I can see Russia from my lab
A summer in Moscow
I spent my summer at the National Nuclear Research University MEPhI in the southern outskirts of Moscow, Russia. The Kremlin was just barely visible across Kolomenskoe Park on a clear day. My labmates had a telescope pointed at it and got a kick out of showing every visitor who passed through.
I worked in the Laser Diagnostics Lab writing software for a laser interferometer. Interferometry is a technique in which a beam of light with known properties is modified, in this case by changing the frequency, and the resulting interference pattern is then studied. My lab’s interferometer used the Doppler effect to measure the speed of a shockwave through a material which has applications to fusion physics.
The lab was similar to any in the U.S., though maybe more hierarchical and with later work hours. I found that the divide between physicists and programmers was a far bigger challenge than Russians vs. Americans, albeit with an extra layer of complication, courtesy of the language barrier. My labmates were much better at English than I was at Russian, but their technical vocabulary was mostly limited to physics. One highlight of the barrier was a team effort between me and a grad student to fix some settings on my computer, which had Russian as its system language, using instructions written in English. Some things can be communicated via charades, but “environment variable” is not one of those things.
Outside of work, the language barrier continued to be a challenge. The first three days were by far the hardest — food, water, internet, phone service, power outlets, laundry, and ATMs were all adventures. I didn’t bring any water my first night and had been warned not to drink from the faucet, and I had no idea there was a 24-hour grocery store a hundred feet up the road. Once I did find the grocery store, my first few visits caused delays at the register until I figured out that you’re supposed to weigh your own produce, and you have to bring a passport to buy energy drinks because the cashier refuses to be convinced they’re not alcoholic.
Being totally responsible for myself while simultaneously having no clue what I was doing made me better at going with the flow and accepting that sometimes I’m going to be the person in the way or holding up the line. Of course I’d rather not make other people’s lives more difficult, but sometimes it’s going to happen anyway, and this experience helped me stop agonizing over every little faux pas I make. I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for people who are far from home and don’t know the language or how to get around.
My Russian wasn’t good enough to have a conversation deeper than “Does this bus go to Kashirskaya?” with anyone who didn’t speak English, so most of the cultural quirks I noticed were oddly specific superficial traits. Your average Muscovite, in my experience, hates rain, loves sour cream, probably has a Chihuahua, and drives like the highway is a Mario Kart track and they’re here to win. If they’re male, they can do an ungodly number of pull-ups and there’s a statistically significant chance they’re wearing Adidas; if they’re female, they’re dressed to kill and have 50-50 odds of being named Svetlana.
There was a definite old-fashioned-ness to the gender roles. I couldn’t pick up anything weighing more than ten pounds without a Russian guy appearing from nowhere and offering to get it for me. The woman giving me Russian lessons was floored to learn women do martial arts in America, and I spent a solid minute convincing a clerk that yes, I really did want to buy the brown wallet and not the sparkly purple one.
Learning about Russian culture was very interesting, but it was even more thought-provoking to distinguish what’s uniquely American from what’s just human. My surroundings ranged from surreal to totally familiar. There’s something reassuring about seeing a Russian nuclear physicist try to push a door that says “pull” and realizing people aren’t so different.
That fly on the wall perspective defined my summer. At first I spent my free time in my room, usually reading the news (and trying not to think about it too hard), but by August my Russian had improved, and I started wandering around Moscow alone. A particularly memorable experience was going to the sky bar at the top of Swissotel. I did it because it was so outside the norm of anything I would usually do — my idea of “dressing up” is jeans instead of sweatpants, and I have no idea how to conduct myself in a bar given that I can’t legally go to one in America — but I figured it would be an interesting way to leave my comfort zone and practice existing in a new environment. I dug a blazer out of my suitcase, somehow found a pair of black pants and heels that fit, and made a reservation for one on a Tuesday night.
Sure enough, it was uncomfortably fancy and full of Russian couples on date night. (My date, of course, was a Python book.) But the food and cocktails were incredible, especially the obligatory Moscow Mule, and watching the sun set was the highlight of my summer. Seeing the lights of the ring roads and City Center from the 34th floor drove home how very, very far from Boston I was, but there’s something about looking out over Moscow at night that makes you start dreaming a little bigger than psets and startups and mobile apps. My mom put it well: “It’s always good to air out the nerds.”
I went into this summer with no idea of what to expect and ended up learning about everything from Python to geopolitics in a way that could never happen in class. The inherently cross-disciplinary nature of MISTI is a totally unique experience. It’s a cliché, but to describe what I’ve gotten out of it, the first thing that comes to mind is “perspective.” My sense of what America is in the context of the rest of the world has changed — before this summer, I had never left the country; asking me to describe the U.S. was like asking me to explain what water tastes like. After three months in which it was suddenly the most salient part of my identity, I have a much better idea of what “American” means, and what I want it to mean.
The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) program is MIT’s flagship international education program. If you can see yourself joining a team of BMW engineers in Munich, teaching technology entrepreneurship in South Africa, testing solar panels in Israel, or tackling a research problem at the Curie Institute in Paris, then you’re ready to join MISTI. Learn more at misti.mit.edu.