For more information about Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at ITMO University, please visit the webpage using the button above.
Career Options: specialists working at the interface between chemistry and biology, undoubtedly, will be demanded at leading scientific institutions both in Russia and abroad in such areas as medical and pharmaceutical industry, biological, food and chemical enterprises at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies and holdings.
The program focuses on modern aspects of chemistry and biochemistry of nucleic acids and nucleic acids' binding proteins. Special emphasis is made on gene engineering of functional oligonucleotides, research of DNA-based molecular logic gates that can be used in the first DNA-based computer processor and developing new hybridization probes for real-time analysis of specific DNA and RNA sequences.
The program uniquely combines state-of-the-art computational and practical aspects of material sciences, nanotechnology, molecular biology and biochemistry. It effectively bridges material sciences and information technologies, both being key research areas of ITMO University.
Motasem Awaja’s Journey: A 2018 Open Doors Scholarship Winner
This year the Open Doors Russian scholarship project was launched for the first time! Supported by the Russian government, this special scholarship allows talented students from around the world to enroll in Master’s programs at leading universities in Russia for free. One of the finalists of the competition who was accepted to ITMO’s Master’s of Information Security this year, Motasem Awaja, tells us his heart-stirring story of how this scholarship really opened doors for him to come and study in Russia.
Growing up in Palestine has unique challenges. While access to higher education is readily available, the turmoil of living there puts a lot of pressure and stress on the local inhabitants, especially on young people. But the hardest part of all, especially for Motasem, who was living in the troubled region of Gaza, is that the opportunities to go in and out of the country are very limited as the borders are open for several days each year, at most.
Motasem completed his Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, and Master’s degree in the same field at the Islamic University of Gaza. While working in IT, he spent about three years painstakingly looking for scholarships around the world for further study, particularly in Russia, India and China. Due to the sheer impossibility of crossing the border and the long wait, he missed his chance to participate in those. At one point he found an opportunity to go to Italy to complete a PhD program in artificial intelligence in humanities, which he was inspired to do after his best friend committed suicide due to the enormous stress and hardships of his life in the conflict-ridden region. Unfortunately, this opportunity also didn’t work out.
He was first attracted to the Open Doors scholarship when he saw the option to study his favorite topic of Intelligent Systems in Humanities. “I need to do something for the humankind,” he says, and this looked like a good start to fulfilling his life-long dream. Eventually he enrolled in a double degree program on information security. This means that after his first year at ITMO, he has the opportunity to spend his next year at a university in Finland. He was encouraged to take this degree because of the outstanding expertise Russian programmers have in this field: Motasem admits that he wants to learn from the best. “I am thinking to mix artificial intelligence with information security to get the perfect balance,” he adds.
The Open Doors scholarship winners are selected based on a rigorous round of challenging competition exams. Motasem prepared by recapping on his earlier studies, and looking online at Russian forums. “It was my first time doing an exam like this, using a programming language in a complex online framework with strict regulations,” he shared.
He was also impressed that this scholarship was not like others he had encountered in terms of the amount of support participants were receiving, “I found that this scholarship program was serious. I was getting regular responses to my questions and I realized it was a far cry from other scholarships where organizers usually just brush you off,” says Motasem.
Looking into the scholarship project, he found out that ITMO University was one of the principle organizers. After doing some research online, especially on Quora, he discovered that it has a great reputation in the international programming community, which decided his choice to go for ITMO.
In May of this year, he got the long-awaited news that he was accepted to the program, which was all the more exciting given that at the time the border between Gaza and Egypt was open. Overjoyed, Motasem quickly packed his bags and prepared to leave Palestine as fast as he could, even though he hadn’t yet received his invitation for a Russian student visa. “I didn’t want to risk missing any of my studies so I decided to wait in Egypt for a few months and apply for my visa there.”
As soon as he got his invitation three months later, he made his way to the Russian embassy in Cairo. He explained his story at his visa interview and obtained his visa on the same day. Two days after that he was in St. Petersburg, arriving just in time for the start of the first semester.
“I am in awe of this city: it’s an amazing place. Everyone knows I am in St. Petersburg and they’re constantly nagging me to go visit museums, but I’m just enjoying my time for now. When I get a break from studies, I just walk around, look at the nature, and the people, they are so kind to me. I haven’t had any issues with prejudice or racism; on the contrary, there is a lot of respect for me.”
When asked about his plans for the future, Motasem says that for now, he just wants to take life as it comes. “I’m not sure what will happen in the near future, but for now I will focus on my degree and maybe possibly continue with a PhD, or work – I see a world of opportunities before me.”
Mexican Student Shares His Story and Tips for Better Online Security
Coming from the other side of the world is always a challenging endeavor, it takes courage to leave behind those who you love, your traditions and culture, nevertheless sometimes we ought to sacrifice something to be able to reach the potential we did not know we had.
Julio A. Vargas Salas is a mechatronics engineer who came to Russia from Mexico in 2018 to study a Master’s in Computer System Information Security, but how did it all begin?
“There are a lot of things to say about this, so I will try to be brief. One day, I was reading a random IT blog, when suddenly a header caught my attention: “Meet the CTF team that won the same world competition for seven consecutive years!”. It was obvious to me that if they were so good as to accomplish that, they must have had very high-quality professors, so I decided to Google the team’s name and voilà: ITMO University. I then proceeded to visit the ITMO University website and a huge banner was showing at the top: “Open Doors: Russian Scholarship Project. Apply now!” I really had no plans to come. It was just a dream for me back then.”
It really is amazing how someone’s life can change so dramatically in just one moment. One simple coincidence in the space and time continuum can push the first piece that creates that stunning “Domino effect”. A life-changing moment, however, a change this big only means to walk into the unknown, to conquer it and to never be who you were before. Just as the literary text “The Hero’s Journey” by Joseph Campbell, at the end of the Odyssey, our main character grows and never goes back to what he was at the beginning.
A life-changing journey is never easy, so we asked Julio what were his first challenges when he arrived in Russia.
“The biggest one is the language, of course. Something as simple as withdrawing money from an ATM was a whole adventure. The same goes for shopping at the supermarket or traveling by metro. I have to say that I was very lucky because a lot of people in the streets helped me by using my phone or even theirs as translators to explain to me how some things worked. Unfortunately, some of my friends told me they had a different experience.”
Was there something Julio would have benefited from if he knew it before coming to St. Petersburg?
“Yes. In addition to the language, I should have considered learning how to properly chores, like cooking, sewing, sweeping, making laundry, etc. and it is not always about the money, but about the time that you spend looking for somebody to help you.”
Cybersecurity is crucial these days. Since it’s also part of his major, we asked Julio’s take on this subject.
“One main reason is that we’re living in a world where almost every device is connected to some extent to some kind of network. Although every company is enforced by law to keep our data safe, we can’t take it for granted and ignore the fact that there are numerous criminal organizations willing to steal your data, and we know that they are capable of doing whatever it takes to break into the security and obtain the information they need.”
What are some of his recommendations to stay safe?
“Never post any of your information if it’s not required or if you’re not sure that you are dealing with a trustworthy channel or platform. The main source of information for cybercriminals is social connections. I know that you think that only the people that you know can see your profiles, but you are wrong.
I widely recommend not to post pictures of your family, references of places that you visit very often, your job, school schedules or any valuable goods that you may have.
Once any type of information is online, it will remain there forever. Don’t forget it.”
Does he think we’re getting too close to George Orwell’s science fiction?
“I don’t want to worry anyone, but this is already a reality. All the information you post on social connections is totally public, a lot of companies can freely collect and analyze it in order to find out which products or services would suit each consumer, according to their interests. This information is sold to other companies who are in charge of offering those products or services, so they can contact you by email with some offers and product discounts and ensure a sale.
It’s not a coincidence receiving an email showing you discounts on something that you needed to acquire at the perfect time. In some cases, these discounts are going to be so good that sometimes they will make you change your mind about what you wanted to buy. If you carefully think about it, they have already influenced you to prefer certain products.
So, we could say that the role of the Big Brother in this society is clearly assumed by the huge companies. they are not only collecting your information by using social connections, but also by using your smartphone’s GPS to know the places that you usually go to, or your smartwatch’s data to suggest to you some gyms or medicines according to your vital signs and the distance traveled.”
With all this happening, we were excited to hear about Julio’s current projects as they pertain to information security.
“I am currently working on my thesis, it’s about new approaches to detect malware. I always found malware topics fascinating and I’m doing my best to create a product that can really be useful for everyone. That’s my professional and social goal. As a mechatronic engineer and future information security expert, I believe I can merge these two disciplines in a useful way, and work at a very deep level with them.”
Master’s Student Mrinal Vashisth: Embracing Interdisciplinarity is Like Discovering Your Superpowers
Mrinal Vashisth came from Rajasthan, India, to study in ITMO’s Bioinformatics and Systems Biology Master’s program. Before that, Mrinal worked at one of India’s best independent research institutions, and in the future, he plans to focus on neuroscience and research the mechanisms of memory and language. ITMO.NEWS talked to him about the benefits of interdisciplinarity and the power of data.
Mrinal, you came to St. Petersburg from India. Where were you born and where did you get your first higher education?
I come from Mukundgarh, a city in the state of Rajasthan, which is close to the Pakistan border. This place has lots of deserted regions. I did my Bachelor’s degree at Jaipur National University in Rajasthan’s capital, where I studied biotechnology.
Why did you decide to continue your education in Russia? And why did you decide to follow a Systems Biology program?
Truth be told, I looked for a place that would match my competencies and wouldn’t be too expensive. Another thing that factored into my decision was that being a biotechnologies specialist, I didn’t have enough background in computer science, which is obligatory for everyone who wants to study at an Indian university. Indian universities explain it with the necessity to work with AI technologies, but during my Bachelor’s years, I spent more time working in the field of bioreactors and food industry. Despite the fact that interdisciplinarity is our reality and our future, I still think that one shouldn’t expect such a high level of knowledge in computer science from those applying for systems biology programs.
What was your Bachelor’s thesis about?
My thesis was dedicated to a topic that I was very interested in: systems biology. I did my Bachelor’s thesis on analyzing NGS data and creating associated databases. When I was writing it, I was doing an internship at one of India’s best independent research institutions, CSIR-IGIB in New Deli. I worked under the guidance of Dr. Vinod Scaria who is a well-known figure in the field of genomics. He is most famous for sequencing the first Indian, Sri Lankan and Malaysian genomes, as well as analyzing the wild strain of zebra’s genome. His laboratory also published the first compendium of genetic variants for South Asia (SAGE database) and the Near East (Al Mena). The institution sometimes accepts students who want to work in the field of computational biologies, and I became one of them.
I spent half a year at Vinod Scaria’s laboratory working with mitochondrial data. I analyzed human genomes and extracted information in order to study the changes in the amount of mitochondrial DNA. I also composed a compendium for the research aimed at measuring the number of mitochondria in cells during illness in comparison with the normal condition.
I had to combine this data in some way in order to understand whether there really existed any connection between the changes in the number of mitochondria and illnesses. On the whole, a compendium is a database which is a good resource for many scientific processes. For example, when someone conducts a research and wants to check the quality of data, such a compendium can come in very handy.
Bachelor’s studies in India are slightly different from those in other countries: we study for three and a half years, and then spend the last six months doing an internship and writing a thesis. A student can do their internship at a company or research institution as I did. I decided to spend this time at a place that offered the best opportunities for professional growth in the field of biology.
You are currently following a Master’s program in systems biology and bioinformatics, where you study analysis sequencing and compiling compendiums of illnesses. How does this continue the work you started in your Bachelor’s years?
I am currently working under the guidance of PhD. in Biology Andrei Glotov along with Yury Barbitov, a biologist, geneticist and specialist in the field of biotechnology. We want to develop a similar compendium for variants in the Russian population. This is the topic of my thesis research. We will conduct a vast statistical effort aimed at identifying the most common diseases in the Russian population based on the existing information about different variants.
Your Master’s program is an interdisciplinary one. What do you think about the idea of synergy of scientific fields, and how does it help you?
Interdisciplinarity is our future. There was a time when we studied scientific fields in isolation from each other, but then, the challenges were different, which had to do with particular conditions like the state of sciences’ development. Now, you just can’t have anything against interdisciplinarity. I studied two fields, zoology and botanics, and I can’t really imagine how you can use them separately from each other. In my field, interdisciplinarity is becoming all the more relevant, a method that can lead to new results and discoveries. If you want to study biology, you have no choice but to do it comprehensively.
I can’t say that I focus on any particular field. When you become absorbed in some singular subject, you become a narrowly focused specialist in the associated field. As for me, I choose a program that brought together people with different backgrounds. By all means, the experience of all my peers has to do with biology, in one way or another, but our skills differ: some are better at physics, others in mathematics. For example, one of my fellow students is a virologist. What she is currently studying can be applied in researching the genome of viruses. She has a keen knowledge of both virology and of working with data. This gives great control over scientific experiments. Such things work well for all of us. Embracing interdisciplinarity is like discovering your superpowers
The main thing is that we represent various skills and use them for solving particular biological problems. By combining a multitude of approaches, we get a really strong one.
What problems do you work on?
For one, we work on sequencing problems. I wouln’t say that it a domain of biology, it has more to do with physics, but this is what the benefit of interdisciplinarity is about. As you know, Gregor Mendel was a biologist and botanist, but he is famous for his contribution to genetics; in fact, you can even say that he was its founder.
As part of our program, we get skills that can be applied in more than one task. We are trained to think like biologists and solve programming tasks in this field. We also have discrete mathematics, and study the analysis of RNA sequences.
How do you plan to apply your new skills?
I plan to apply them in neuroscience. This is what interests me most, I am interested in studying cognitive abilities. For now, my research doesn’t have anything to do with this field, but I hope to do such research for my PhD. I’m interested in many neuroscience subjects, but it is the memory and language that I want to study most. On the whole, I believe that everyone is interested in neuroscience, it is just that we don’t have enough information about it. In order to gather it, we need a clear understanding of the associated processes. The knowledge about RNA analyses that we got last month is very relevant in this regard. To put it bluntly, data, as well as the ability to interpret it correctly are the most important things that we have today.
Why is it memory and language that you are most interested in?
I would’ve liked to understand the mechanism behind memory. For example, to learn which role memory plays in decision making. There are instances when people remember the details of events that took place very long ago. I wonder how this affects decision making from a biological standpoint. I am also interested in how language is encoded in our brain. We have different thoughts and words associated with them, but do words correspond to any particular objects in our brain? The basis for this is the domain of linguistics, but it is neurolinguistics that is important for conducting research in this field. These tasks are very hardcore, but for now, I’m only at the beginning of my path, and I don’t know much.
How do you plan to continue your scientific career?
After completing a Master’s program in Russia, I will become a PhD student, though I still don’t know in what country and university. I consider France, Germany and other countries where they have laboratories that conduct neuroscience research. Two years in a Master’s program is not much, especially considering that I already passed one fourth of it.
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