Medical doctor,
immuno-oncology PhD student, and Skoltech alumna

Aleksandra Bugakova, 2023 MSc Alumna | Life Sciences
Meet Sasha Bugakova: a recent Skoltech grad who is not afraid of new beginnings. After 6 years of studying internal medicine, Sasha pursued a newfound passion for neurology and prosthetics. Combining these fields opened incredible opportunities and changed her worldview towards medical biology, leading up to a PhD project in immuno-oncology in Germany and a career in a world-renowned biotech company.
about me

Hi! My name is Sasha, and I am from Moscow. Before Skoltech, I studied at the Sechenov University, Department of Internal Medicine. I spent 6 years there and got a medical diploma and a Medical Doctor license.

Usually, after graduation, people go to residency or directly to work, but I decided to change direction. For a long time, I dreamed about a surgical career, specifically in the fields of neurology and traumotology. I think the anime "Fullmetall Alchemist" strongly influenced me:) And I dreamed that someday I would make a very cool and close-to-real arm prosthesis.

the journey to Skoltech
I started to investigate the field of prosthesis in Russia and found a research group at Skoltech's Center for Neurobiology and Brain Restoration that's doing something similar. I also learned about Motorica — a Skolkovo resident company that makes prosthetics — and its collaboration with Skoltech. The more I read about them, the more excited I got. However, it wasn't an easy decision to terminate my medical path. Probably for a half of the year, I was in doubt.

I finally made up my mind after a Skoltech Open Doors event. When you visit Skoltech in person and see how many amazing and advanced studies are conducted at Skoltech, you realize you have to be a part of them. And of course, the building— you already see yourself sitting there for hours and studying.

Something that struck me at the time is we had a quick tour through the building, and one of the Skoltech students told me that I should study there. Maybe that is a little bit trite, but I still remember that. What can I say? You feel that you have to be a part of Skoltech. And then, after three rounds of the application process, you become a Skoltechian.
research and studies at Skoltech
Hah, okay:) As I already said, I was determined to study protheses, which I actually did! I was a student in Mikhail Lebedev's research group, where I learned how to record and decode EEG, what a brain-computer interface is, and how it can be implemented in medicine. In parallel, we had a lot of comprehensive biology courses (molbio, bioinformatics, etc.), and they were extremely interesting and challenging.

It's funny how life works: the moment when you think you've found your destiny, some cool molecular biology subject may turn everything upside down. I felt that I wanted to do more "biology" and less "physics". But before making any sudden movements, I must try everything I came to Skoltech for.

So my dream came true: I interned at Motorica during my summer industry immersion and literally worked with prostheses and mounted and soldered electronic boards. That was amazing, huge thanks to Mikhail Sintsov for his mentorship.

In hindsight, I think you need a pretty comprehensive mathematical and/or physics background to conduct research in that field at a high level. So I held my breath and asked my supervisor if he knew someone in the field of molecular neurobiology (maybe I can grow nerves for protheses! Probably not:)) And he helped me with that, which I really appreciate.

So what do we have? On September 1 of the second year of my Master's program, I started to work at a new lab. And no, not on a molecular neurobiology study:) On a brain cancer study! It was not a very smooth transition, but I was happy to work at the cellular lab. My lab supervisor was Gaukhar Yusubalieva from FNCC FMBA, and my Skoltech supervisor was Dmitriy Chudakov. The goal of the study was to reproduce the TIL (tumor-imfiltrating lymphocytes) therapy pipeline and assess its feasibility and efficacy on GBM (glioblastoma) models.

I felt that I was in the right place when I was working at the lab. It is a great feeling.

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on switching fields
I believe that my medical background gave me a perception of reality. What can and cannot be implemented? More or less complex understanding of human body systems. When you think about science implementation, this knowledge is very helpful. I wish I had tried lab work earlier, studied math and statistics, and felt less fear. Usually, nobody thinks of you a lot, so just try, fail, and try again. What's the harm?

The internship at Motorica showed me that it is possible to learn stuff from any field; you just need your time and a good mentor. Skoltech encourages you to try your hardest at the very beginning of the Innovation Workshop. Yes, it is scary, but it is an amazing skill. So, probably, people do not have one single destiny in life. You always need to re-evaluate your interests. And that is okay.
a note on studies at Skoltech
It's also worth to mention the Skoltech curriculum. I really think it is great, fun, and hard — sometimes too hard (I still have nightmares about bash script). During the winter individual study period, I took a literature class by Maxim Juk, and I think it changed my perspective on how you should read fiction literature. For two weeks, you feel like a humanities student, and that makes your brain think differently. 100% recommended, for sure.

Thinking back, I am thankful I had a chance to take so many diverse courses at Skoltech. It's a rare opportunity to explore all your different interests and find something at their intersection.

what I'm up to these days
My journey at Skoltech finally led me to the field of medical biology: for a whole year, I've worked at a lab where I discovered the field of immuno-oncology. After that and a series of inspiring lectures by Professor Dmitry Chudakov, I decided to proceed with immune therapies.

One of the trends in the field is Chimeric Antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. It is really promising for different malignancies, and I was lucky to become an industry PhD student at Miltenyi Biotech and work on a project in this field in Germany. Thanks to my supervisors for their help and support!

It is still hard to believe that I made that move. But yes, I am here, writing this text from Cologne after my work day at a big biotech company (yeah, a bit pretentious).
advice to applicants & new students

I might be too young and inexperienced to give advice to scientists:) But I think that students may find my experience helpful.

Be annoying, ask questions, and rely on your own experience, not on others'. And when you feel that you are not in the right place, think about trying something else from the beginning. And that's okay. Yes, there are some very young and very talented students with 10 published articles in Nature. But they are not you, and you are not them. You are a unique person, with your own way in your own time.

Something else I often think about is that life should be comprehensively filled, or you will be burned out in a moment. With hobbies, extracurriculars, friends. Quality time is important. Social networks is not a good quality time (but I feel you).

And don't forget to have fun. Otherwise what is the point of it all? :)

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