Cracking the code to aging with theoretical physics, data science and biomedicine.
Andrei Tarkhov, 2020 | Gero, Principal Researcher
Meet Andrei Tarkhov, Skoltech PhD graduate and a true multidisciplinary expert in aging research. He managed to combine his expertise and intuition from fundamental theoretical physics with cutting-edge biomedical research on one of the most challenging problems for modern society — aging. In this story, Andrei talks about his experience of changing research fields and gives advice to all Skoltech students.
why Skoltech
Before applying for a PhD program at Skoltech, I got my Specialist's degree in 2016 from Lomonosov Moscow State University, Physics Department. However, in my third year, I started an internship at a small pharmaceutical company and later turned into an undergraduate researcher there. That is one of the reasons why, very early in my career, I realized that the fundamental knowledge and education that I obtained at MSU could not guarantee that I'd be a sought-after employee after graduation. Moreover, I felt a huge gap between fundamental education and real-world problems, especially, in such a rapidly developing field as biotech. I wish I could have applied for a Bachelor's degree at MSU to obtain fundamental education, and after that go for a Master's degree at Skoltech, where a strong collaboration with industry is welcomed and facilitated. By my graduation, I had been receiving invitations to join the Master's program at Skoltech for almost two years.

When I figured out that Skoltech was founded in close collaboration with MIT, and was supposed to become the Russian MIT, I didn't hesitate any more and applied for a PhD program there. I had to decide whether to apply for a biotech program or a physics program. My choice of physics was motivated by the fact that PhD is a way to learn how to do research. Though the specialization is important, it's a good practice to change the field of research after getting a PhD. I opted for getting a full physics education while continuing to work on aging and biology. Overall, during my years at Skoltech, I managed to publish papers on both the biology of aging and physics for my PhD Thesis. Interestingly, my papers on aging are way better cited than on physics. Though, a high citation rate of my physics papers never was my main goal in pursuing my PhD in physics.

My second option for PhD was the University of Southampton, I applied for it and got admitted there. Yet, the education there is not free, and the tuition fee turned out to be almost 37000 pounds per year, which I only partially managed to cover by grants. Given that the faculty of Skoltech is mostly international and has spent many years working at leading universities worldwide, including some of the lecturers who are themselves from the University of Southampton, and are working at Skoltech now, I decided to start my PhD at Skoltech.

The third important advantage of Skoltech was that it motivates its students to think like entrepreneurs about the commercialization of their research. That was an important point for my further career path. Since at some point in my career I'd like to start my own biotech company.

Physics PhD Program
This program is a synergy of digital technologies, engineering science, and applied mechanics. It is aimed at the development of simulation-driven design of advanced materials, structures, and engineering systems with enhanced lifecycle and improved mechanical and physical characteristics demanded in high-tech industries. It prepares the next generation of researchers, engineers, and practitioners to assume the role of technical leadership in research and innovation. Learn more.
current job
Currently, my position at Gero is a principal researcher. Gero is a data-driven biotech startup. My skills in theoretical physics and data analysis help me lead a project on searching for new pharmacological treatments that would extend life in model organisms (and, hopefully, in humans sometime!). We extensively use AI and other methods of machine learning for analysing huge amounts of biological and medical data. Also, we are trying to quantify aging processes, and develop biomarkers for them (in various biological signals: -omics, medical tests data, and signals from wearable/mobile devices). In one project of Gero, we analyze wearable/mobile and IoT time-series data to help people stay healthy all life long. Our team is skilled in data- and time series processing and has been successfully doing translational research: bringing the results of research to the practical implementation for customers. We employ the full stack of deep learning models for feature extraction, training autoencoders and then quantifying physical processes of aging to predict early signs of health risks and guide users to avoid them.
career path
In my third year at MSU, I started attending public lectures at RQC in Skolkovo. There, I found out about the website of Skolkovo Residents' vacancies. Then, I applied for an HPC C++ programmer's position. Even though I wasn't fit for that position, I was hired as an undergraduate researcher after a several-month internship. At that moment, the company just started a project on aging research. In a sense, I was so lucky to be one of the first employees working on aging. Slowly, our focus changed from a more traditional pharma to the aging and age-related diseases alone. We pivoted to aging, and started a new company, Gero. The field of aging research is rather young, mostly because the problem is so challenging that only in recent years people started to think about practically approaching it, and stopped thinking about aging as something technically inevitable. Thanks to the big data hype and advances in high-throughput omics biotechnologies, large biobanks (such as the UK BioBank) started gathering lots of data on public health and aging, which aging researchers are now using worldwide.

While working for Gero, I did an internship at one of the oldest Russian institutes studying aging, the Institute of Biology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. I got some experimental experience on studying aging in the model organism, the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, in the Laboratory of Molecular Radiobiology and Gerontology headed by Prof. Dr. Alexey Moskalev.

I've been working on different aspects of the problem of aging for almost 8 years by now. It took several years for me to adapt to the field's specifics, and start producing results. First, more theoretical ones, and later, we managed to achieve non-trivial results in the practical life extension of C.elegans nematodes. That paper attracted a lot of attention, and was listed top-1 on Cell and Molecular Biology in Scientific Reports in 2019.

In 2018-2019, Skoltech sponsored two of my trips to the U.S.: a 6-week internship at MIT, and a visit to the American Physical Society annual conference, where I presented the results related to my thesis. Also, while being in Boston, I gave a talk on aging at Harvard Medical School, and I guess it contributed a lot to the fact that some time ago, I received an invitation to do a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Prof. Vadim Gladyshev, who has also been studying aging for a long time. We have already started a remote collaboration, and are currently working on several interesting aging problems.

a typical day in the life of a researcher
Even though Gero is a startup, we are doing a lot of research. A large share of my work is like everyone's else in the academy: doing research, reading and writing papers, and presenting them at conferences. Some specifics are related to the commercial part: we are unable to publish everything we do because some parts of our results are commercially interesting. So, we have to spend a lot of time on writing patent applications and protecting our intellectual property. Another complication is that when we collaborate with academic institutions, we have to negotiate what part of the produced intellectual property belongs to Gero and what is transferred to the institute.

Of course, there is no way to study aging now without doing a lot of data science. That's why I also do what data scientists do every day: requesting and preparing data, training and validating models. Sometimes, they're as simple as linear regression. Sometimes, it is a complex deep neural network (if we are lucky enough to get enough biomedical data for that!).

Since we are a "dry" company, we are focused on data analysis. We outsource all "wet" experiments to our contractors in other companies and academic laboratories, for example, in the US and Singapore. I am responsible for keeping in contact with them on the project's updates. So, a part of my work is writing emails and communicating with them. It does take a lot of time to make sure that everyone is on the same page and everything is going on as planned! And it is also stressful and demanding at times when you find yourself discussing experiments or papers after midnight because your colleagues are either +8 or -8 hours away from you.

The aging field is relatively young and actively developing. Hence, we are trying to disclose all scientifically interesting results, of course, after our intellectual property has been protected by filing a patent application.
from Skoltech to real life
Since I'm working in a different field (the biology of aging, data science) than my PhD thesis (theoretical physics). I'd rather say that I apply not some explicit knowledge that I obtained during my PhD (with a lot of exceptions). What I think is really important for my current job is the tacit knowledge of approaching a problem as a scientist, how to do research, how to present it at a conference or in private talks to other people, how to read and write scientific papers, how to manage my time. I cannot underestimate the importance of the way of thinking my supervisor Prof. Dr. Boris Fine taught me while we were discussing theoretical physics. It helps identify the most important aspects of the problem and neglect everything else. The knowledge about intellectual property and how to protect it is also extremely important for me now.

As I said, the specific knowledge in physics is not crucial in the field of aging. Nobody knows why aging is happening and how to stop or reverse it. However, the physics background helps in identifying what, at least in theory, can be relevant and what's not. Physicists are the best at estimating the quantitative importance of various processes and phenomena and neglecting everything but the largest one. Such a skill is crucial in the aging field because almost everything changes in an organism with age but not everything causes those changes.

Another important thing I learnt at Skoltech is perseverance. Without it, one cannot withstand the pressure of research work. It is extremely stressful to work on a problem that no one knows how to approach, and there is no guarantee that the solution even exists. The time it takes to obtain tangible results can be as long as several years — an easy way to get depressed and lose enthusiasm. Skoltech taught me how to stay motivated to continue research and look for other approaches even if the problem looks frightening.

Of course, I'm trying to find applications for my specific knowledge in theoretical physics.

advice to new students
Do not be afraid of making your dreams come true. Follow the path that attracts and excites you most. If you chose some field in high school, when you had almost no knowledge of what the world around really looks like, and later realized that it is not what you'd like to do in your life: do not allow the sunk cost of having done that degree to spoil your future. If you feel that something motivates you — do not ignore those feelings, they are trying to guide you! Listen to them and your intuition, they know what is best for you. Even if you failed in pursuing your passion, it would always be easier to get back to what you know than to try something new.
and now about Skoltech
We are Skoltech – a new international English-speaking STEM university that was founded by the group of world-renowned scientists in 2011 in Moscow, Russia. In just 8 years, we united dozens of researchers and globally renowned professors, built a stunning campus, set up world-class labs and made it to the top 100 young universities in the Nature Index. Read more >>
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