In 2021, the second-year Master’s student went to Nancy, a city in France, for an internship. She spent five months there learning a completely new field. Upon her return, she told ITMO.NEWS about going to Europe during the pandemic, the difference between Russian and European laboratories, and getting a Pfizer vaccine.
Evgenia Ikonnikova in Paris. Credit: personal archive
On the internship
Where did your internship take place?
– At Université de Lorraine in Nancy. The internship lasted five months; I got back on July 25.
– How did you manage to go on an internship despite the pandemic and the associated issues?
– A friend of mine sent me a piece of news from ITMO’s ISU that there’ll be a presentation of Université de Lorraine where they’ll be talking about its projects and the associated internship opportunities. The projects they spoke about had nothing to do with my research, but I wanted to try something new, get more skills, the experience of working at an international lab, and see how they do science in France.
– The internships had to do with specific projects that are already implemented in Nancy? Which did you apply for?
– Yes. I applied for several projects at once, including those that had to do with the optimization of processes and creation of fuel cell components. We all know of Tesla cars – they use such fuel cells. At the end of the interview, they asked me which project I liked best. I said that I was more interested in what implies more lab work and not just computations. This is how I got to work on the project “Study of membranes and inks for the production of electrodes for fuel cells”.
– Was passing the selection process difficult? Did you have to pass anything more than just the interview? What was the competition like?
– To tell you the truth, I don’t know about the competition. They interviewed us one-on-one via Zoom, and there were no other tests. In two weeks after the interview, they just told me that I passed and it’s time to get my documents ready.
– Was it hard – going abroad during the pandemic?
– In fact, it wasn’t. I prepared the documents, translated my diploma and got an invitation. Even getting a visa was quite simple, I think it took me about two weeks.
– Did you need a vaccination certificate or COVID testing?
— Yes, I did a COVID test within 2 days and got a certificate translated in many languages. That’s all.
– What about travelling during the pandemic? Did everything work out all right?
– Yes, everything was fine despite the situation. Though, there was no direct flight to Paris from St. Petersburg, I had to go through Moscow and there were very few people on the plane. When I came back, there was a direct flight, but it only went once a week. So people still fly, for work and personal reasons.
On research work
– What exactly did you do during your internship?
– When I just arrived, I worked under the guidance of a PhD student from Kazakhstan. So it was easy to communicate. My research advisor was French, but her English was good, so we also didn’t have any problems.
First, they showed me how to work with a spraying machine. We loaded it with a special liquid and applied it to membranes, thus making electrodes for fuel cells.
In two weeks, they let me work by myself, and I spent most of my time working with membranes. There are two types of membranes in fuel cells: proton exchange membranes and anion exchange membranes. I worked with both. Each membrane has to be converted, and I studied the best means to do that. Then I looked into optimizing the transportation of anions via a membrane. My final analysis had to do with testing membranes’ conductivity.
– You said you wanted to see how they do science in France. How is it different from what you got used to at ITMO and Tomsk Polytechnic University where you did your Bachelor’s degree?
– In my Bachelor’s years, I had only started doing research, so I don’t remember much about laboratory work in Tomsk. I didn’t have many responsibilities and focused on studying.
Master’s studies is something different. At ITMO, you can be responsible for the equipment and its maintenance. Sometimes you have students that you have to teach. In France, every person has responsibilities of their own. You have your tasks, and you perform them, nothing more. If something goes out of order, you don’t try to repair it, you just go to the responsible person and that’s all.
I guess there’s one more difference: everyone is very serious about science. You need to be very conscious about choosing your specialization, because once you do that, it’s very hard to change it.
– And what about the equipment? Is it better or worse than in Russia?
– In fact, there’s not much difference. I’d say that at our SCAMT laboratory, the equipment is newer. In Nancy, they have new equipment, but they also have equipment that doesn’t work very well but is hard to replace due to its cost. Our equipment is better because the lab is quite new.
– As a young scientist, what did you learn as part of your internship?
– For me, fuel cells are a new field, so everything was new. Before my trip, I had only heard about them and didn’t know much about the associated research and the relevant projects. So I got lots of knowledge, and everything was new and interesting for me.
– Did you get an inclination to change your specialization and focus on this field?
– Actually, I think that I will focus on this field for my PhD studies. I really got interested. There’s a lot of practical work to it, what’s more, I already have experience with electrochemistry, and I like this field in general.
On life in France
– What about your life in Nancy? How is living during a pandemic in France different from what you experienced in St. Petersburg?
– Some time ago, even before the pandemic, I went to study in Prague and I can tell you that this time, it was more difficult. Everything was closed, communication was limited. In the course of the first two or three months, the only people I got to know were those at the laboratory. I got lucky, my colleagues were nice people, but still: you get stressed when there’s a curfew and you need to be home by six. The shops close even earlier, so you have to get there on time. At first, this was a problem, then I got used to it. And in three months, they lifted these restrictions and everything became easier.
– I got a Pfizer vaccine. But I’d already had COVID before and it seems that my body got used to it, so I had no side effects. In France, everybody can get vaccinated as long as you have French medical insurance.
– How did you like Nancy?
– My advice to everyone looking for a place to take an internship is to look for a bigger city. Nancy is quite small and has few sights. When everything is closed, it’s hard to find interesting places there. In any case, it’s better to give more thought to where you are going.
– Do you want to do another internship at Université de Lorraine? Or any other university?
– After the internship, they can offer you a position as a PhD student if you did well. They offered me one, but I declined. I decided to look for other opportunities, at other places. Try a different country, a different university. But the experience I got in France was definitely useful.