologist

Post-graduate student in the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a laboratory assistant at Syktyvkar State University

"My dad is an ornithologist and my mother is a microbiologist. Encyclopedias, studies and stories about the structure of the world surrounded my brother and me when we were growing up. I realised that I wanted to follow the path of my parents at school. It brings me a lot of joy. I don't know who else I could be.

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I study plankton and its behaviour, changes, adaptation and movement. Plankton has a lot of qualities. By the way, the fastest animal on the planet isn't the cheetah but the copepod crab. It can jump to a height ten times its own size in over a second.

There are also ‘feminist’ discoveries in the world of plankton. That's what I'm currently dealing with. There are such crustaceans that passed from sexual reproduction to parthenogenesis. This is when the female reproduces without the participation of males. This is a utopian community with females that sometimes reproduce males for the purpose of a genotype variety.

This situation with feminist crustaceans was first discovered in a lake in Finland 30 years ago by Finnish researcher Yoko Sarvala. The crustaceans' story is part of the adaptive process; it's about survival. Animals change under environmental influence. Daphnia, for example, grow huge spikes on their bodies to protect against predators. They soar in the water like little Lady Gagas. I'm doing research on such adaptive processes. I decode their DNA and see what mutations occur in their genes.

In Russia, there are a lot of women engaged in science. However, a scientist's salary doesn’t support a family, at least in the provincial state institutions. Men simply can't afford to go into science.

There are many examples of female scientists who made a vital choice in favour of science, abandoning the idea of having a family. They delight me. However, I also think that it's quite possible and very useful to have children and gain success in science simultaneously. Children will distract from work, of course, but they can't interfere with the development of what inspires you. After all, the family is about support. A thesis often starts with words of gratitude to husbands and wives. It's wonderful! "

Victoria Dolgikh, Psychologist

Candidate of biological sciences at the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg

"I'm a neuroscientist-psychologist, so I’m an interdisciplinary specialist. The psyche is based on physiological processes, so you can't separate the two. My parents are doctors and they used to work at the same hospital. When I was a child, I remember how they discussed diagnoses, medications and the like at home. Later, when I was growing up, my father fell ill. Doctors are always the most sick. It was a neurological disease. I was young, I was looking for ways of treatment and no one could even get the diagnosis correct.

Later, I entered the Department of Psychology at St. Petersburg State University in the sub-department of psychophysiology. In April, I will be defending my dissertation. My scientific work is related to Parkinson's disease and stem cells; it's closer to neurobiology.

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After obtaining a degree, I hope to develop my own theory. I study the foundations of thinking, which is what is formed in sets of neural connections during the learning experience and what we rely on. Sometimes it hinders us very much.

For example, a girl came to see me for counselling about her "path of embarrassment." Once at school while performing a song, a boy she liked entered the classroom. She was embarrassed and stopped singing right away. A fear of action in the presence of a significant person was in her head, a very unpleasant foundation. And there are so many such foundations, and they can interfere significantly.

There are no gender stereotypes in my field of science. As scientists engaged in the study of brains, we understand that male and female intellects are the same. The only thing is that women are more often distracted by children and family. I have a husband and two sons. I'm very proud of them and they support me, although it's difficult to combine work and them, of course. The youngest is only a year and eight months old. I couldn't manage without help. Fortunately, my husband is very supportive. "