ITMO’s Master's Students Share Experiences from Ireland Internship

Ladies have recently returned from their two-month internship at Trinity College (Ireland). In an interview for ITMO.NEWS, the students talk about what made this internship so different from other, more conventional ones, and what opportunities are offered to students by the Erasmu+ program.

You went on this internship as part of the Erasmus+ program. Please tell more about it.

Elizaveta Anastasova: This was the first time we went abroad for research. This particular internship is unique in that we did not go there to study, as most students do, but to conduct research. In other words, this was a research exchange. 
Our internship lasted for two full months. Our work at Trinity College’s laboratory was supervised by professor Yurii Gunko, whose research team we were a part of. We were lucky to be working with a Russian-speaking professor, but, naturally, we used English to communicate within our team.
We really liked the laboratory’s selection of equipment; we had access to all kinds of agents and we could ask for anything we wanted, which was really convenient; if they didn’t have anything at the moment, we could just order it, and it arrived in some week’s time. Very practical. 

Yulia Andreeva: The staff at Trinity College’s laboratory is quite international. During our internship we worked with our Spanish, Irish and Russian colleagues. We were the only Master's students among all the PhD students and postdocs. The training we received at our laboratory at ITMO allowed us to blend in easily - most of them believed we were PhD students, too.
All in all, working there was different from what we were used to at our laboratories. It seemed to us that people communicated with each other a lot less there. Perhaps that is because the lab is still new and the team lineups change constantly. Still, the more time we spent there, the closer we all became.

What projects did you get to work on during your time at Trinity College?
E.A.: My goal was to create thin 2D cobalt ferrite nanoparticles. 2D nanomaterials can be really different in regards to their mechanical, chemical and optical properties, as well as their shape, size, biocompatibility and decomposability. Nevertheless, research into 2D nanomaterials is still in its infancy, so we wanted to be pioneers in some part of this field, namely in creating cobalt ferrite nanoparticles.
Y.A.: I specialize in photonics materials, so my task was to create magnetic photonic crystals (MPC) stabilized by chiral molecules.The problem here is that MPCs are very dark, so we wanted to improve their properties and studied these structures’ optical properties. As of now, we have to find an application for them.
We started coming up with ideas for our projects back in Russia, so when we came to Trinity College, we discussed them with our professor and got them approved. In Ireland, we acquired some results that we will continue to work on here. We also plan to write research articles in collaboration with scientists from Trinity College.

Where do you plan to publish them?
Y.A.: We are yet to choose a particular title; we consider titles with a high impact factor. We are currently finalizing our projects to get them up to a level where major journals would accept our publications. As of now, our laboratory also works on several projects in addition to our project with Trinity College. We’ve recently published our first articles dedicated to such topics as magnetite hydrogel preparation (we were the first to create, describe, characterize and propose applications for it) and MPC preparation (we’ve decided to prepare it in vitro without using complex equipment, so now it takes some two hours to do that, biocompatibility being yet another advantage).
The article we are writing in collaboration with Trinity College will become the second or even third for each of us, as we work on several projects at the same time. For instance, we are now working on an article in collaboration with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on ferment activity in magnetite.

How did you get to participate in this internship?
E.A.: Our laboratory, SCAMT, won in an Erasmus+ program in collaboration with Trinity College, and, as professor Gunko’s team focuses on magnetic nanoparticles and optical materials, it was only natural that it was we who would go - as we work with magnetic nanoparticles, too. Only three members of our laboratory work in this field - we two and Andrei Drozdov, our research advisor. 

Was it hard to prepare for the trip?
Y.A.: Frankly speaking, we had no problems with submitting documents, having done everything ourselves. The only difficulty we experienced was with getting a visa. We had to wait for quite a long time to even learn whether we’ll get it or not - some month and a half. Actually, we were right to do everything in advance, as we wouldn’t have gotten it in due time otherwise. We’ve applied for a visa in late June and only got it in September. As for the Erasmus+ program, it’s really good. For instance, they’ve paid us our scholarship in advance so that we would have no problems with renting accomodation.

Please tell us more about the scholarship. What did it cover?
E.A.: Erasmus+ scholarship doesn’t have a coefficient for any particular country. For instance, accommodation is very expensive in Ireland. If we were to go to Germany with the scholarship we’ve received, we would have had enough money for just everything. In Ireland, everything is more expensive, so we had to ask for support from our laboratory. In other words, our internship was funded by both Erasmus+ and the SCAMT laboratory.

How do you plan to finalize the projects you’ve been working on at Trinity College?
Y.A.: At Trinity College, we got the initial results. As the internship was a quite short one, we’ve decided to continue our project in Russia, i.e. make it ready for publication. Point is, two months are just not enough to get results you can publish. Usually, you would need from four to six months, though it depends on the researcher, the conditions they work in and their motivation. It can take a full year from the beginning of a research to publishing results. Thus, a two-month internship is a great opportunity to go abroad, see how they work is set up in  different laboratories, learn to use new equipment and get recommendations from leading professors, as well as communicate with students from other countries.

How was the internship beneficial for you and your future careers? 
E.A.: Working with professor Gunko, who told us about the global trends in our field, has been an invaluable experience. We also got to use equipment our laboratory doesn’t have. Such an internship gives you lots of advantages, from getting experience of working at an international laboratory to immersing yourself into the life of a different country and improving your English skill. At first, we had problems with communication, as the Irish pronounce English words differently, and have a very specific accent. Still, in about two weeks we’ve started to understand them. As for how such an internship can benefit one’s professional career: employers are always interested in employees with experience of working with various equipment.  

What core differences in the work of research staff did you notice?
Y.A.: Here we have a fixed workday: we come at 10 am and leave at 6 pm, while at Trinity College they can decide for themselves. They come and go whenever they want. They do have deadlines they have to meet, but they can adjust their schedule as they find comfortable. If they prefer working from home, they can work from home - one’s presence at their workplace is not mandatory. The research advisor does not monitor the work of students, but usually comes to the lab to solve some organizational issues: learn about the results, inquire about reports or propose to meet on a particular date. The students make reports every two or three weeks, where they explain what they did in that period, what results they got and what they plan to do next.

Having gained this experience of working at an international laboratory abroad, do you want to continue your scientific career as part of a research team outside Russia?
E.A.: This internship gave us an opportunity to understand where we like it more. Right now, working in Russia is more comfortable for us. At SCAMT, we have all the necessary conditions: each of us has their personal workplace, their equipment. We’ve been here since the laboratory’s founding, so we feel at home here. Besides, we believe that there are lots of opportunities to conduct research and promote one’s ideas in Russia, lots of things to try oneself at. Our laboratory is on par with the one at Trinity College, so we want to stay in Russia. Still, such internships are an essential experience for any modern scientist, as it is very important to know how to work in an international team.



(author Daria Sofina)