A theorist from Afonino village
In: «Nizhegorodskii Potential' journal of the Nizhny Novgorod Research Center RAS, № 2, 2012
Our «New Names' column guest today is a research associate with the IPMRAS, candidate of physical and mathematical sciences, Mikhail Silaev.
Mikhail Andreyevich Silaev graduated with honors from the NNSU Advanced School for General and Applied Physics (ASGAP) in 2005 with a Master’s degree in physics. Since 2003 he has been affiliated with the IPM RAS. In the period of 2005-2008 he completed a full-time postgraduate course at IPM RAS and defended his PhD thesis: «Electron structure and transport properties of the mixed state of mesoscopic superconductors'.
In 2008-2011 he worked at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, аnd in the low-temperatures laboratory at the Helsinki University of Technology, Finland. At present he is a research associate with the mesoscopic systems theory lab, involved in studies of the vortex state properties of superconductors and superfluids, аnd quantum transport in mesoscopic superconducting structures.
Mikhail is author of 15 publications in leading scientific journals, winner of the Razuvayev regional competition for postgraduates, holder of the «Dynasty\' foundation scholarship for undergraduates, postgraduates and PhDs, winner of the National Science Support Foundation «Best graduates of RAS' scholarship. He is currently supervisor of the RFFR and RF President grants program for young candidates of science.
— Mikhail, tell us a few words about yourself.
— I was born on 11 November 1983 in Gorky. My father is a D. Sc in physics and mathematics, for a long time he had a teaching position at the University. At present he is head of the economic theory department at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). Mother is a radio engineer by education, she worked at the Gorky Radio Engineering Research Institute аnd now teaches at HSE. My younger brother and sister are twins. Brother is currently an IAP RAS postgraduate student and sister is a teacher at HSE, too.
I finished school №40. I can’t say that physics was among my favourite subjects then, I was more keen on chemistry and even attended the «young chemist school' at the University. I applied to the HSGAP mostly because the best brains from our graduation class went there. As a matter of fact, I was very lucky with fellow students in terms of their aptitude for physics and math. And, since I had to work hard all the time to keep up with them, I graduated from the university with honors. The educational process in the HSGAP is oriented towards academically strong students, one may flunk any time for poor performance. I remember two cases when students were expelled shortly before graduation. At HSGAP they work real hard indeed.
— Why did you choose IPM RAS?
— In our third year at the university we were to do a course project either in IAP RAS or in IPM RAS. Some sixth sense told me it would be more interesting to work at the Institute for Physics of Microstructures, in the superconductor physics department. And it proved to be the right choice. I met many professionals who were genuinely into science. When you find yourself in such an environment, you are sure to get inspired and willing to work. Besides, there is no rigid administering of a researcher’s activities. The range of problems addressed in the department is determined by the research areas of interest to its most active scientists, but one is free to choose one' specific problem for investigation.
Although the general direction of research was suggested by my scientific advisor, Alexander Sergeyevich Melnikov, I was given enough freedom to formulate and solve a few problems on my own. I thus wrote two articles that presented a certain interest to the scientific community and helped establish international contacts. Of course, it was largely owing to A. M. Melnikov’s assistance. At one conference he introduced me to Grigorii Yefimovich Volovik, professor from the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics in Chernogolovka, with whom I did a few works later.
— When one is on a solo flight it is easy to lose a direction.
— There is a risk involved, but I am always open to counsel. In our lab you can ask advice of qualified researchers who will tell you whether this or that problem is worth taking up, and you can be perfectly sure of it being an objective judgment.
— What are you doing now?
— A new class of multiband superconductors was discovered recently, they are special for their superconducting state being formed by electrons of several different types. I study the properties of Abrikosov vortices in these extraordinary superconductors. Besides, professor G. Ye. Volovik suggested that we consider a few problems together on topological superconductors, which is a fairly «trendy\' field of research currently. Topological superconductors and insulators are the entire variety of recently discovered semiconductors and metals in which free electrons are localized near the boundary.
Independent activity of young scientists is encouraged and supported in our laboratory in every way, and I like this style of work. I think our lab is one of the few in our town, where the focus is on theoretical physics. That such an approach yields good results is confirmed by a large number of publications of our scientists in recognized scientific journals. For example, I recently succeeded in placing my article in one of the most reputed journals, «Physical Review Letters'. To have it done on one’s own, without well-known names on the list of co-authors is big luck for a young scientist.
— What other interesting problems have you solved?
— One of the most interesting problems was given me by my supervisor, А. S. Melnikov, when I just started the PhD studies. Its solution is very important fundamentally as providing insights into the properties of the electron spectrum in superconductors with the Abrikosov vortices. The result of this work turned out quite surprising and allowed us to offer new interpretation of the experimental data that remained unclear to that moment.
I am also interested in topological superconductors and related issues. It was great working on the problems stated by G. Ye. Volovik and I look forward to our cooperation in the future. All the more so that this area is an active research trend currently and the publications immediately attract attention of the scientific community. Many leading scientists in the field of solid-state physics are now focused on study of topological superconductors and insulators. Very likely, the compounds that can be used in applications are near at hand. One key player on this field is professor Shoucheng Zhang of Stanford University. His research group is very productive, they have been uncovering new amazing properties in topological superconductors and insulators continuously of late.
— Would you like to work for a while in such a laboratory?
— Sure, but a young scholar from a Russian province can only dream about it. At least today. Scientists of that status are hard to make contacts with. And this is an objective reality. Our achievements in the physics of superconductors are not very well known yet. Besides, even with interesting results and publications you will have to take pains to win recognition from the scientific community in the West, if you work in Russia. It is common knowledge that scientific results get stolen, and once we too fell victim to such a rip-off. Some persons from a rather famous western research group just took a few formulas from the article we wrote with A. S. Melnikov and had them published as their own in a reputed western journal. To defend oneself against piracy in such a case is impossible, unfortunately.
— So, they do keep track of the young Russian scientists' achievements?
— They do. And one may find comfort in the thought that this is also acknowledgment of its kind. Of course, to be recognized by the scientific community is very important, but I enjoy the mere process of problem solving rather than disseminating my ideas and competing with rivals.
— You recently came back from Stockholm. What did you do there?
— That trip was connected with my research interest that I've already mentioned, i. e., investigation of multiband superconductors. It all started with my finding a rather peculiar feature in the vortex structure in a two-band superconductor near the boundary. I had the results published in a journal and soon received a letter from Yegor Babayev, a young professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Yegor is a FizTekh graduate, he did his PhD program in Sweden, worked as a postdoc with famous Neil Ashcroft in the USA, and then got a permanent position in Stockholm. He offered me a postdoctoral job but I refused to take up the position and arranged just for a few months of work in his lab. I was given a leave of absence from the IPM, and I am very grateful to the leaders of our department for that. I must say, I was not the only one to have had such an opportunity, young scientists at the Institute always get support and encouragement in terms of overseas work and traineeship.
— Your have earned praise of your senior colleagues and know yourself you have achieved a certain success. Aren’t you afraid of «stardom disease'?
— No, I am not, because I am protected by the harsh reality of life.
- A beautifully put phrase, but what does it imply?
— One has to constantly confirm one’s gained success and self-sustainablity, especially, if one works in a small institute near some Afonino village rather than in a world-famous research center.
— You mean, Afonino guarantees immunity to stardom disease?
— In a way. But it does not mean I want to change my work place. I like it a lot here. When I was working in Stockholm, for example, I didn’t see so many highly qualified scientists gathered in one place, the experts you can learn from and talk the same language to. I want and aspire to be their match!
— Do everyday life concerns interfere with your scientific activities?
— I can say that «the needy theoretical scientist' stereotypes are often too exaggerated. Of course, the financial well-being of young scientists largely depends on grants and scholarships from various foundations. Fortunately, the young researchers at IPM RAS are pretty well supported by Dmitry Zimin’s «Dynasty\' Foundation. When I was a postgraduate, their scholarship was higher than the salary, and it was a tangible support. At that time my wife and I, we lived separately from our parents but we had enough money to manage on our own.
- Is your wife in science too?
— Yes. She graduated from the NNSU radiophysics department, defended a PhD thesis recently and now works at the IAP RAS. Actually, we met at the summer school held by the INTEL corporation for university students. Out of mere curiosity I decided to participate in that workshop and it turned out worth it.
— Is there anything else in your life apart from physics?
— Of course, we live like all young people do. We like entertainment and recreation activities. And we don’t talk shop at home because we are in different fields of research. Mine is solid state physics and my wife is involved in hydrophysics. These sciences have little, if anything, in common, and we are not looking for things to share on the professional side. There are many other exciting topics.
— I wish you continued success in the future!
Interviewed by I. Tikhonova