Science excelled all jobs because it is perspective: 10 questions to scientist
YEREVAN, MARCH 31, ARMENPRESS. Sargis Aghayan, an alumnus of Photon college in Gyumri, who was keen on math and physics, entered the Department of Biophysics at Yerevan State University in order to specialize in bioinformatics, but a different career path was meant for him. Due to scarcity in the number of entrants, the Department of Bioinformatics didn’t actually open, so Sargis had to continue with biophysics. Later on, he was offered to do his PhD in the Institute of Zoology in the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia and do research aimed at the varieties and prevalence of parasites, as well as parasite-host relationships. Participation in an international Armenian-Portuguese PhD program appeared to be a turning point in Sargis’s career, paving the way for his further success.
Were there any people around you who encouraged or supported you to become a scientist?
My family has always been all for studying. My father is an athlete, my mother is an economist, I preferred professions related to math and physics, but I came to be involved in biology coincidentally. I was admitted to the university with an interview, as a Photon graduate. Initially, no one could imagine I would ever become a scientist because not until the end of my Master’s and during my PhD did my further activity become apparent. During university studies, along with my job at the Institute of Molecule Biology, I also worked as a night watchman at a store, just like any normal student (laughs), I always felt my family’s support. But for their support, I wouldn’t have made it. Instead, I could have done accounting or any other job that would earn me a living and cover my expenses. Both me and my sister managed to overcome a great deal of deprivation, as she was also studying chemistry and now she is a scientist as well.
How would you describe a scientist? Also, talk about certain changes in your idea of a scientist if there’ve been any.
Biologists always seemed a bit weird to me. At school, when I was taken to the biology Olympiad, I used to run to the physics auditorium as soon as the teacher left me on my own. I always avoided biology, I’d even say, biologists (smiles). Their way of thinking was different, starting from the way of solving textbook assignments. The students with a mathematical way of thinking saw them completely differently, so the biologists’ methods and approaches were quite strange to us. They were thought to be ‘slow’ and lacking savvy. Later on, we discovered math was the toughest subject in the faculty of biology- half of the students flunked exams, the lecturers were too strict. And this was the strangest thing for me. I easily went through those stages as math had always been my major. Later, when you dig deeper, you come to realize that the object of 90% of research in natural sciences is, in fact, biological. These are proteins, living organisms used for various experiments. Biology is ubiquitous and I’d say chemists, physicists and other scientists lack biological knowledge. Most frequently scientists are unable to comprehend the meaning and explanation of various outcomes they get.
What motivates you to get up in the mornings?
It’s not some motivation but rather the alarm that wakes me up, to manage to take the children to school. Scientists are a little pragmatic- we get up as we’ve got to, in order to get everything done. Indeed, work is a driving force personally for me, the most essential part of life after family. As a matter of fact, scientist’s work is time-consuming, tense at times, but we can’t do without work, one needs to be busy with something, be pleased with whatever they do, observe the advance and keep moving forward. As I mentioned above, I had quite a lot of different jobs, including accounting, but I quit everything as I kept asking myself whether it was something I intended to do some 10 years later. Therefore, science excelled over all other jobs as you can see much more progress in science than in any other field in 10 years.
What is the discovery that impressed you the most in the field of your activity?
I’ve undergone dramatic changes professionally- from physmath to biophysics, from biophysics to parasitology- parasite behaviours were a revelation for me. Surprisingly, different subspecies of the same parasite or different genetic features, as we call them, occur differently in the same animal species. The subject matter of my PhD research was malaria in birds and its pathogens. My discovery was that the same parasite can occur differently in different bird species, be easily contracted in some birds, while not contracted in other species. These were my first results which appeared to be a revelation for other scientists as well, and they were published in a renowned journal which excited and inspired me a lot. I couldn’t even imagine the world of parasites would be so riveting.
Do you have any role models among scientists?
Within the framework of my thesis paper, while exploring the subject matter, I had the industry leaders in mind, who had books and actively published articles. I had a golden opportunity to meet them all at a conference in Vilnius in 2013, where I realized I was surrounded by living legends. It was an extremely enjoyable experience- people, whose books you’ve read and quoted in your paper, are all in one place and came over as ordinary people, which appealed to me the most. I invited some of them to Armenia where they familiarized themselves with our work. As regards role models, I always wondered why we didn’t have a Nobel Prize winner from Armenia. Last year, luckily, our compatriot Artem Pataputyan was awarded the prize, which is, undoubtedly, motivating. Some 5-6 years before that, he was invited to Armenia as a renowned scientist and gave a lecture. When we learnt he had been awarded, we swelled with pride. Now, as we have an Armenian Nobel Prize winner, it will hopefully be continued and we’ll have one from Armenia as well. In case we keep this in mind as a guideline and go for that objective as a state, the development will proceed differently I suppose.
How do people react to you as a scientist?
People feel sorry for you in the first place for the low salary and hardships you face as a scientist in Armenia. Viewpoints are extremely curious, especially with regard to my specialization. Most people mix up parasitology with parasitism, while others name an ornithologist a ‘birdologist’. The most hilarious incident though happened to me in a village where we studied parasites in pet and street dogs. For that purpose, we were collecting dogs’ excrements and an old woman, who learnt about that, said, “Don’t worry, my boy, everything will turn out fine”. We could hardly help laughing.
What would you tell a child wanting to become a scientist?
There are numerous misconceptions regarding a scientist and their activity in society. I’d like to emphasize that scientists have a number of privileges. For instance, they are given the chance to travel a lot on business, which others might envy. I was in Vienna for a week, after having travelled to Paris for a month and a half, preceded by trips to Thailand and Tehran. I had been to Portugal and Germany a month earlier. A scientist is always able to travel, it’s an indispensable part of our profession as the exchange of experience is essential. There is no such thing as Armenian science, science is international. Thus, everything needs to be done properly. We also host scientists from foreign countries, we’re expecting them from Norway and Austria currently. Science is all about constant shifts and new discoveries. Such an idea of science will definitely keep children from wanting to become a lawyer or an accountant. Professions of a zoologist and a botanist are way more engaging- half the year in the highlands, collecting samples, needed for experiments in the lab.
Would you highlight any turning point in your career path?
I assume that’s my visit to Portugal, I stayed there for a year. Having collected samples from Armenia, I conducted molecule and genetic research there due to the lack of facilities in our country. Later on, it became an objective to make it happen in Armenia once we’d gained the necessary expertise in Portugal. Nowadays, our laboratories are almost equally well-equipped compared to European ones. Our students don’t have to conduct experiments abroad, they surely travel and take part in the exchange of experience. One of the major future plans is to set up an international Master’s program which will enable an influx of foreign students, creating a favourable environment for international research. It would be an excellent experience for our students as well.
In this regard, I’d ask you to share your experience of being part of the ADVANCE grant program.
The program seemed strange to us at first sight. Regularly, a certain subject area is announced within a grant program, a scientist applies with their team, with his consortium, wins and conducts research. Things were different here. FAST (Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology) decided each scientist would present their project, while the foundation selects scientists from five different fields who would work on a competitive international research project proposed by it. It was quite tough, especially in the case of natural sciences, as five of us were going to work on a single subject matter, each with our narrow specialization. On the one hand, that was a great chance because we had diverse mindsets but, on the other hand, it was time-consuming for the team to adjust and work productively. Fortunately, everybody has already taken their role and the work proceeds smoothly. Hopefully, the final outcome will be more interesting than that of a formed team.
What can be considered to be your career peak?
As a scientist, that would be the Nobel Prize. I’d rather say, it’s a matter of principle to have an award winner from Armenia. As I mentioned above, we all need to contribute to that goal, whether it’s in 10 or 20 years. In case you set the bar high, you align your steps with its accomplishment. President’s Prize (currently, Poghosyan Prize) was an honour for me which I received for my contribution to the development of the field of natural sciences in 2020. As far as I know, no other scientist under 35 had received that prize before, which is both challenging and inspiring. I reckon our scientists need incentives to be eager to receive prizes in various spheres to pave the way for the biggest one. Recognition is required in the scientific community; you cannot receive the Nobel Prize all of a sudden. Probably government incentives are needed to encourage scientists to get nominated and win in international competitions.