St. Petersburg and what I learned there

I last blogged about visiting Leuven for OSA to talk about networking in a workshop on career development for PhD students. I picked up some great career tips there.

The very next day after the Leuven workshop, I flew to St. Petersburg to participate in an Optics Seminar and a Women in Photonics event for IEEE Photonics Society at ITMO University, organised by Anna Voznesenskaya (Dean of Laser and light dept., ITMO University).

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IEEE Women in Photonics Session at ITMO University, St. Petersburg

This was my first visit to Russia (a country that I have long been fascinated with) so I was excited beyond belief.

My expectations were exceeded and my thinking challenged!

For a first the number of women in Photonics (and Science, Engineering etc.) at ITMO (and the Russia Federation) seems to be far larger compared to many other countries. I met women who were Heads of Department, Deans, Vice Deans in the technical departments in the university and tech businesses.

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Working hard: Presentation skills workshop

The morning half of the programme saw a workshop on presentation skills by the foreign languages department, headed by Yulia Ryabukhina. This was a brilliant interactive and fun workshop and we focussed on communicating science to non-experts. Working in small groups we all had to make presentations on photonics!

The afternoon session focused on career paths of 4 women from STEM. We had Prof. Irina Livshits who is a legend in the field of optical design talking about her work and career. We had a younger professional, Natalya Demkovich (Head of dept., Bee Pitron SP Ltd.) talk about her transition from student to young professional and head of a department and some of the challenges on the way. We had an excellent talk

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Conclusion of the workshop

from Natalia Bystriantseva on her experience of working on light design for the built environment and the importance of doing work which agrees with one’s own intellectual philosophy and principles. Her thoughts on how design centred around human beings leads to happier and better used built spaces really resonated with me and it is something I want to learn more about.

Following the talks, we had breakout groups to come up with points on mentoring, networking, volunteering etc. One thing that made sense was that E&D aside, students and young professionals all can benefit from professional development and skills training.

That aside, these ladies rocked!

Honestly, they were the most effortlessly confident, smart and intelligent women I have seen. The idea that they could be discriminated or would be didn’t seem to occur to them and their professional stature seems to reflect that.

So: why is Russia more equitable for women in STEM?

I think that needs more probing and I feel we could definitely learn from our colleagues in Russia. Demographically there are more women than men there- which would help. An outcome of Soviet times as well perhaps? But there has to be more: and I really want to explore it.

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Having a blast at the holography museum with Prof. Irina 

Apart from the workshop I was given such fantastic hospitality and warmth by Anna, Irina etc. I had lovely Georgian food, I was show Irina’s labs and the holography museum where we had tremendous fun! I visited the world famous Hermitage museum and the Church on Spilled Blood, the Russian Museum….

I found every aspect of life here fascinating. I ate caviar on my toast!! I had vodka for breakfast!!! I found St. Petersburg to be huge: buildings were sprawling and compared to London it felt like everything was magnified in size at least 10 times. I had the great pleasure of seeing some of the works of the master, Wasilly Kandinsky – what a treat that was.

Language was a barrier and I wish I had brushed up my Greek let

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Blinis with salmon and red caviar

ters to read signs better and made more effort to learn Russian phrases to communicate more with people. I found people to be a bit shy, but very warm and helpful when I approached them in spite of the language issue. Though after living in London I realised I had gotten so used to the multicultural nature of the city, seeing almost no people of colour in St. Petersburg was a bit weird for me. Not to say it is not multicultural: there are people and the way of life (food etc) from the various republics that form the Russian Federation.

Above left a picture of the Palace Square with the Hermitage (Winter Palace in the background); right: Inside the Hermitage at the private chapel of the Tsars!

All it amounts to is that I need to go back for some thorough research into:

  • How is there better equality for women in science
  • Learn from Irina about optical design
  • Explore St. Petersburg and other cities
  • Get myself a Faberge egg replica and a Palek box that I missed out on this time

 

 

 

 

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