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Learning to do science differently

Joël Stadelmann in the halls of the university where the fathers of Russian rockets, aircraft and nuclear technology were trained

Four years ago, Joël Stadelmann arrived at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University intending to stay for six months. Now an assistant professor at the university, the Swiss scientist sees himself pursuing a career in Russia.

Stadelmann grew up on the shores of Lake Geneva, a fact that makes the 28-year-old a bit of an oddity in Russia.

“I might as well be from Mars,” he says, adding that some students at Bauman University, as it is known for short, “come just to watch this weird animal try to teach in Russian”.

Luckily, most of his colleagues see him as “a normal guy” and even go so far as to offer him chocolate, one of his favourite sweets.

Always gifted in maths, Stadelmann was naturally inclined to study the “hard” sciences. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he decided to pursue a master’s in biomedical sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), choosing the school for its academic flexibility.

“There were only a few mandatory courses, although I did end up taking many other classes in parallel,” he says, explaining modestly that “if you’re not a genius, you have to work hard”.

At the time, he wasn’t thinking about going abroad – he didn’t have the grades to do an exchange programme. Instead, he told himself he would travel once he finished his degree.

But one thing was already clear in his mind: he would stay in academia, because he wanted to “see a project to the end and not just up to the point that it becomes profitable”.

In 2007, his course supervisor at the EPFL planned to travel to Bauman University in Moscow to explore possibilities for collaboration between the two institutions. He thought having a student onboard who was interested in doing an exchange would facilitate talks. It didn’t take long for Stadelmann to agree to the trip, “but for six months, not more”.

Rough start

Obtaining all the necessary permits and approvals was no small feat, and Stadelmann finally landed at Moscow airport in February 2009. Europe was then in the throes of an economic crisis; jobs for new graduates were in short supply.

“I thought I’d wait out the downturn in Europe and in the meantime have this experience abroad that no one else was having,” he remembers.

But first, he would come face-to-face with the reality of everyday life in Russia. The welcoming committee dispatched by the university never made it to the airport, so he had to rely on staff at the terminal to help him find his way to the campus.

“The first month was horrible,” he admits. The student residence may have been located close to the university – a plus in a big city like Moscow – but, as he soon found out, the heating system was about the only thing that worked consistently.

“We had water, but not always. We had electricity, but you had to be careful not to turn on too many appliances at the same time or the fuse would blow.”

January 7, 1985: born in Saverne (France)

1985: arrives in canton Vaud

2003: first-year studies at the Institute of Microengineering at the EPFL

February 2008: obtains master’s degree in microengineering

2009: scholar at Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where he begins his doctoral thesis

December 2012: defends his thesis and begins teaching as assistant professor


But he refused to let those practical inconveniences become a distraction. He soon found himself immersed in stimulating research projects. He also started to learn Russian, because academic work has to be written in the local language in order to get published and peer reviewed.

Work gave him the balance he needed in the teeming metropolis of 15 million inhabitants.

When the opportunity arose to write his doctoral thesis at the university, he didn’t hesitate, even though it meant having to master not only the language, but also a new approach to doing research – a challenge he didn’t mind facing.

“If I’m intuitively proposing a solution to a problem, they’ll go and discuss it for four hours and will often come back with the same conclusion,” he explains. “But this goes to show that the other approaches to finding a solution were not as good.”

Bauman University: 18,000 students, 400 of them foreigners wikimedia commons

Research projects

As an engineer, Stadelmann has worked with electronics, programming, mechanics and optics, including the handling of satellite images.

“But here, a biomedical engineer is someone who’s trained to make hospital apparatus work,” he explains. “So they know a lot about physiology and anatomy, and I don’t. Actually, I’m a lot more technical than they are. They may be better at the conceptual definition of a system, but I’m better than everyone else when it comes to implementation.”

Opportunities are not exactly lacking for the Swiss scientist – who still hesitates to call himself that – since he has four research projects on the go, on top of the classes he teaches at Bauman.

The first project involves using infrared light in x-ray scans, which would reduce the risk of cancer from radiation. With the second project, the aim is to create a machine that would allow severely handicapped patients to communicate with hospital staff. On the third project, he is attempting to develop prosthetics that would improve on the ones currently on the market, notably with regard to the angular velocity of joint movements.

Finally, Stadelmann is working on a machine to make devices for blood analysis – the most commonly prescribed medical test in the world – more reliable. The idea is to replace the eyes of a lab technician with a camera that can detect, more or less immediately, any abnormalities in the blood sample.

“Right now it takes three seconds, but that’s still too long,” he says with a smile.

To stay or go?

The young scientist has signed a contract with Bauman that expires in 2018 and is toying with the idea of earning the Russian title of “Doctor”, which would require additional post-doctoral work that must make a “significant contribution to science”.

Even though he has managed to make his mark at one of the most prestigious technical universities in Russia, he still questions his abilities.

“They have a different way of thinking and are able to make links between some elements that I would have never thought of on my own,” he says with admiration.

But there’s hope. In the past few months, “the issue [of staying] has been raised in veiled terms”. 

Known as Bauman University, the school was established in 1763 as the Imperial House of Education of Empress Catherine II. Its current name emerged during the communist era as an homage to Nikolai Ernestovitch Bauman, a Bolschevik who was killed near the main university building during the failed revolution of 1905. It is the second-oldest university in Russia, after the State University of Moscow, founded in 1755.

Bauman is one of the most prestigious universities in the country, having succeeded over the years in acquiring, strengthening, preserving and increasing its specialisations in engineering, a field that still drives its global reputation today.

The university hosts 18,000 students, 400 of them from abroad. These international students are not given access to the departments where sensitive subjects like nuclear technology, power-plant engineering and armaments are taught.

Former students of Bauman include Sergei Korolev, father of the Soviet space programme, Andrei Tupolev, creator of the first civilian supersonic jet, Nikolai Dollezhal, who developed the first nuclear power plant for civilian use, and Pavel Sukhoi, founder of the aeronautical design firm that bears his name.

During the first half of the 20th century, Bauman University established more than 70 engineering schools in Russia and the former Soviet Union, the most prestigious of them being the Institutes of Military Aviation, Power Engineering, Civil Engineering, Communication and Computer Science. All of them are located in Moscow.

It might be surprising to realise when you get to Moscow that the Swiss in general have a sense of goodwill toward strangers. No one in Switzerland would think twice about asking an employee at the train station if they are on the right platform. They would expect to get a polite reply and maybe even an apology if the employee didn’t know the answer.

In Moscow, this is not a good idea. To ask an agent at the counter a question is to set yourself up for an aggressive reply: ‘How should I know?’ I’ve spent weekends in quieter parts of Russia and I can tell you that this is not the norm. And I’ve experienced the other extreme with an old lady in Doubna who took the bus with me just to be able to show me where to get off.

Still, if someone is being mistreated or scorned, the Russians would do anything to help a friend. After a while, it turns out the Russians are extremely warm and more open than the Swiss.

Joël Stadelmann

(Translated from French by Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR