Conversations with… Russia. (Part III)

Catch up on the first two parts of our "Ask me about... Russia" feature here and here!

Today we speak to Valeri Ligatchev about the science and technological environment.

Conversations With Russia 3.1Valeri Ligatchev moved to Singapore 13 years ago in 1999. He started his career as a lecturer in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) before moving on to a research career with the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) under A*STAR. He is currently a senior scientist in IHPC focusing on areas such as solid-state physics and semi-empirical simulations of density of single electron states. He has published papers in numerous journals such as Electrochemical Society Transactions and IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices.

Interviewed by James Yoon

Can you describe your work at IHPC?

We try to design new materials using computers. We do not do experiments; instead we use computer software to simulate new materials based on our ideas and conceptual designs. These programmes allow us to create models of atomic structure of materials and calculate the electronic and structural properties of the materials. Based on these calculations, we can find out the optical response of the material without doing experiments. Although we try to create new materials, it is hard to create totally new ones because there are many research institutes overseas that are trying to do the same. Instead, we try to improve on existing materials by making modifications.

How would you describe the Russian Science and Technology environment?

Because I have spent most of my time in Singapore since I arrived 13 years ago, I do not have thorough knowledge of the Science and Technology landscape in Russia now.

In the past, there were research institutes, the equivalent of A*STAR, in Russia, which were well funded and had better equipment and sophisticated techniques. However, when you talk about educational institutions, since their purpose was to educate students, they did not receive much funding and the equipment and research resources provided were limited.

The regions that had a concentration of research facilities were big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg as well as the eastern part of Russia that is close to China.

How has the Russian Science and Technology environment changed over the years?

In the past, the research institutes were mostly government owned. However, I heard that many research institutions have since been reorganised and privatised. I feel that the current achievements in science are also less impressive than it used to be. There could be many reasons to explain that. One reason could be the decrease in funding, such as in areas like solid-state electronics or solid-state physics. There are still strong theorists in Russia but the quality of research output is lower, probably due to the lack of sophisticated equipment that is produced overseas and is very costly.  I remember an example from NTU: even though the school is very well equipped, it still cannot afford the best equipment available.

How is Russia different from how it was 13 years ago?

During Soviet times, there were few cars on the road but now the roads are always crowded. There are also more television programmes now and the programmes are more open and less controlled. Previously, television programmes revolve around the Soviet Union but nowadays they screen more programmes about the outside world and provide information on overseas opportunities, such as in education.

In the past, when I was an undergraduate in Russia, I feel that people were more interested in engineering specialties. After the economy liberalised through the removal of trade barriers on semi conductors imported into Russia, the semi conductor industry in Russia shrank. As a result, there was a shift in focus in education as students became more interested in areas such as business. When I was lecturing in a Russian university, many people in my department also left the education sector to start their own businesses. I had a friend who set up a retail business by selling lamps and electrical appliances.

What is your impression of Singapore and Singaporeans?

A very prominent difference compared to Russia is the climate. It is a lot hotter here in Singapore. At first, it was hard to tolerate the heat but I got used to it after a few months. That said, Singapore will be a much better place to spend winter; it is too cold in Russia during winter.

Singaporeans are more friendly and considerate than Russians. Traffic here is also better than Moscow and people are more polite on the road. Life here in Singapore is also more relaxed, not in the context of work since there is still a need to perform up to standards, but more in terms of lifestyle. There are no problems with food since there is a huge variety here. There are also no issues with transport – if you do not have a car, you can always take public transport or taxi. The road network in Singapore is also very well developed. In Russia, roads are very crowded in the day.  I take only 15 minutes to travel to work here, whereas in Russia I can take an hour to drive to work.

What do you think Singapore can learn from Russia?

Based on my experience 13 years ago, Russia had a strong education system which produced many famous scientists that made major contributions around the world. I am not sure if that has changed over the years. Previously, there were many schools that were strong in fundamental science. Many big names were produced, such as those who won Nobel Prizes in super conductivity.