"I think that it is right to study in different universities"
Mark Garnitsky, a student of the Data Analysis in Biology and Medicine master's programme is studying for one year at Ghent University in Belgium. We asked Mark to tell us about his story at the Faculty of Computer Science, his academic mobility experience and the social life during the pandemic.
I was in the maths class in high school; in the last grade, I won the Moscow School Olympiad in mathematics and was choosing which university to enter - MIPT, MSU or HSE University. The Faculty of Computer Science here was but one year old, so it was a risky choice.
Based on what I knew at the time, I thought that HSE University was about applied skills. I decided that I would be interested in learning something complicated and investing in my knowledge — it would give me more in the long run. Besides, HSE University ranks highly among the young universities of Russia. So I chose to enrol in the Applied Mathematics and Information Science bachelor's programme. Over the years, I became convinced that the curriculum here, at the Faculty, is better than at the other universities I was considering.
When I was applying to the master's programme, I was choosing between Skoltech and HSE University. I did not get into Skoltech, but even if I had, it would still have been very difficult because their programme in life sciences is connected with wet-lab methods; it's not an easy task for someone without experience. The opportunity for academic mobility was also very important to me. So I ended up enrolling in the DSBA programme.
At the International Laboratory of Bioinformatics, under Maria Poptsova I did research in genomics and wrote my bachelor's thesis there. I was developing an algorithm for finding motifs in the intersection of quadruplexes and histone labels. It's quite theoretical work, but in the future, it will find applications in personalised medicine. I also did an internship at Skoltech with Philip Heitovich.
I knew about the academic mobility programme for a long time; it was one of the benefits when applying to HSE University. I think that it is right to study in different universities. It seems to me that every university has a certain "stagnation of ideas", because the staff, the academics communicate with each other and are influenced by each other. To be in an environment where this influence doesn't exist is always very useful.
When choosing a university, I looked first of all at their rankings and second at the courses offered to exchange students. Ghent University stands quite high in the rankings. A lot of people here are involved in immunology, and teachers of various courses — neurobiology, molecular biology, proteomics — talk about the achievements of recent years specifically in immunology, because everyone is involved. In this way, the teachers here have a common interest, and I can get the kind of experience that cannot be found elsewhere.
When I arrived, I was tested for coronavirus and quarantined for seven days. It was a controversial measure because accommodation in Ghent is very dear and I stayed in a hostel, in a room for six people. After seven days, I took another test and was released from quarantine. I also had to be re-vaccinated.
The rules in Belgium are generally adequate, when I arrived I didn't even have to wear a mask in the shops, although now the rules have been tightened up again. Nevertheless, the learning is offline, and that's the most important thing.
Most of the learning in the local master's (and doctoral) programmes consist of lectures and an exam at the end, although there is group work that takes place offline, too, like discussing papers. There's no cumulative, which makes a big difference to me because I'm used to them, but here everything depends on one day. The session here takes place in January.
I haven't yet chosen my supervisor or the topic of my thesis — I think it will be neurobiology, immunology or pharmacology. It is possible that I will write my thesis here, and then defend it at HSE University.
It's very hard for me because I have a big workload. The courses I take are taken from different educational programmes and different years of study. Some courses involve three years of undergraduate biochemistry, so I have to catch up.
Ghent is a very small city, I can reach the university in 10 minutes by bicycle, it changes my day quite a bit because in Moscow I have to travel for over an hour. There are very few cars, especially compared to Moscow, and a lot of people ride bikes.
Purely empirically, I can say that in Belgium very many people speak English. The first day I went to the bus driver at the airport and asked him how to get to Ghent - in English, and he explained everything to me. The fact that I don't know any of the official languages of Belgium — Dutch, French and German — didn't make it very difficult, although the local students still communicate in their language.
There was a Belgian in my group, who had learned Russian, and quite well too. He invited me to a school for Belgians who want to learn Russian, and now I go there and interact with the students as a native speaker, and at the same time learn some Dutch. If I have more time in the second semester, I'll start learning it more actively.
There is a student organisation here in Ghent that organises leisure activities for students. It's linked to Erasmus, but I can also join it by buying a card. There are discounts for the members, they organize different activities, paintball, tours. I haven't joined yet because of the heavy workload, but I plan to do so if I have time.
Students are entitled to many perks, such as cheap bicycle rentals. Housing here is very expensive, many landlords don't want to rent without a face-to-face meeting, and dorms are few and far between and you have to book them in advance, right after you're nominated for mobility. I, for example, applied too late and didn't get a dorm room.
Belgian Week for exchange students was recently held here. There I met with the founder of a startup who talked about his experiences. Recently there was a street light exhibition in Ghent, and there was a whole itinerary of different artworks related to light in the evenings.
All in all, I enjoy mobility a lot, and the city, the studies, and the people.