Research, entrepreunership, and hockey
Valery Okatenko, 2019| PhD, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Meet Valery Okatenko, a Skoltech graduate who found a way to combine his passion for research, entrepreneurship, hockey and travel. In this True Story, Sergey talks about his path and gives advice to all Skoltech students. Enjoy!
why Skoltech?
My way to Skoltech and where I am now was full of joy and adventure. I was born in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan, spent my childhood on this interface between steppes and Siberia and moved to Moscow at the age of 14.

Thanks to my excellent teachers, I was enrolled to and pursued my Bachelor's degree at Moscow State University in Materials Science department, which was a great place to be exposed to the world of materials science and chemistry. Looking back, that was extremely tough but invaluable experience, which I am super happy about and would advise to anyone, but would not like to repeat it again :) With this background and excellent record, I had freedom in the choice of the place for my future Master's studies.

I first faced Skoltech during my 3rd year at MSU, when I was looking for the lab to do further research. I found a student opening in the group of Prof. Artem Abakumov, and, luckily, I was given a chance to do research there and had an amazing experience as a result. Also, I have to say, I always appreciated wide span of interests and erudition in people, so I never wanted to limit myself with something very specific that early. So, when it came to the point of Master's studies choice of place, I made my decision to go for Skoltech. Here, it was possible not only to do world-class research in a perfectly equipped lab, but also to adjust the curriculum to my personal needs, getting real-world industrial experience and pursuing a block of courses devoted to entrepreneurship, which was my passion at that point and still a point of great interest now, with much more mature understanding on how it works. And, sure, English-speaking environment was a huge plus as well.

Materials Science
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research & entrepreneurship experience at Skoltech
Probably, the best thing about Skoltech is that one is free to take as much as he/she wants: there is no upper limit. For me, that was meeting with great people from various fields not limited to academia. For example, the "Ideas to Impact" course from the entrepreneurship block forced us to leave the comfort zone speculating about ideas and start real case work, performing customer development, talking to target audience and people whom you don't know (which was tough but particularly useful for me as a generally introvert person), and this all followed by further and further iterations. This would also be impossible without deep and intense teamwork, and I was lucky to have great fellows nearby. Then, negotiation skills and stress management courses by Prof. Dmitri Kulish is a special unbelievable experience I will miss a lot!

At the same time, I was making the research I can be proud of, which was focused on the development of new catalyst for modern electrochemical energy storage systems, which is of utmost importance for today's ecological challenges. This research would be impossible without great supervision, and here I would like to take a chance and express my gratitude to Prof. Artem Abakumov, Dr. Maria Kirsanova and Dr. Victoria Nikitina. Their devotion to true science, to guide and give research freedom at the same time is something I will always remember with the warmest feelings possible.
Skoltech hockey club

Here is another example that there's truly no limit on what one can get at Skoltech. As -40 C in winter is not something scary to me, I have been playing ice hockey since childhood, as many other people in that place of the world. I knew that Skoltech was saying to provide an opportunity to start a sports club if there was passion in students. After realising I was not the only one passionate about it, I thought establishing hockey club would be an excellent training to develop and improve the various set of skills. Amazing and friendly discussions with very intelligent people, including the Skoltech President Prof. Alexander Kuleshov, team of fellows nearby and the support of various departments, both organisational and financial, made it happen. We started training, which was also amazing place for informal communication between students, scientists and faculty. As Master's studies lasts only two years, we have already forwarded the guidance to the next generation. The feeling when something created with your direct participation and passion lives further, even when you already left, is hard to compare with anything else. Moreover, in winter 2019/2020, the guys took the first place in the league and won the cup. So, please, feel free to join the club and develop it further! I hope its history will last very long.

academic mobility experience

As modern world is global, international experience is important both for personal growth and CV when applying for many attractive positions. Skoltech gave a chance to perform academic mobility, which, in my case, was a 4-months internship in the group of Prof. Jean-Marie Tarascon, who is one of the most recognised scholars in the batteries research field. The group is based in College de France, Paris, which was founded in 1530 as the place to perform top research and deliver science to everyone who wishes to join the course, with no cost and diploma programs: free education as it is. Research experience was obviously great, but living in Paris, which is one of my favourite places in the world, travel around northern France and seeing the ocean is the experience I will never forget. It also made the PhD interview a bit nicer, as, being in Paris, I was invited for in-person interview, and it took me only several hours by train to go to Switzerland and combine it with the weekend there. By the way, combination of the Skoltech scholarship program, academic performance and a bit of tutoring gave me a chance to travel quite a lot independently and without having to ask for any help from parents, which broadened my horizons a lot and helped to make a more reasoned decision on future career path.

how Skoltech helped you to achieve your goals?
Skoltech gives a chance to get all the relevant hard skills for those who want to grow into a great specialist. What is unique is that it gives appropriate training not only in hard skills but also in soft skills by being exposed to various environments, communicating with different people, etc. When I was searching for the place for my future PhD, there were two places which seemed most appealing to me. There was a very nice conference in one of them, and, thanks to the support from my scientific advisor at Skoltech, I was able to present the results there and talk with people around, which helped me a lot to decide what I like more and where to go. Now I am exactly in the place and situation I wanted to be, and that's a very cool feeling.

Obviously, motivated and hard-working people will, probably, find their way to their dreams in any case, but it is way more effective to do it in a supportive environment rather than going against the circumstances all the way long. From this perspective, Skoltech, both as the university and the ecosystem, is a great place to be a part of!

advice for students in STEM
Three things, though trivial:

1. Believe in what you are doing and why. It is applicable to every aspect: research topic, curriculum, place, people. Otherwise, you will burnout.
2. Think in advance, but don't worry too much about the future.
3. Go towards your own vision of happiness, whatever it is, even though others may disagree.

Everyone has periods of procrastination, which is a normal reaction for those who have ambitions and still have human feelings. It's great when people know where they will be in ten years, but it's still ok when not. The best thing about solid STEM background is very high, probably the highest, degree of flexibility about future career paths. Science, industry, entrepreneurship, management, finances, consulting - hard skills are set, soft skills come with experience (still good to work on, though). We have much less training in economics, for example, but it is way easier to learn a bit of economics with maths background we alreafy have than for economists to learn a bit of chemistry.

Finally, I would like to wish a bit of luck and having good and reliable people around. With this finishing touch, you will have all it takes to really enjoy every aspect of your life!

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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