This has been a big year for Skoltech Professor and star crystallographer Artem Oganov – a year filled with everything from a flurry of prestigious awards to a broadly televised performance with one of Russia’s leading pop stars.
But one of his proudest professional achievements of the year was being named by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a member of the Presidential Council for Science and Education.
“The council is very important in Russia, and it is a big honor,” Oganov said during a recent interview.
He noted that for a man who had spent half his life building up an illustrious scientific career in the United States, Switzerland and the United Kingdom before returning to his native Russia three years ago, this presents a valuable opportunity to help bridge scientific gaps between Moscow and the West.
With 2018 fast approaching, we sat down with Oganov to reflect on his string of successes in 2017, as well as the pivotal moments that led him here.
The impact of crystallography
“I’m lucky that I have become a theoretical crystallographer,” Oganov said, describing his field – which focuses on the study of crystal structures and properties – as a science at the intersection between chemistry, physics, materials science, life sciences and planetary sciences.
“It links knowledge about the structure of materials and compounds with function and properties. So it’s a very multidisciplinary and very powerful branch of science,” he said.
As a researcher, Oganov is primarily interested in predicting new materials with superior properties that are able to meet a broad array of the rapidly evolving needs of industry and academia.
“My main research over the past decade has been the development of new methods for predicting crystal structures purely from theory. This has led to the development of new computational techniques for predicting new materials,” he said. “Right now, in many cases we can predict the chemical composition and crystal structure of a material with the best properties for a given set of needs.”
A side effect of his work has been a series of pioneering discoveries related to the chemistry of extreme conditions. “It turns out that under high pressure and also in nanodimensional materials, new compounds which should not exist according to classical chemistry become stable. These compounds can have very interesting properties, and their existence and stability can have very interesting implications for the whole spectrum of science,” he said.
In particular, his method was used by a group of Chinese scientists to predict a new compound – the chemical formula H3S – which currently holds the record as the highest-temperature superconductor. After having been theoretically predicted using Oganov’s methodology, this discovery was proven via experiments conducted by a team of Russian and German researchers.
Superconductivity – the state of transmitting energy without dissipation – remains shrouded in mystery. Traditionally, materials that are capable of superconducting – superconductors – have been known to do so only at extremely low temperatures – a few degrees Kelvin above absolute zero, which is -273° C.
Skoltech Physics Professor Boris Fine said on the sidelines of a recent superconductivity conference that this is an area of critical importance: “High-temperature superconductivity is one of the frontier subjects of physics and technology today, in part because of its potential applied importance; that is – the promise of the subject to eventually develop room-temperature superconductivity. If this happens, it will be a paradigm-changing technology.”
According to Oganov, his work on superconductivity is far from over. “We’re working on other superconductors, and we have predicted a number of very interesting new superconducting materials and other types of materials. We’re now collaborating with experimentalists to find them,” he said.
The way forward
Crystallography promises a wealth of practical applications that stand to alter our everyday lives in areas ranging from public transportation to energy.
“In many countries around the world, there is currently a big push for magnetic levitation trains,” he said. This technology relies on strong magnets and superconductors to levitate trains, reduce friction and thus bring about a quieter and much faster experience than that provided by conventional trains.
“The strong permanent magnets required for this technology are extremely expensive, and are typically based on rare earth elements, which are scarce, and mostly monopolized by China, which drives costs up further,” he said, explaining that many reserves are located in China, and that the country’s government has snapped up many rare earth reserves that are not located within its borders.
“So now people are trying to find a way out of this difficult situation and discover new, strong permanent magnets that don’t contain rare earth metals, and hopefully, we can help. We have already found several promising materials, but how far this will go toward meeting industrial needs – that is, discovering strong permanent magnets that are affordable enough to be used in thousands of kilometers’ worth of train tracks – that remains to be seen,” he said.
In addition, his team is working with Russian oil giant Gazprom Neft to discover new superhard materials for use in drilling technology for oil extraction.
He is also researching thermoelectric materials, which can be used to convert heat into electricity, an area Oganov explained could have far-reaching impacts. “For example, you could wear a watch that wouldn’t need batteries to charge; rather, it would absorb heat from your body and convert that into electricity. Also, campers could use the heat from a campfire to charge their cellphones,” he said.
From East to West and back again
After having completed his undergraduate studies in Crystallography at Moscow State University, Oganov moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1990s to pursue a PhD at the University College of London. From there, he went on to earn a habilitation degree, which is comparable to a Doctor of Science degree, from ETH Zurich in Switzerland, before moving to the United States, where at the age of 35 he became the youngest full professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
“I lived more than 16 years abroad. I was really happy there. I really enjoyed every country I lived in and had lots of friends there. My career progressed very rapidly and I was very successful. The West treated me kindly,” he said.
But his sense of belonging in Russia never faded, and in 2014, he decided it was time to return. “I’m very happy with my decision to come back to Russia. I was motivated by a few different factors. In Russia I was offered some very interesting opportunities for my research, but beyond that, I wanted to return to my roots and see more of my family that was still living here,” he said. He also wanted his children – of which he has three already and a fourth due in 2018 – to receive their educations in the country where he had received his.
Reflecting on his professional experiences, Oganov believes that scientists living and working abroad have incredible potential to serve as diplomats during periods of international political tension.
“I think scientific cooperation, and the opportunity to live and work abroad, really is one of the great hopes for the world. Scientists from Russia who have lived in the United States or Europe and then returned to Russia have good things to say about American and European people. They also have the opportunity to change any negative stereotypes that might exist in the West about Russian people,” he said.
The greatest honor of 2017
Over the past year, Oganov hasn’t managed to make it through a month without earning a new award or achieving an important career milestone.
During the fall term alone, he: became a member of Academia Europea, an elite pan-European academy of sciences; won the Russian-American Science Association’s George Gamow Prize in honor of his seminal work on crystal structure prediction; and became the youngest recipient of the Concord prize in its history. The latter is granted by the Union of Russian Armenians in collaboration with the Government of Russia and the Russian Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations.
But the year’s most significant professional highlight caught him completely off guard. “I received a call in November telling me that I had been given the great honor of being named to the Russian Presidential Council for Science and Education. I do not know how this came about. I was very surprised; I did not expect this,” he said.
In the months preceding his appointment to the council, Oganov had two unexpected encounters with the president.
“First, I was teaching a lesson for children in Yaroslavl on the first day of school, 1 September, and President Putin surprised us with a visit. He came into the classroom and asked me and the school children several scientific questions,” said Oganov.
They met again several weeks later, following the opening ceremony of the World Festival of Youth and Students in Sochi.
During the ceremony, Oganov had delivered a monologue about the beauty of science while Russian pop icon Dima Bilan performed a song on stage.
Afterward, the professor was invited to join a small group discussion with the president.
“He decided to meet with several people who had participated in the opening ceremony,” said Oganov. “The unifying theme was how we had all found ourselves – discovered who we are, and what our places are in the world – and how we have all contributed to changing the world.”
The full exchange was captured on the Kremlin’s official website, and can be viewed and read here.
It was about a month after that meeting that he was invited to join the Council.
As a member of the council, Oganov looks forward to helping rebuild Russian science, which was dealt a daunting blow in the 1990s as scientific research lost a great deal of funding following the end of the Soviet era.
“Russian science was almost dead in the 1990s because many scientists moved to the West due to underfunding, and because our country was enduring a very deep societal crisis at the time. Society and Science have both been rebuilt significantly since then, but in the context of the rebuilding process, we have many choices ahead of us. And depending on what we choose, things can go right or wrong, so I hope that with my knowledge and experience, I can help drive the system in the right direction.”
Beyond 2017, Oganov considers his appointment to the council to be one of the greatest honors he has ever received. “All of the council’s members – which include Russian Academy of Sciences President Alexander Sergeyev and Moscow State University Rector Viktor Sadovichniy, among others – have made contributions to science and to Russia. For me, it is a great honor to be among them. I have had many honors in my life, but this is one of the greatest thus far,” he said.
He added that he believes the professional and academic diversity of the council’s members are a key strength: “All of these people want Russian science and education to be the best. I think each one of us is part of the bigger picture because of our particular experience, and together we can form a very complementary and powerful vision of what should be done.”