A Report from Siberia
By Kyler Kuehn
Editor’s Note: While many senior US scientists have cultivated a variety of international contacts, younger scientists may not have yet had the opportunity to integrate such experiences into their professional or personal lives. There follows the account of one early-career scientist, detailing his observations as a researcher in a location far removed from the experience of most physics students.
Photo courtesy of Kyler Kuehn Pictured here in wintry Siberia, Kyler Kuehn is now a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine. He also serves as the International Student Affairs Officer for the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs.
In December of 1998, upon completing my Bachelor’s Degree in Physics, I began a 3-month volunteer research position at the Hydrodynamics Institute of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Akademgorodok, Russia. My research collaborators and I performed calculations designed to predict the effects of shock waves from stellar explosions on the star formation rate in spiral galaxies. This research culminated in a presentation of our findings at an international astronomy conference the following year.
While these are the basic facts of my professional accomplishments during my time in Russia, there was so much more that I learned beyond simply the results of a single research project. In particular, the relationships I forged with the people there have been of much greater significance to me as I continue on in my scientific career and in my everyday life.
Of the many opportunities that I had to learn from interactions with my friends and colleagues there, the myriad cultural differences between Russia and the US were often the most striking experiences for me. For example, many scientists in the US take for granted the ability to communicate their research findings to their peers, and to be able to understand the communication of others. That was not necessarily the case with all of the researchers in Siberia. While every one of them had some formal training in English, I was the only native speaker in the research group–perhaps in the entire Institute. One of the most valuable ways that I was able to contribute to the Institute’s work was simply by assisting in the translation and editing of papers to be submitted to English-language scientific journals, so that they would have a much quicker review process and a greater chance of being accepted for publication.
In addition to the crucial role that effective communication plays in the success of the scientific enterprise, another important value I experienced was the sense of camaraderie among the researchers. They were even willing to incorporate a young, foreign man barely out of college into the life of their community. Upon the completion of a successful run of our computer simulation, the researchers with whom I worked would invariably pause to celebrate, and invite everyone nearby to join them for a tea break. Throughout my stay there, I was likewise treated as a colleague even by researchers outside our group and outside our particular Institute. I was able to learn first-hand about the numerous other experiments being performed there, and to tour a significant number of laboratory facilities. “Rank” or “prestige” did not seem to be of paramount importance; we were all simply scientists working together to expand our knowledge. One of my favorite experiences in Akademgorodok was being given a tour of the particle accelerator at the Nuclear Physics Institute by one of the senior scientists at the facility (I later learned that what had previously seemed to be a random and unexplained dimming of lights throughout the town was caused by the particle accelerator being turned on).
Outside of the Institute, I also experienced the welcoming spirit of the entire community of Akademgorodok. Families opened their homes to me, inviting me to participate in various festivities, including various birthdays, New Year’s Day, and Christmas–which is celebrated not on December 25th, as in the west, but on January 7th, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox calendar. The cultural center of Akademgorodok was known as “The House of Scientists”, where I was able to attend symphony orchestra performances and engage in other aspects of the social life of the town. In particular, I was quite popular with the “English Club” that met at the House of Scientists, whose members were anxious to practice their English with me and to learn as much as they could about life in the US. Furthermore, I distinctly remember the selfless work of the members of some of the local churches, where I also assisted in the efforts to teach English language courses and to provide humanitarian aid to hospitals, schools, and prisons throughout the region.
The results of the research that I performed in Russia have been superseded in the intervening years, and the focus of my scientific career has changed significantly, but the experiences I had in Akademgorodok have stayed with me ever since I returned in February of 1999. I have not forgotten the quite beautiful daily walks through knee-deep snow in -40 degree weather (where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales coincide) to reach the offices of the Institute. I remember the occasional signs of significant economic hardship in the region, such as when the local grocery store ran out of the vast majority of its products and was unable to restock. Even more so I remember how patient and adaptable the community was in the face of such hardship. I recall with amazement the accomplishments of my research group, despite the fact that we all relied upon a single 286 computer that almost certainly would have been discarded as obsolete in the US. But mostly I remember the opportunities afforded to me to learn important new skills, to gain exposure to some of the diverse members of the international scientific community, and to learn about the goals, ideals, and lives of fellow scientists in a part of the world that so few people from the US are able to see.