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MEPhI graduate talks about his teaching experience as a professor at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences

09.10.2019

If you love science, you should love experiments, and not only in a laboratory but also in a career. MEPhI graduate Boris Balakin left  a prestigious job and moved to another country to become a scientist. Now, he is a professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Bergen.

— Why did you choose MEPhI and nuclear physics?

— In 2000, I came from a small town to enter a University in the capital having a gold medal. I was admitted to the National University of Oil and Gas by the results of centralized testing, the forerunner of the Unified State Exam, but I thought: since I'm in Moscow, I'll try to enter at least one more university. My father, a physics teacher, recommended MEPhI. I was accepted there too. I decided that the level of MEPhI is much higher, and preferred it.

— With the benefit of your experience, how do you assess the knowledge that MEPhI gave you?

— Good fundamental base that is at the world level. A student needs to digest a huge amount of information, but it is conveniently structured. From the first year you learn to plan your time, lecturers help a lot.

Some say that MEPhI’s alumni do not have enough practice. But the one who wants will receive experience. Students have the opportunity to go to practice at a nuclear center or nuclear power plant – just take the initiative.

The intension of a program has both pros and cons. It is difficult to stay at the University studying at full capacity. At some point it seems impossible to learn everything. Students start looking for ways to cheat the system and stop learning. It’s like in a joke. Students are asked: "How long does it take to prepare for the Chinese exam?" The freshman answers: "A year". The third-year student is interested: "Are there any cheat sheets? Then a couple of weeks are enough." Fifth-year student answers: "Are there 15 minutes and a guideline? Well, now I will finish smoking and pass it".

— Tell us about your work in Russia.

— As a student, I worked part-time in the design bureau "Promengineering". I took part in the development of a radiation monitoring system designed for the first phase of India's Kudankulam nuclear power plant, it has now been commissioned. It's nice to know that this project has my input.

Right after graduation, I got a job at Techsnabexport. There I mostly worked with documents. A year later I realized that was not for me: I wanted to be in science. And I am very glad that I made such a decision, I feel that I found myself.

— Did you purposefully go to graduate school abroad?

— I was looking for a postgraduate study in my field of interest. At MEPhI I wrote a diploma in multiphase flows. It can be explained through the example of the nuclear industry. There is a two-phase flow in the steam generator of nuclear power plants: gas bubbles in the liquid.

Also my choice was influenced by the financial aspect. In Europe, postgraduate school is considered as the first stage of an academic career, it is work, not just study, postgraduate students are paid a full salary. Universities publish on their websites vacancies for postgraduate students as well. A group working on my subject in Bergen announced a vacant position. I sent a resume, diploma, filled out a form. Documents of all candidates were considered by the independent commission, which selected three persons. The next stage was a Skype interview. I was taken.

— What was the most challenging when you were settling down to Norway? Was it language?

— It's easy to learn the language. When you are surrounded by native speakers, you quickly start to speak freely. But this is not enough to delve into the intricacies of communication. Scandinavians have their own view of the world, there are features of communication. For example, in Norway it is not accepted to refuse directly – it is difficult to recognize  the veiled "no".

— Is the approach to research different?

— No. It's all exactly the same.

— Should European postgraduate students attend classes at the University?

— There is a compulsory course on ethics in scientific research. Plus there are two courses to choose from, and they can even be from master's programm.

— How is the academic career in Europe built?

— Postgraduate students are usually taken in projects designed for three or four years. If during this time you do not have time to defend your thesis, there is a choice: to find a job in some company and finish the thesis or to remain at the university until you finish the thesis, but without a salary.

Thesis defense is followed by postdoctoral training. Again a researcher is looking for a project. A scientist in Europe rarely works for a long time in one University – everyone moves to a suitable place. But I was lucky: a vacancy of post-doctoral research fellowship just appeared in my university, I passed the competition. At the postdoctoral stage it is necessary to declare yourself, to become a famous person in the scientific world: to publish, to speak at conferences. And then, if you're lucky, you can get a professorship.

— How does the European scientific community treat the Russians?

— They like Russians for a good education and hard work.

— Are there any other Russian scientists in your group?

— Now no, but just five years ago 60 % of the group were Russian.

— Where did they go?

— Two of returned to Russia: one works in IT, the other is a big boss at the alcohol factory. The rest are in local companies.

— What are you working on?

— I continue to deal with multiphase flows. The first studies were mainly in the oil field: how plugs are formed in pipelines, how pipelines are clogged with sand, gas hydrates, salt deposits. Then I switched to nanofluids. We disperse nanoparticles of metals and other solid materials in liquids. Such mixtures have very interesting thermal properties: they behave like liquid metals and can be used as heat carriers. At the same time, nanofluids are much easier and cheaper to manufacture, as well as less chemically reactive. We are looking at how nanofluids can be used in renewable energy. We have received a grant from the Russian Science Foundation for this work. We also make tentative attempts to theoretically work out the possibility of using nanofluids in auxiliary systems of nuclear power plants with VVER reactors.

— Does your group have projects with MEPhI?

— More than half of our projects are joint with MEPhI. We work a lot on renewable energy, thermal physics. We want to launch research for the oil and gas industries. Norway has a good experience of oil production in the North seas, and Russia is just preparing to develop this area.

— Did you think over to return to Russia?

— Yes, but now I have an aim to take a large Norwegian grant. I will not rest until I do it (laughs).

— What do you advise students who want to make a career in science?

— It is necessary to try as soon as possible. This work is not for everyone, you may not like it. In MEPhI there are many ways do science even in the first year of study. You need to ask for research groups – there is always work for students. Even if you is offered to wash the test tubes first or, say, feed the rats – do not be afraid, this is a chance to join the real research work.

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