‘I Thought I’d Become Successful More Quickly in Russia’

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How young scientists can get published in high-profile journals

How can young scientists get published in high-profile journals, should they return to Russia from abroad and what are the differing approaches towards nurturing young scientists in different countries? Indicator.ru talked to Denis Chusov, a young scientist, the head of the Russian Science Foundation (RSF) grant, who co-authored a number of publications in several high-profile international science journals, including Angewandte Chemie International Edition (IF11.7), ACS Catalysis (IF9.3) and Chemical Communications (IF 6.5).

Denis Chusov is the current head of the effective catalysis group at the Nesmeyanov Institute of Organoelement Compounds of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He graduated from the Moscow Chemical Lyceum, then the Higher Chemical College of the Russian Academy of Sciences and finished his postgraduate studies at the Nesmeyanov Institute of Organoelement Compounds of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Upon completing his studies, he worked in France alongside Professor Henri B. Kagan, teamed up with Michael Norton in the UK and with Benjamin List in Germany. And then Denis returned home to Russia.

What are you working on here with the RSF grant?

We are responsible for our planet, so we can’t just bury or burn industrial waste, we need find a way to utilise it. We are trying to discover some unique properties which could be useful. For instance, taking carbon monoxide (CO) and trying to turn it into something beautiful, something useful. We want to launch CO-based processes which would facilitate the manufacturing of sought-after substances (pharmaceuticals). That’s just one of the projects our team is working on.

Imagine that 20 people are shoved into a small car. Not very nice, is it? Everyone feels very cramped in there. So they might all tap into some inner strength to find a way out of there, thus showing everyone something amazing. We have discovered a method of creating structures in which a nitrogen atom is shoved in this very tiny car with a throng of other nitrogen atoms surrounding it. And it displays some unique properties: it wants to react with something, but can't find anything to react with, which creates new opportunities for the molecule.

It sounds like a novel idea, using hazardous waste to create something useful. So no one has attempted it before? Are there similar projects? Competitors?

Lots of people are trying to make something out of rubbish, for example, recycling plastic is quite popular. There are mountains of waste, which we need to use somehow. If we’re talking about CO, it’s just burned, and the oxygen is wasted. The same happens in factories: they burn it and take oxygen from air. Seeing as how the figure is measured in billions of tonnes, the amount of wasted oxygen is quite considerable. Carbon monoxide can be used for several reactions, but I’ve yet to see anyone besides us trying to use it for the same applications as we are.

"We are responsible for our planet, so we can’t just bury or burn industrial waste, we need find a way to utilise it"

Could you explain how carbon monoxide is turned into something useful?

I can try. So what do they usually do? Burn it. Burning (which is essentially rapid oxidation) is a process that everyone knows about: we do it with every breath we take. If a product can be oxidized, it means that it can be used in reduction, i.e. it can remove oxygen from somewhere. This is the property we decided to utilise. We wanted not to reduce the oxygen in the air around us, but in molecules of our choice. This gives us new compound classes, new classes of molecules.

How far through this project are you? Is this just a theory or are there real-world applications?

We have a theory, which has been formulated and proven. But we understand our strong suits and our weaknesses. We are capable of manufacturing certain pharmaceuticals more easily than before; we already have several patents. But we understand perfectly well that, at this point, no metallurgical works will change their production process to utilise its waste.

Apart from applications, are there any other difficulties?

Generally speaking, people with a RSF grant have somewhat easier lives. What are the major hurdles in the world of science? Partly financing, partly human resources. Recipients of this grant don’t face the issue of finance. We’ve managed to procure all of the hardware and chemicals that we need. But now we have more proven ideas than people to implement them. I’d say this is the most pressing issue we have: a lack of human resources, young men and women who are ready to do their best to “change textbooks.”

What are your latest publications in major international journals?

It’s a funny thing. Turns out that it was easier to get published in the highest-profile internationals, such as Organic Letters (IF 6.7) and Organometallics (IF4.1) (the most read and quoted periodicals on organic and organometallic chemistry), than in mid-level journals. Our articles have already been printed in those journals, but they still haven’t in the other ones. One of the latest articles was published by Organic Letters.

Waste at the sorting plant in Chita, Siberia

Is it easier to publish an article in a respected journal while working abroad? Or is it about the person, not about the country?

It’s easier to do in places with similar-minded people: those who are engaged in cutting-edge science, not lounging around and complaining about everything. So it’s definitely not about the country. Everywhere has its good and bad sides. It’s not even about the university. It’s all about the labs, which set the tone and tempo. You can make it big on your own, but it’s getting harder to do it. You need a team of like-minded people to discuss ideas, reject the bad ones, and streamline the workflow.

Looking at the statistics, it would seem that it’s easier abroad. But every scientist is an individual. The American model is based on advertisement. You take one scientist, a self-made man and presume than anyone can do the same. In reality, the majority, no, the overwhelming majority are left in the dust. If you took even one minute to talk about each of them, it would take you years.

When did you leave Russia and why did you decide to come back?

I left in 2009, right after defending my doctoral thesis. The choice to come back was a result of several factors. Partly, I thought I’d become successful more quickly in Russia. It’s hard to get into a top university abroad and I have no intention of working at a mediocre one. They don’t really nurture scientists abroad, they select the best and hope that at least two out of ten will produce tangible results. In essence, they are used to buying a cat in a bag and turning it into Schrödinger's cat.

I realised that it’s better to be the one to nurture scientists. First of all, you get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made someone better, more educated. Secondly, there’s a unique system in Moscow, the Moscow Chemical Lyceum – Higher Chemical College of the Russian Academy of Sciences graduate studies. School kids are assigned to work for a day in a functioning part of the Research Institute. Higher Chemical College students are given the same opportunity starting in their first year. So high school students, undergrads and postgrads can work on major science projects. They’re not abandoned, they’re nurtured and are offered a chance to conduct actual scientific research. By the time they need to defend their thesis they are four years ahead of their peers, so they earn their titles faster. That’s why the average age in my science group is 19.

Authors: Yana Komarova, Alyona Manuzina