Science - June 14, 2007

‘Science is part of our lives’

It is not uncommon for a son to follow in his father’s footsteps, but your whole family working in the same scientific field is less heard of. Russian PhD student Sasha Semenov shares his scientific research with several relatives.

Sasha Semonov (left) together with his supervisor Professor Aad Temorshuizen (centre) and uncle Alexander Semonov (right).
Sasha wrote his first scientific article together with his father while doing his MSc in soil science. Now he is doing a PhD in Biological Farming Systems at Wageningen University and works closely with his uncle. His mother and some of his best friends also work in the same research area.

It is a phenomenon that is closely linked with Russian history, tells Sasha. ‘During the Soviet era scientists were highly respected. This was not only reflected in their salaries, but also in their daily lives: they were at the top of the status list.’ This focus on science resulted in whole towns being built up that specialised in specific subjects, like physics or, in the case of Sasha’s family, the biological sciences. ‘I was born in Pushchino, a town about the same size as Wageningen. With thirteen institutes all doing biology-related research, ranging from soil biology to biochemistry and cells, it is the centre for biological sciences in Russia. Everybody in town is involved somehow,’ he tells. ‘When you live in a community like this it is hard to imagine doing anything else.’

Dinner table
Already at the age of ten, Sasha used to hang out with friends in their parents’ laboratories. ‘It was not like we felt obliged to become scientists. I also had time for football for example, but we were simply intrigued by the chemical reactions and electronic microscopes.’

With both of his parents working in the biological sciences, many conversations at home were about the subject. ‘It never annoyed me. Here, I often hear people say they don’t want to speak about their work outside the office. In Russia we talk about it a lot in our free time. Not in a complicated way, but relaxed, while having dinner for example. Science is simply part of our daily lives.’

One of the big advantages of family relationships in science is the network and experience that comes with it. ‘My father’s specialisation is nitrogen and carbon cycles in the soil. My MSc thesis on greenhouse gases overlapped with this, so he helped me out in writing an article.’

Now, Sasha is doing research on human pathogens in vegetable production chains, which has less in common with his father’s field area. But he still has other contacts, like his uncle, whose focus is soil microbiology. ‘He works at the Moscow State University. Through a joint project with Wageningen UR he knew my current professor at Wageningen University. This gave me the opportunity to come to Wageningen for a practical in the summer of 2002. But it’s not like everything is handed to me on a plate,’ he emphasises. ‘Because I did okay the first time, I was invited for a second summer practical and later on to do my PhD.’

Although his scientific roots are in Russia, Sasha wants to stay in Western Europe for a while. ‘Things have changed in Russia,’ he says. ‘When I was growing up, I saw my father doing interesting stuff and making enough money. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineties, government support for science stopped, and as a result its status dropped immediately. Now it is much less attractive for young people.’

Nevertheless, his younger brother is still planning on becoming scientist. ‘Also in soil science,’ he says, laughing at the coincidence. ‘It might seem a little bit strange to non-Russians, but for us it’s not that unusual to have friends and relatives working in the same scientific field,’ Sasha concludes.