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From theory to practice: how knowledge turns into projects (July 2018)

Recently, Russian and foreign students and schoolchildren have received a genuinely unique opportunity to get an internship at the world’s best laboratories and scientific groups. Top scientists and researchers are ready to engage them in their work on real projects; to provide an access to the cutting-edge technology and equipment, as well as advise them in the course of the fulfilment of a task. The prospective trainee should be well-versed in the internship’ subject; but the key factors are his desire and motivation.

This summer, several Russian students studying at foreign schools and universities have already gone through such an internship. Some of them were working in the leading Russian Computing Center, SRCC MSU, where Russia’s most powerful supercomputers - "Lomonosov" and "Lomonosov-2” are located. Others were accepted to The Russian Academy of Sciences, in particular, to the Institute of General Genetics, home of the most in-demand human genome research.

Journalist Elena Koptelova has interviewed the leaders of the above-mentioned scientific centers, hosting the internship, and discussed the latter’s progress; which students could enroll, and the benefits they, as well as the scientists, could get from this experience.

Vladimir Voevodin, a professor and a corresponding member of The Russian Academy of Sciences, Deputy Director of the Scientific Research computing center of MSU (SRCC MSU):

- This year, we have accepted three people for the internship, one of whom is already studying at a UK university, while two others are going to enter one of the top UK and US universities. All of them came to us through “Albion”, our partner in this field. We’ve had no pre-selection process, as such. As expected, the students we’ve met were well prepared and highly motivated. For each trainee, we tried to find a task, which would match his wishes, capabilities, and professional interests. They’ve received, ahead of time, a list of subjects with a detailed task description, which helped them to choose what is best for them, and get some early preparation.

As a result, the girl who specializes in economics was given the task of calculating the cost of leasing the supercomputer "Lomonosov-2", which was quite difficult due to the complexity, scale and uniqueness of the equipment, as well as a huge number of special features to keep in mind. The boys had their own projects: one of them designed an application, capable of estimating and comparing the capacity of different mobile phones among themselves, as well as with the capacity of other computer devices. The other one was working out approaches for creating tools to work with the Internet encyclopedia of algorithms, in the manner of the well-known Wikipedia.

- As far as I know, it was the first experience of this kind. Are you satisfied with the result?

- To be brief, I definitely am. Although the internship takes only 4-5 weeks, it requires considerable efforts and expenses on our part; otherwise, you will get a poor result. In each case, we train and provide personal support. Therefore, this project can hardly become “mainstream”. However, the students who came to us from “Albion” this summer have left a very good impression on us: they were smart, motivated and very pleasant to work with, while the benefits were truly mutual. The interns get an invaluable experience, as they are involved in the existing projects. Each outcome of their activity always has a practical application. Moreover, it is used by our Supercomputing Center. This motivates the trainee and makes him focus and be very responsible, when doing his work. Meanwhile, for us, it provides a new critical perspective on what we are doing. While working on the tasks together with the students, we often spot certain pitfalls we’ve overlooked during our routine.

- Would such an internship be useful for high school students? Does their level of knowledge allow them to take part in serious work? Moreover, how justified are the required time and effort, in this case?

- I believe this is worth doing. At school, they mainly receive theoretical knowledge, but here they have an opportunity to try themselves in a particular field, - that of IT- in our case. They get into a real job rhythm, understand what they are doing and why, as well as feel the demands of living and working in a large enterprise. Finally, it becomes clear whether this is a profession for their future, or if it’s better to look for something else.

And, I can’t say that their level of knowledge is not high enough for a serious professional practice. The line between high school students and university freshmen is very thin. In theory, the latter should know more, but in practice, they often don’t. Again, the main thing is motivation. This year, we had two absolutely wonderful high school students, who were well aware that their knowledge was not enough to work in the computer technology field, but were eager to learn. What we should do is understand the desires and interests of the young man, and put everything together, to get a good result.

- And what do you think about the new combined format of full-time and long-distance practice for students during the school year?

- This is not a standard format, but it is worth a try, given the modern technologies, which help you to communicate remotely via the Internet. Even in this case, the supervisor and the trainee can be in close contact. However, face-to-face meetings are still necessary, to make the internship most effective. We are currently discussing this type of practice, as we must understand how to organize the process, so that the trainee would be able to combine his studies and the internship, effectively.

- The Russian school of programming is considered to be one of the best in the world. We could recall the periodically recurring stories about Russian hackers and cyber-attacks. Do you agree with this view? If so, what is the reason for this success? What is the difference between our training of programmers and the foreign one?

- I don’t have a definite answer. The Russian team did take the first place at the latest international competition in programming, and they had held the leading position before. However, it has nothing to do with "Russian hackers". In fact, the Russian school of programming is one of the best in the world, partially because we have a fantastic mathematical school, which is the fundamental foundation. Thus, using this, we can make up for what others are doing with the help of technology, more powerful computers, etc. Nowadays, the Russian supercomputers are not the most powerful ones in the world, but they are used for solving the same, complex tasks, thanks to mathematics and the algorithms.

We have top-notch schools of programming in Russia. It is enough to mention such names as A. P. Ershov, S. S. Lavrov, L. N. Korolev, V. P. Ivannikov, etc. who are the classics of Russian programming, and have cultivated more than one generation of instructors, who now teach at the leading Russian universities.

- Two of the most powerful supercomputers in Russia are at your disposal. What tasks do these machines fulfil and what else can they do?

- Let's start with the fact that everything related to supercomputers is a kind of mystery. It’s as if they exist somewhere, but no one has seen them, and it is unclear what they are for. These machines are indeed very large and powerful, and the prefix "super" is fully justified. Thus, the supercomputer of MSU “Lomonosov-2” occupies about 5 thousand square meters and has an extremely high productivity, equivalent to 50 thousand ordinary laptops connected together, and its weight and other parameters are very huge.

However strange it might seem, we use these ‘monsters’ almost everywhere. Looking out the window, it would be difficult to find a place where supercomputers are not used. Here is a pharmacy, where this machine creates the computer design of various meds; here is a travel agency - the planes and ships are designed on a supercomputer, as well. The same is true for auto and aerospace engineering. Any oil and gas company uses supercomputer calculations for seismic exploration, field prospecting, oil tank condition modeling, etc. In order to make a proper design for a mobile phone, in particular, in terms of the distribution of heat inside, the power of Lomonosov is needed. The weather forecast and climate change are also modeled, using a supercomputer. It’s remarkable that today you can calculate and predict almost anything, and our supercomputer is doing a little bit of everything. More than 2 thousand users are registered in the supercomputer complex of MSU, which is a kind of huge information plant, where each user is allocated his own power for a specific task.

- Can a student or a postgraduate, particularly from a foreign university, get remote access to perform tasks on a supercomputer?

- Yes, and they often do. All students of the faculty of computing mathematics and cybernetics of MSU are required to perform several practical tasks, using a supercomputer. The interns get this access, as well. I think that during the combined full-time and remote practice, the students will have tasks, which will help to understand the principles of this machine’s operation and feel its capabilities. The supercomputer aims to help someone in achieving the necessary result, sooner. It makes it possible to calculate faster, more precisely, in a more realistic setting, and therefore it lets you overtake others. It is an instrument, providing competitiveness, and should be used.

- As for the interns from abroad, are there special features in their training, compared to those who study at Russian schools and universities? And why should they come here to practice?

- I observe many of our students, so I am able to compare. As I’ve said, the "English" interns have left a very good impression on us; it is clear that they know the English language well. However, I would particularly note their commitment, desire to learn something new (which could be useful in the future), as well as their strong motivation and focus. They knew they had only 4 weeks to get the maximum result. Therefore, it was important to put together a proper schedule, to pin down the control points, and follow all of this, carefully. I think they’ve succeeded.

As for the location of their practice, in my opinion, they can hardly get such an experience abroad. I may be mistaken, but I do not know of any instances of interning students and freshmen at large foreign supercomputer centers. So, working on world-class machines and (without false modesty), in one of the best research groups in Russia, is a unique opportunity for the students.

Sergey Bruskin, Deputy Director of the Institute of General genetics of The Russian Academy of Sciences:

- So far, we have had students mainly from Russian universities like MSU, MFTI, the Timiryazev Academy, who were carrying out research within their diploma and laboratory work. This summer, we have accepted a student, who is studying in the UK. Anna has completed a bachelor's degree in Biomedicine at King's College London, and came to us for a 5-week internship. In the end, she has decided to stay for a few more weeks. I have noticed that the Russian students, who are studying abroad, are very ambitious and show more diligence in achieving their goals. They are getting a more specialized education, and they are able to choose the subjects they like, and therefore, are truly passionate about their specialty. Anna is mastering the methods of molecular cloning, and her task is to "extract" a gene from an organism and understand how to synthesize it, how to transfer it to another organism, and how to get the protein from it and use it further. These methods can be applied in such fields of science as genetics, molecular biology, immunology, oncology, etc. In particular, Anna clones the gene of the fluorescent protein of jellyfish, transfers it to viruses, infects human cells with it, and studies the molecular processes occurring in these cells. In fact, it is a “newbie’s training” in the field of genetic engineering and molecular cloning.

- Does such work have any practical benefit for you?

- We shouldn’t expect a practical result from a student or a schoolboy during a short period of an internship. Nevertheless, their work is carried out within the framework of existing projects, and they collect data, alongside the scientists. So, they do make some contributions. However, we shouldn’t forget that, above all, they take the internship in order to learn, and the benefit is seeing their eyes light up, and their efforts becoming fruitful.

- Are you ready to accept high school students for the internship? Do they need to have any special training?

- Yes, we are interested in enrolling high school students. It is a good chance for them to get an understanding of their future profession, to come and try it themselves, and then to decide what is interesting and how they can proceed with it.

We don’t have any special selection process, and special training is not required. However, the future intern should have the knowledge of biology, as well as some notion of the place of the future internship. After that, we determine what he will be doing. The program is individually designed.

Again, we shouldn’t expect the student to produce a particular outcome. However, by practicing with us, he can understand what genetics is. It’s one thing to know what DNA is, and quite another - to see it on the electrophoresis; one thing to know that DNA consists of four nucleotides, and another - to see the sequence of a particular gene, to read these “letters” and compare them with the database. It’s one thing to know what a protein is, and another - to be able to extract it. It’s one thing to know what fluorescence is, and another - to realize how luminous elements can be used to visualize the individual components of cellular systems.

- Have you heard about the new project, "The Open laboratories of the world", which allows students to take different types of internships in leading research centers around the globe? What do you think about this?

- I believe it’s quite interesting and useful for young people; the demand should create a supply. We are ready to accept Russian and foreign students, both for summer practice and for a long-term internship throughout the academic year. It is important for a scientist that his research is being implemented, and that his knowledge is being passed on to the next generation. Thus, the benefit of such a project for us is in the transfer of knowledge and experience. The result may not be tangible at the beginning, but it definitely will be, in the future.