ISP – Independent Studies Period, 2019

Introduction

This year’s ISP program culminated in a diverse, eclectic selection of intensive courses and workshops of extremely varied topics; it included quantum hacking, pilot school, hardcore virtual reality marathon, express writing and many others. We conducted interviews with three specialists and course organizers: Professor Inna Lavrik (Programmed Cell Death), Assistant Professor Stass Shpanin (Science in Contemporary Art), and Yosef Shavit (From Idea to Startup).

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Programmed Cell Death – Prof. Inna Lavrik

For many people, the term, “programmed cell death,” remains unknown. It is one of many that is known among specialists as “apoptosis.” Yet during an interview, Professor Inna Lavrik of Otto-von-Guericke-Universitat Magdeburg, Germany, made the topic relatively easy to understand by explaining what its potential uses are in treating a multitude of illnesses. Such is Professor Lavrik’s prominence in this field that the European Cell Death Organization recently elected her as General Secretary.

How did you decide to teach during the ISP?

“I love teaching because I enjoy working with students; they inspire you to think and discover things about your subject while presenting. I find teaching a fascinating subject and I had heard that the Skoltech students are among the best in the world.”

What influenced your choice of course topics?

“I work in cell death, which is a very important subject. Since starting this interview, 1 million of our cells have died. This is a good thing because all of our cells have to die; in order for us to live long and healthy lives, our cells use apoptosis (programmed cell death) to get rid of damaged cells. This is what I am working on right now. I enjoy talking about my topic and getting feedback from the students. I am an expert in my field, and I have certain responsibilities in the programmed cell death community. For instance, in October I was elected to be the General Secretary of the European Cell Death Organization and that is a big honor.”

Who had the most significant impact on your professional growth in this area?

“Within the cell death community, a couple of people really influenced me. One is the supervisor for my first postdoc in apoptosis field, Professor Krammer, who discovered a key death receptor, CD-95 or FAS, something for which I think he should get the Nobel Prize. He made the discovery around 1991 and he contributed a lot to my education as a scientist. He is one of the straightforward scientists that always tells you what he thinks; these kinds of people do not think about whether you like it or not, they just criticize your experiment and either you build on that or not. I was also educated at Moscow State University at the Dept. of Chemistry. I think this is the best education to have for entering any of the biological sciences, because you have a chemical background and you get the biochemical background from understanding the processes. I was at the Department of Chemistry of Natural Compounds and my professor was Olga Dontsova, who is now affiliated with Skoltech. She has developed a brilliant school of scientists and even though I am not working on my original PhD topic, which used to be ribosomes, I am still very grateful to her for the scientific inspiration.”

Which of your achievements in this area do you consider most important?

“I have contributed to death receptor research because I was working as a postdoc with Prof. Peter Krammer, and was inspired by this subject and by the different topics that you can address in the context of death receptors. I have made several important contributions, but what the community loves me for and thinks that I am a pioneer in is that I was within the first group of scientists to create the idea of doing computational models of apoptosis (programmed cell death). We have created these pioneering models in cell death meaning that we take a signaling pathway and we take a computational model, we build a mathematical model of this pathway and then we attempt to predict life and death decisions based on the predictions of the model; this is supported by the experiments. This field was born 15 years ago and our model was one of the first ones.”

What qualities / skills do you consider decisive for a professional, scientist and innovator?

“Try to think independently, isolate yourself from the crowd and try to find your niche. This is a very important decision that defines your success.”

How do you see a student who has successfully completed your course: what skills and knowledge has he/she acquired?

“Understanding programmed cell death and its link to many diseases is key. All diseases can be classified as either too much apoptosis or too little. For instance, too little apoptosis is a feature of cancer and too much is Alzheimer’s disease or other neuro-degenerative disorders, which is the point I try to make clear during my course. I hope the students see that understanding apoptosis is key to understanding cell signaling and diseases.”

Do you already have ideas for the course’s further development?

“There may be several new developments. For instance, adding computational biology and trying to see how to do so using computers.”

What would you advise a Skoltech student on how to organize their work effectively, what to learn and what to prepare for?

“I think they should have some basic knowledge of cell biology, and biochemistry and signal transduction.”

 

Image: Professor Inna Lavrik

Image: Professor Inna Lavrik

 

Science and Contemporary Art – Assistant Professor Stass Shpanin

Professor Shpanin’s course represents a crossover between art and science & technology. The aim is to teach science and engineering students contemporary art history, innovative ideas in the arts, and arts and sciences collaboration.

How did you decide to teach during the ISP?

“I live and teach in the United States at Rutgers University, New Jersey. While doing a project for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I met a group of Skoltech students there who expressed interest in helping me with the technical side of the project. Although they were scientists, they were interested in the arts and they introduced me to the Skoltech team. I ended up teaching a full credited course in which students could use their knowledge in science to make art.”

What influenced your choice of course topics?

“Since our students are from different science and technology fields, I have tried to find topics that would be interesting for all of them and would create a platform to help them work on their projects. This class is divided into three parts: First, there is the lecture part, where we talk about different artists who work with science and technology and explore different themes related to the topic. Students are then given an assignment to work on for an hour and a half in class, and in the end we discuss their work. Students try to come up with their own ideas to interpret the work, referencing the artists that we discussed in class. This course is not about learning how to paint or draw. What they are really learning is how to think, how to come up with new ideas, how to sell their idea, how to communicate, and how to represent their ideas visually. That is why this course is beneficial for the students and this year we had many participants.”

Who had the most significant impact on your professional growth in this area?

“If we are talking about science art, Stelarc is definitely one of the figures. For example, he grew an ear on his arm and wanted to connect it to his brain to use for hearing. He also built a second hand that he could control using muscle movements.”

Which of your achievements in this area do you consider most important?

“I have curated exhibitions of works by big artists in this field and have found new ways to interpret their work.”

How much time was devoted to preparing lectures/seminars/tests/assignments, and how did you choose the course format?

“What specific time should I count? In terms of dividing the class time, I knew that I wanted to give them a certain amount of theory and historical knowledge about the development of science art. I also wanted to give them a chance to play with these ideas, because it is very interesting to get hands on experience and not just be a theorist. This is particularly relevant to Skoltech students, who I think are more about practice rather than theory.”

What qualities/skills do you consider decisive for a scientist and innovator?

“Curiosity along with thinking outside the box and trying to find solutions. The way our class works is that they come up with ideas and I tell them to develop them further. It’s important to go beyond the first idea and be able to say, “Okay, maybe my first idea wasn’t so good, maybe I can do better.” That is a very important factor in being an innovator.”

How do you see a student who has successfully completed your course: what skills and knowledge has he/she acquired?

“Apart from having a basic knowledge of art history, they would also know the scientific ideas used in contemporary art. Ideally, they will have learned how to come up with ideas quickly and how to present and sell them.”

Do you already have ideas for the course’s further development?

“I have changed some of the material, but most of the current material works. I am not saying that I will never change it, but the course structure works. I do change or add some topics; such as when a certain artist completes an important work, I add it to the content.”

What would you advise a Skoltech student on how to organize their work effectively, what to learn and what to prepare for?

“Doing some background reading is good preparation for this course. For example, today I was amazed when one of my students approached me and said that he had read more about a particular artist I had been discussing; he then pointed out that I hadn’t mentioned two particular details during the lecture. I was impressed by the fact that he cared about the subject and had taken the time to learn more about the artist in his own time. That comes back to curiosity. Be curious, be prepared, and be humble – as in don’t think that you know everything. That last point is particularly important for my course. Art often refers to something that happened in the past and if you don’t know the references, then you don’t understand the context. A student should take his/her time to understand the context; it’s okay to disagree, not to like something, and to question some of the theories. Take your time, be humble and be curious.”

 

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Image: Associate Professor Stass Shpanin with students

 

From Idea to Start-Up – Yosef Shavit (External Instructor, CEO of Inno-Negev Technology Accelerator (Israel), Director of the Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation)

Yosef Shavit’s course focuses on the preliminary phases of venture development. It tackles the problems facing innovators and why many ideas and technological ventures never reach their full business potential. The reasons for these obstacles vary and often include a lack of practical knowledge and the managerial tools required during the preliminary stages. This course aims to rectify these issues for future innovators.

How did you decide to teach during the ISP?

“I give lectures and courses all over the world, but I particularly like Russia. I believe that Russia is at an important stage right now in that it is facing several challenges that create many opportunities. Among these opportunities is the promotion of entrepreneurship and innovation as part of engineering education in academia. I believe that innovation and entrepreneurship play a very important role in the future career of engineers. Promoting entrepreneurship is something we have been doing in Israel for a long time; that is why my country is known as a start-up nation. It’s globally recognized that engineers who are innovators and know how to commercialize ideas are better at their profession. For this reason, among others, I enjoy working with Skoltech.”

What influenced your choice of course topics?

“I’ve been giving this course for the last ten years. Of course, I have made several changes over the years, adapting it for each iteration, including this course at Skoltech. The idea is to help engineers understand how to commercialize ideas; by this, I mean how to come up with an idea and carry it through all the stages until they can present it to an investor. This gives them many useful tools for their career. If they want to become CTOs of future startups, they need to know the financial aspects of commercialization, how to come up with an R&D plan, how to pitch in front of investors, how to conduct market research, and how to make a startup scalable.”

What had the most significant impact on your professional growth in this area?

“One of the biggest influences on me was a course I took fifteen years ago about entrepreneurship. It was very theoretical, but we had to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan about a wool/yarn production line in Moldova. At the same time I was working in a big hospital in Israel with my future laid out ahead of me; I was sure I was going to become a manager at the hospital. I decided, based on this business plan, to establish my first business instead, and based on the success of the first business I have started five different businesses since then. All of that led me to understand that entrepreneurship can be taught. I think that students and teachers can learn tools that will help them start their own business later on in their careers.”

Which of your achievements in this area do you consider most important?

“One of the most recent achievements was starting our acceleration program at Ben-Gurion University. This academic acceleration program focuses mainly on researchers and students. We teach them that their research is much more than an article that they can publish in a journal; they can turn their research into a commercialized startup. In other words, we make researchers into entrepreneurs. This acceleration program has had a lot of success and other academic institutions around the world have taken this concept and implemented it with certain cultural differences. I hope we can implement something similar at Skoltech.”

How did you choose the course format?

“Professor Alexei Nikolayev and I decided to make it an intense week-and-a-half-long course. Every day, the students have hands-on experiences in every topic that we teach, from ideation to market research, financial aspects and much more. They come up with their own ideas and they develop them during the course. I don’t believe in exams for entrepreneurship education; hands-on experience is much more effective – learning by doing. Because of this, the students’ grade is based on their pitch, prototype and business plan that they submit at the end of the course. Furthermore, this course is a great opportunity for a multi-disciplinary experience. The students come from different departments and different backgrounds. They come up with their own ideas and learn how to develop it together; each has his or her own strengths and areas of expertise, helping each other grow in the process.”

What qualities/skills do you consider decisive for a scientist, entrepreneur and innovator?

“If you want to combine academic research, innovation and entrepreneurship, you should really believe in your idea, in yourself, and be prepared to work hard and leave all paradigms behind. You should get out of your comfort zone and put on your entrepreneur glasses, think about problems and opportunities, consider what the customer wants, etc. After all of this, the scientist aspect kicks in to come up with the technology that will create the best solution for the customer.”

How do you see a student who has successfully completed your course: what skills and knowledge has he/she acquired?

“Ideally, they believe that they can come up with their own idea, how to conduct market research and formulate a good strategy. Most importantly, I hope that they will understand that starting their own business is something they can achieve.”

Do you already have ideas for the course’s further development?

“Skoltech has the annual Innovation Workshop, a great program for the promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship among students. In addition to this, Skoltech has many courses led by great colleagues, among them Professor Dmitry Kulysh and Professor Alexei Nikolayev. My course is a new one and it is a pleasure to join the ranks of lecturers at Skoltech. The way I lead my center is based on the understanding that each student or researcher is in a different stage of entrepreneurship – exploration, ideation, team formation, investments etc. Our strategic plan includes programs and activities for all stages of entrepreneurship. I believe that there should be some kind of holistic strategic plan for Skoltech regarding the promotion of entrepreneurship and innovation as well. This strategic plan is in the process of being developed and I do believe that it will make a huge impact.”

What would you advise a Skoltech student on how to organize their work effectively, what to learn and what to prepare for?

“Being an employee in a big organization is a great career path as long as you didn’t choose this path simply as a fallback because you don’t know anything about entrepreneurship.  Skoltech gives students the opportunity to learn and explore entrepreneurship. I believe that all students should use this great opportunity Skoltech gives them to make sure that they’re making the right career decision when deciding to apply for a conventional job or launch their own business. After all, this decision will affect the rest of their lives.”

 

Image: Yosef Shavit

Image: Yosef Shavit

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