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Interview of Vyacheslav Romanov by David Zierler on December 1, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Vyacheslav Romanov, Research Physical Scientist at the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Romanov recounts his upbringing in the Urals region of the Soviet Union, and he describes his education at a special high school for gifted students in Moscow. He explains the circumstances that led to his enrollment at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology for graduate school and his dawning realization that one can make sense of the world through physics. Romanov discusses his thesis research on the kinetics of light-matter interactions, and he describes his postgraduate work for the Soviet Space Program to develop thin film solar cells to power the International Space Station. He discusses the collapse of science funding after the breakup of the USSR and the opportunity he saw to emigrate to the United States at part of the Symposium on Diplomacy and Global Affairs in Washington, D.C. Romanov explains why he got an MBA from Waynesburg College and how this program put him on the path to U.S. citizenship. After a stint in the materials science industry, he describes his PhD research in physical chemistry and spectroscopy at the University of Pittsburgh, and how this led to his employment at NETL, first as a postdoc and then as a full-time employee. Romanov explains his initial work in geology and data analysis, his subsequent work in optimizing power plant generation, and his current research in reducing the environmental footprint of energy systems with machine learning. He describes the political and economic ramifications of his research, and he explains why carbon-based energy is central to the transition to a de-carbonized future, which, he asserts, will take decades to realize. At the end of the interview, Romanov explains why global efforts to mitigate environmental energy problems must rely on successful cooperation between the U.S. and China.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 1st, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Dr. Vyacheslav N. Romanov. Slava, it’s good to meet you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you, David, for the introduction. And likewise, I'm very excited to have a meeting with you.
To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Currently, my position title is Research Physical Scientist. And I am with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is one of the national labs of the Department of Energy.
Slava, let me ask you to start off, just to get a sense of where you fit in with the overall framework of NETL, who is the staff that reports to you, and then who do you report to?
Okay. We have a matrix type of organization, so there is an administrative structure, and there is a project-based structure. My position is not supervisory. And even before the last reorg, my job title was team lead, which means that several people sort of like—in an administrative structure, they are shown as if they're reporting to me, but since my position was still not supervisory, actually they were reporting to my boss, officially. Although my boss was always asking for my feedback. In order to officially become a supervisor, you have to go through certain other procedures—certification, probation and all that. And I have never been interested in pursuing that kind of career. [laugh]
I am a scientist.
Right. The more administrative you get, the less of a scientist you become.
Well, they sort of anticipated team leads would still be doing some research, in the prior org structure. But the supervisors are not expected to do any kind of research.
Slava, when did you start at NETL?
Okay, that’s—I have to warn you—a lot of questions that people think are simple and straightforward—
—with me, since I was a child, I never understood what exactly they were asking. Because in my case, the answer depends on what exactly you mean. So, as a federal employee—well, first I probably have to talk about the backdrop a little bit, that unlike other Department of Energy national laboratories—there are 17 of them—ours is the only one which is what they call a GOGO, which is government-owned and government-operated. So, we have researchers like me who actually are federal employees. So, I am a federal employee, and as a federal employee, I've been with NETL since 2009, summer of 2009. So, it’s already more than 11 years.
Prior to that, I worked for about a year as a contractor, a NETL contractor. And most of the other national labs are only contractors. Primarily. Very few federal employees. And they're more like funding managers, not researchers. So, that’s what I was at NETL, as a contractor. And we do have quite a few researchers on the contractor side. And that’s actually the typical career within NETL. I started as a postdoc, which means that after getting my PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, I—well, actually, that’s—again, that’s typical of how people do, but not in my case. Again. So, I was still in grad school, while I already got a job as a postdoc, with NETL, in anticipation that I would graduate soon. And they couldn't wait until I graduated, and they kept pushing me, and it took like about another year, plus another year after that to formalize the process. Yeah, so I was, like, for about four years—three, four years as a postdoc within NETL. So, that’s also research but a different type.
And that’s how usually people go. They start as a postdoc. Then those who are promising, they extend it from two to three years. Minimum is one year, but typically people go two, three years. If somebody is promising, they extend it for the fourth year. And then after that, if they're really promising, then they give them an opportunity as a contractor. And then usually that’s how people end up as contractors. Very rarely but occasionally, opportunities open up for federal hires. And then the contractors have an opportunity to compete, of course with the outside applicants. And that’s what I did.
And I'm not going to go into details of how I got this job but [laugh]—but anyways. So, I got it. Well, unless you are interested; I could just mention that. So usually, it’s one opening for one person. But somehow in that particular year, because they didn't hire for many, many years prior to that, there were quite a few applicants, and there was a huge demand to fill more vacancies—to get more researchers. So, they wanted more researchers, and there were quite a few applicants of high caliber. The person for whom they thought they were creating this position didn't end up among the top qualified candidates, so he didn't end up on the selection certificate. But the number of people who made it there obviously exceeded one, and so they requested with the headquarters to have two positions, and for each one of them, they wanted to hire at least two or three people. And so, the rationale was the quality of the candidates was so high that they wanted to hire at least four people total. The headquarters approved that, and they made job offers to four candidates. Two of the four declined the offers, and two of them, including myself, accepted the offers. So, that was very interesting. That’s how I got a federal job.
So Slava, at this point, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. I'm sure this is a complicated story as well. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
[laugh] [pause] Okay, so, again, the question—it’s confusing to me when they ask that—where are you from, where are they from. I never know how to answer that question whenever they ask me, “Where are you from?”
Particularly when I was in high school. And the reason why was—because my father was in the military, so he was moved around a lot. I was born in the place which I still—I am not sure what it is, legally. So, I reported in my applications, to the best of my ability [laugh], what I thought it was. My birth certificate states that I was born in Karelia-Suomi which translates to Karelia-Finland. And Karelia-Finland, that was—in the former Russian Empire, there was an ethnic enclave populated by—pretty much by Finns, mostly, but also by ethnically similar to them, Karelians. And this Mr. Ulyanov, Lenin [sigh]—he gave independence to a lot of those enclaves, because he didn't want to fight with anybody, and he thought that anyways a revolution will win everywhere; it doesn't matter. So, they kind of got independence, but not the whole thing. So, part of it was still kind of like leaning towards Russia, and other parts of the USSR. And at that time, there was a conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland, so the Soviet Union tried to secure a zone around Saint Petersburg, because otherwise it could be shelled directly from Finland if Germans marched through Finland, as they did through other countries during World War II, which was anticipated.
My birth certificate states that it’s Karelia-Finland, while I know that by that time, they already gave up on the idea of merging the entire Karelia-Finland, into the Soviet Union, because Finns were supported by all Scandinavian countries and Great Britain. So, the Soviet leaders were afraid that now it was going to go the other way around—Karelia-Finland would leave the Soviet Union. So, they liquidated that republic, actually. Cut the total number of the Soviet republics from 16 to 15 and merged autonomous Karelia with the Russian Federation. So, even though my birth certificate states that it’s still Karelo-Finnish Republic—as the Union Republic with the right of secession—not autonomous republic, but the Soviet Republic, which meant that it was—on par with Russia, Ukraine, and all those bigger republics with the rights of a sovereign state. Whenever I read Wikipedia, which is of course not official, it states that at that time it was already merged into Russian Federation. So, I'm not sure. But I'm always rooting for Finland in hockey world championships [laugh]. So, I guess that’s where I was born and then sent to my grandparents. [pause] As a little child, I grew up with my grandparents, in Volga region of the Russian Federation, while my parents were traveling elsewhere. And so that’s where I lived, for a few years.
So, I lived with my grandparents for a few years, until it was almost time to go to the elementary school, maybe one year earlier. And then I joined my—well, they told me that those were my parents. So, it was interesting. And they also told me that I actually have a little sister. So, it was kind of interesting. Of course, I didn't want to leave my family. Actually, I had two families. They were all living in the same village, out there in the Volga River region. But hey, I got used to it. So [laugh] I lived with my—what they told me were my parents, for a few years. That was in the Urals region. But then it wasn’t in the same place all the time. We kind of drifted towards – I went to Urals. And we kept moving from one place to another, drifting from Europe to Asia. We didn't live in the same village or town all that time. Pretty much when I was in elementary school, I had to walk for about two or three miles to my elementary school. And that wasn’t that bad, because some kids had to walk even further. [laugh] And they didn't have high school at that place, either, so it was only through middle school. But I didn't go that far, because while I was in middle school, we had already moved towards Siberia, and then we lived not in a little village, but in a bigger village. And so that’s where they already had the middle school and high school. But I didn't get to the high school anyways, out there, because they had a selection process in the USSR. It was for gifted kids—that’s what they called it—gifted children program. And since I was a person who was never even sitting in the first rows of the class—the teachers always sent me to the back, and said, “Okay, you do your stuff, while we are learning something here.” And they would only wake me up when there was a problem that they couldn't solve, that the whole class was struggling for quite a while and couldn't solve it. They would ask me, “So, what do we do?” I would quickly give them the answer, and then go back to my business. So, I wasn’t really participating much in the first place.
But then there was what they called math, physics, and other subjects Olympics. So, I obviously was—as a winner of the school, district Olympics or whatever else, and went to the regionals. And at the regionals, I also won a prize. And also there, there was an entrance exam to this specialized school in Moscow. I didn't want to go to that exam. First, I had to go to the awards ceremony anyway, so I was late, almost by an hour—maybe like, I don’t know, about 40, 50 minutes. And I didn't want to go, because the rest of our team from our district, they wanted to go for the city tour. To enjoy the city and all those kinds of things. And I'm like, “How come I am left out of it?” So, they said, “Because you have to take this chance. Maybe you will get admitted to somewhere.” And I came there, quickly solved all those problems that were there, and left, in probably like 30 minutes. So, I was able to join the tour, because they didn't go too far. Then, lo and behold, I'm getting an invitation for the oral part. They said, “You passed the written one, so now it’s oral.” So, there was a much smaller number of people, a very small room, with just a few guys from the entire region. And somehow—so it was physics and math. It’s not knowledge; it’s more like they were asking something that they didn't teach in school. And you, by the way, are frozen again. Okay, you're good. So, you're just listening very attentively. Thank you. [laugh]
My pleasure. [laugh]
And then—somehow those people who were leading the examination, they were impressed apparently—and didn't just admit me to the next round, which was in Moscow. They called it the summer school. There the candidates would study the college-level material, and then based on how they pass exams, they would be finally admitted. But they decided to actually test me on really very tricky questions, and somehow I was answering before they finished asking. And so the guy started suspecting—“Do you already know those puzzles?” I said, “No, that’s the first time I hear that.” “Well, how do you know the answer?” “Well, just kind of obvious what you're about to ask.” And they were just staring me into the eyes whether I was lying or not, and then they just admitted me directly to that school, without any summer school. So, I left my parents and—which they were not happy about. Because who is going to chop the wood? Who is going to bring water from the spring and take care of the house? Because father was never at home. I was the man of the house. And at that time, we got another little sister.
Slava, did you know that you had these talents yourself, or it was only as a result of these tests and competition that you became aware of this?
Actually, I never really cared about anything. I loved to run around in the woods, sometimes with my buddy, my friend. So, we were running around, really far away from that village, when we were children in elementary school. And I never wanted to do the homework, which my parents weren’t happy about, and the teachers weren’t happy about. For whatever reason, I was—I probably had some kind of talents. I didn't know. Because at one point—well, my elementary school teacher thought that I was a complete idiot. She didn't have good hearing, so every time—if I was sitting with another buddy of mine, and she would ask me some question, I would answer—she said, “Well, this is totally wrong.” And she would ask my buddy like who was next to me, and he would stand up and repeat exactly, word by word, without understanding what I just said, but just repeat what I just said. And she would say, “Well, perfect! That’s what the correct answer is.” And so, I thought that I was retarded. I didn't think much of myself.
But at one point when we were beginning the first year of the middle school, I got the flu at the very beginning of the year, which was in fall. It was pretty cold out there, at that time of the year already. And with me running around in and out, it wasn’t surprising. And once I got that, I was stuck at home, like for several days. Nothing to do; I cannot run around outdoors. So what did I do? I read all the textbooks for the rest of the year, and solved all mathematical problems that were in there for the rest of the year. Without even reading the explanations, actually. For mathematical problems, I didn't even have to read. I just kind of looked at the puzzles, and I kept going, and solving all those problems. It was kind of obvious to me so that I did not need the introductions of conceptual material.
And so, whenever I came back to school, I delivered to my math teacher a big, thick notebook full of solutions to everything. And that’s when probably I guess everybody got shocked, and I started having visits from people from the higher grades of the middle school asking me different kind of things. And I think that my father put me into it. Well, so that you would understand the background, at those times, there was a Space Race—
—started by those cosmonauts. And also, the village where we lived was just a few miles away from the place where they shot down—what was it—the U-2 spy plane—Powers, I think—I can’t remember his name. [The CIA pilot’s name was Gary Powers.] So there was a lot of talking about the outer space and everything. A lot of excitement. And so I thought, “Wow, I want to be a cosmonaut.” And my dad said, “Aha! So, here you go. In order to become a cosmonaut, you have to be selected into this special school for gifted children.”
Ah! “And in order to do that, you have to memorize the entire poem by Alexander Pushkin, and you have to learn mathematics at the level that you never even thought is possible.” And he started teaching me some material like already from the high levels of middle school while I was, I don’t know, in very low levels, somewhere in elementary school. So, that maybe spurred me a little bit. At least I started spending 15 minutes every day, when I came from school, to do my homework. Fifteen minutes, and then after that, I would go and run around. And, I did have a very good memory at that time. Not now. I mean, now I'm trying to [laugh] recollect some things. But at that time, I had almost a photographic memory. And I would just—and my reading was very fast. I still remember it was 425 words per minute while I was—early in the middle school. The others were obviously struggling to get 30 to 60, so that was typical for the kids from those grades. So, that’s when I realized that I probably had some different abilities maybe from the others. And they also put me up for literature competitions, and like theater things, because I was reciting those poems with suitable emotions, I guess, or whatever they were requiring. So, there were some skills, apparently. I wasn’t sure exactly what, because I was getting A-pluses in all courses, including painting. Now you ask me to draw anything; I wouldn't be able to.
But at that time, I was some kind of prodigy in drawing and inspired my sisters to become professional artists. So, I guess I just had some kind of like overall ability. Not necessarily in math, physics, but overall. Kind of more excited, I guess? I have no idea what it was. But by the time when I was about to be selected for this special school, finally I started realizing that I had some potential—and then I already thought that I'm just a super genius, some kind of—
—until I went to this school. So, whenever I joined everybody else, everybody else already went through summer school, which I didn't. They learned everything, the material that we started learning at a very fast pace. So, in the final two years of the high school, we actually skipped the high school material, entirely. We just went straight to the college material. And in two years, we completed the entire college course material.
Slava, where was this school and what was it called? What was the name of the school?
Okay, this is a—we called it Phys-Math School Number 18 in Moscow, but it’s known abroad as the Kolmogorov Boarding School, which is a specialized educational-science center or department of the Moscow State University. And Kolmogorov was a prominent Soviet mathematician.
And was the focus of the school on math and science, or it was for gifted students or all kinds?
No, that was a Phys Math—physics and mathematics. So, it’s primarily physics and mathematics, although all the teachers were professors at the Moscow State University. We didn't have teachers teaching us at high school kind of level. Well, actually, not necessarily from university; like for instance, literature, we had a teacher—the editor of the Literary Gazette, founded by Alexander Pushkin. And I noticed right away the difference in requirements. For instance, in the regular school, you just need to say the right thing. As long as you say the right thing, you're good. With her, if you say the right thing, you fail. Miserably. You get whatever—there was a five-point system. Five was exceptional. Four is good. Three, pass. And two, fail. So she would just say, “That’s two minus” or something. Or, “One plus.” So it was really horrible. “You do not use your brain.” Or that’s basically what it means.
Slava, what year did you start at this school?
1974. And did you have any sense that this was a school that the students would be put on a path to have a career in service of the Soviet state?
Okay, so usually graduates from there, they would go to one of the two places. It’s either Moscow State University, if their primary interest is in mathematics, or Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology—it’s not broadly known, neither here nor in the former USSR, but among the experts, it’s known as PhysTech. And it’s pretty much equivalent to MIT, in the level. It was originally created as a department of the Moscow State University, when World War II ended, and the nuclear arms race began. Then it was separated from the Moscow State University—I'm talking about the PhysTech—and moved outside of Moscow, so that if there is a direct nuclear strike on Moscow, people in the shelters outside—in the Moscow region—those scientists would survive. So, that’s pretty much a spinoff of the Moscow State.
And I was primarily a mathematics guy, until the last year of the high school. Then, we’ve got a very exciting teacher. And I started the last year with several—well, he basically started giving the kids exams, the entrance exams to PhysTech at the beginning of that last year. Right away, we started with entry exams to PhysTech. And I failed. Failed several times. I had twos several times in a row. I'm like, “My god, what’s going on? This was like—I just cannot pass any test.” And I guess that was the idea. So, I started studying really hard, to really understand—not just kind of like memorize it. Prior to that—I had no interest in physics, really, at that time. I thought of physics, this is just an application of mathematics to the real world. So, you just need to know mathematics, and then apply it to physics. Hard work paid off as usual, with physics as with everything else, I caught up with the rest of the class and ended up having among the highest grades.
And so then at that time, I was already more excited about physics. And I went to PhysTech. There were some other reasons for that, but first I wanted to pay tribute to my ex-classmates at Kolmogorov School. In our class, I was eventually among the best, despite my miserable start—but I was really self-conscious at the beginning. I thought that I'm totally stupid. I was like, “Look at those people. They are winners of World Olympics in math, physics. Top prize winners. Champions of the USSR. Who am I? I'm just a guy from Siberia. I have no clue. I don’t understand.” Whenever the teachers asked them something, to solve some problems, they would start solving it right away, and I really had hard times even understanding how they did it. Let alone solving it like they did—I wouldn't be able to solve it right off, at the blackboard. The teachers would call you to the blackboard, and say, “Okay, let’s go over this problem, how to solve it.” And the students would solve it in such a way that seemed like totally impossible. I mean, it was not like something naturally driven by logic. No. It’s just like they would reach into other dimensions and use the universal properties of our world, seemingly unrelated to the problem, and voila, several pieces of the puzzle from totally different areas would somehow magically fall into place and fit each other, miraculously.
And so I was stunned, really, by how smart those kids were. And I really felt miserable about myself. But somehow, I ended up close to the top of the class, like in the top probably five out of 30. To be fair, I did have my moments, for instance when I would have a dream where I applied certain transformations and somehow all ensuing complications would cancel each other out and it would lead to a standard tractable problem. Then I would wake up and think with my empty head that it was just a dream, but hey, what do I have to lose? I tried it, and it worked, magically! I had other inspirations which could only be explained by either improbable coincidences or by supernatural abilities, but that’s embarrassing to talk about.
And Slava, it sounds like not only did you discover that you were good at physics when you applied yourself, but you liked it.
Yeah, yeah. I started to like it [and] I got excited about physics, because I figured out that it’s actually—it also has some other aspects of mathematics or rather its philosophy. It’s not just mathematics like what we study in school, but it’s about its assumptions, foundations, and implications in learning about the deep nature of our universe. So, it’s very interesting. And you kind of see how our world is designed, and what it is made of, and how amazing it is. Basically physics is stating—the main premise of physics is that somehow our world, for whatever reason, is actually making sense. So, if something makes most sense to the physicists, that’s exactly how it is intrinsically governed and executed in nature, by strictly obeying those rules. So, you can predict things, by assuming that the world makes sense. That’s really—I don’t know—nobody except for philosophers talks about this assumption, but that’s what physics is based on.
So, if we throw out this fundamental assumption—go to machine learning, basically, and machine learning cannot predict things that are very different from prior observations. Machine learning can approximately interpolate and optimize things. It can probabilistically tell you what’s in between, the gaps in between. It cannot extrapolate. In order to extrapolate outside of what you know and to do it with controlled precision, you have to believe that the world makes sense. So, in this world—if something makes sense to you, then that’s the way it should be and that’s the way it is. And if you believe in this, you will almost always predict everything correctly. And in fact, for the past century, probably—yeah, about that long, or at least for over half a century—the Standard Model of the universe still holds. Nobody ever found any possible exception. And we're learning way more than before—we were scratching the surface, at that time. We went so deeply and to such high energy, found so many new particles, and quantified properties of those particles and their interactions—and in all cases predictions of the Standard Model were experimentally confirmed within experimental error. This is so amazing! I mean, because there have been so many experiments conducted by now, and nothing ever contradicted it yet. So, this is just stunning.
And so—that’s what I realized about physics, and that’s what got me excited. But the reason why I went to this—what you're asking—why did I actually go to the PhysTech—is because I also realized that I would just not survive in any normal university. Because of—well, let me be blunt with you—this is because of stupidity. Because I mean, like, teachers out there would tell—make you—force you to say nonsense, or else. And I would always fail out there, because I'm just not that kind of person. I just have to go outside of the box.
What kind of nonsense, Slava? What are you referring to?
Okay. Let me just give you an example from my regular university here, in this country. When I came over here, I had to catch up on chemistry. I didn't have a PhD in chemistry. I only had in physics and mathematics. And since the end of the Cold War, physics wasn’t really in great demand, so it’s hard to find a job. And I had a job with a chemical company in Washington, Pennsylvania. So, I was going part-time for the PhD in chemistry. And so, for instance, one course was there where they would give assignments to students, to prove a certain relation, okay? And that was a spectroscopy kind of thing, that was dealing with different angles—reflection, transmission, and refraction angles. And so, they were using trigonometry to prove that relation. And everybody like wrote it on three to four pages. I wrote approximately four or maybe—between four and five lines of proof, using Euler equations. I'm not going to go into details. But which was also kind of elementary level, so everybody should have known, PhD level students. And of course they did, because they asked me eventually to go to the blackboard. So, I got failed, for this. And I'm like, “What’s wrong?” “Oh, I don’t even know what you wrote, what kind of nonsense you wrote here. I didn't even look at it. Well, everybody wrote identical proofs.” I'm like, “Really? How can dozens of people possibly—?” And the guy says, “Well, it has always been like this. Every year, everybody gives me this same identical proof.” I'm like, “Is it possible that two different people give identical proofs of the same thing, let alone dozens? And every year? How is it possible?” Except for like cheating. Like, there is a standard proof, which I didn't have any idea about, because I was working full-time. And sometimes my boss, knowing that I had to drive to Pittsburgh to attend the lecture, he would just deliberately sabotage me. And say, “Okay—”
So, anyways, he wouldn't let me go, and I really missed a lot out there. I had no idea what they were doing. I had very little time to socialize with the other students. Somehow, they copied the standard solution, and everybody was using it. So, they knew what the standard answer is and how you should answer, and if you don’t, then you fail. So, I said, “Well, okay, tell me what exactly is wrong with my proof.” And the guy just calls me in front of everybody to the blackboard and starts challenging each and every step. And it’s like—he couldn't find a single error anywhere. And so the answer I got—“Okay, you know what? I'm big. You're small. I'm right. You're wrong. And if I want, I can fail you in this class, at any time for no particular reason, and there is nothing you can do about that.” And that like sums it up.
And that’s an example not from the USSR; it’s just like everywhere like this. All normal universities—and obviously University of Pittsburgh is just a normal university. It’s not MIT, it’s not Oxford or whatever, and definitely it’s not the PhysTech. And so I just couldn't go there. And PhysTech was the only place where I thought I could possibly go to. And if I would fail there, then I thought my life would be just—that that’s it, a disaster. That’s like a complete failure of my life.
So, lucky for me, I was able to get admitted at that university. And I wasn’t sure till they posted the final roster at the end, because at the beginning there were so many students. And they would place us in a dorm, and most of the students got lucky and got placed in these student bedrooms, where they had—well, maybe like three or four students squeezed into one bedroom—because there were a lot of applicants. And the reason why—because the PhysTech, unlike all the other universities in the country, had started entrance exams one month earlier. But I wasn’t lucky, and they put me in the TV room, where everybody goes to watch TV. There was at that time, at that place, there was only one TV room for the entire like, I don’t know, floor? Or maybe a couple of them in the entire building. I can’t remember for sure right now. So, it was a large room, like a conference room, and there were so many people. And they were quickly failing in those exams, and then they had to go home, and they wouldn't go peacefully. They would talk the entire night. So, I had no sleep. Then I would go after that, without any sleep, and would try to solve problems at the next exam. So, that was brutal.
And so, in the end I did get admitted but barely squeezed in—in the middle of that examination process I even visited the temporary admission offices created right there for the other universities…top or rather next tier Moscow universities, like the one that’s what they called—Bauman University. That’s the one where they produce those rocket scientists. That’s the one which everybody knew in the USSR. “Oh, the rocket science university—oh, yeah.” So, those were offering admissions upfront saying, “If you fail here, but at least you do not fail in one of those exams—like out of four major and one minor exam, five exams total—if you do not fail at least in one of them—for example, you get grades three in one of them, and twos in all the others, then you are automatically admitted to our universities.” And that was an elite second tier of universities. It just shows you the gap between PhysTech and the other ones.
And in fact, when I did join the Russian Space Program—which is a different story—there was on my team where I worked, there actually was a guy who tried to enter PhysTech, he failed, and that’s how he got admitted to Bauman University. So, he said he got all straight A’s out there for the entire four years, never anything different. So that tells you like—even if you totally and miserably fail [laugh] getting admitted to PhysTech, but you squeak through and pass at least one exam, you will be the top student at any other elite university. That just shows you what kind of level those universities are.
So, Slava, what university did you actually graduate from?
Oh, you did, okay. And what year was that?
Okay, so—well, we didn't have a bachelor’s program out there. We had a master’s program right away, blending together. So, it was like—well, plus military training. So, it’s like first you go through the academic courses, and then the military training. That was a little bit more than five years, because of this military—you had to go through military training. And basically people from the PhysMath school—we called it PhysMath School 18—those who were admitted to the PhysTech or Moscow State, they’d become drunkards, usually, or engage in various extracurricular activities like arts and theater, or partake in sports like I did to kill time. And the top math wizard from our class got basically expelled from the Moscow State University for excessive drinking as well and was sent to the army. Ah! Oh yeah—that reminds me why we wanted to go to those universities—because those two were the only ones—actually, I think it’s—yeah, the only ones which protected you from the draft, from going to serve in the military. Otherwise, you would have to go for two or three years depending on which branch of the military you serve in. And I really didn't have any desire to waste two or three years of my life in the military. Yeah, so, I was really scared, and not only that I really didn't want to go to other university, but I was also afraid that I would actually have to go to the military. So, the other colleges would not protect you from the draft. Like whenever your time comes, you go, and then you’d come back and complete your program. So, that was another reason.
Slava, was your sense that because of your academic abilities, that you were going to get a good assignment?
Yes, that’s how it was. I was the number one student in my group, so I was offered the top assignments. And the top assignment available was to the Soviet Space Program.
And what year was this, Slava? When did you start there?
Okay, actually that was already after PhD program. After the master’s degree, which was in ’82—so in 1982, I had a master’s. And then in 1985, I earned the PhD. So, after master’s—I had to get admitted for a PhD program. There was no transition—like over here, like you're kind of automatically enrolled after the master’s into the PhD program—at the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, I already was in the PhD program from the start. I did get my master’s first, but then I just continued and got a PhD. No, there you had to get separately admitted into a post-graduate studies program to pursue a PhD. And that was based on a multi-tiered selection process. First based on your academic standing. I was the top student in my group, so I was supposed to be admitted right away, but they say, “No, we are not going to admit you at this time, because your group is so strong, we want to get more graduates from there. We'll admit people behind you. But you will be admitted on the next tier for sure, anyways.”
So they did it to a couple guys—myself and another guy from my group who also was very strong. So, they admitted two or three others from our group immediately. We went to the second tier, department level reserve. And he was selected there, and they told me, “Well, you will just go—you will beat everybody at the overall university level. And the rector will admit you to this program.” And so I was extremely nervous. What if it wouldn't happen? But in the end, I was admitted at the overall university level, so that was great. And so that’s where I was actually admitted—at the university level. But that was just admission to the PhD program. At the end of that program, they also considered me among the top candidates, and so they offered me the top job opportunity. But my advisor was a very influential person, and I really didn't want to go to the Space Program to work with those engineers. I really wanted to do science, and I wanted to work in the Academy of Sciences lab, where the salaries were extremely low, and it took almost the entire lifetime to get more or less advanced to where you can sustain normal living. But he had a lot of influence, and he said, “Well, I'll get you a good starting job, at a decent level.” And he kept promising it to me, and nothing materialized. And they started warning me—“Hey, if you don’t take this job now, we have to move on, and we have to give it to somebody behind you.”
You mean if you don’t take the Space Program job?
Right. If I don’t take it, they will give it away to somebody who’s next in line. And so, I had to accept. And guess what? A couple of weeks later, my advisor says, “Okay, finally, I clinched it. You got a lab director position.” And this is what people take a lifetime to get. But due to special circumstances, they created a vacancy for me in the vicinity of Moscow. And you don’t usually get in there just like that; where they usually offer such positions in the Academy of Sciences network is like a—they call it hundredth kilometer, which means a hundred kilometers away from Moscow, in some uninhabited areas where nobody lives, except for the scientists. And so it’s kind of like a little town for the scientists. And so those people who kind of don’t care about their life or family or anything—live and work like in exile and do the hard-core science. But they said, “Especially for you, we have a position here not far away from Moscow.” And I asked the other institution to release me from the Space Program, and they just totally refused. And so I tried different tricks, like cheating, lying to them, saying, “Oh my god, my girlfriend is—she’s going to the Academy of Sciences. Hundredth kilometer. Oh, we're going to be separated.” They said, “Don’t worry. She’s hired.”
“So just bring her in there. She got a job.”
And so, I ran out of excuses. They would just say, “Anything you want. You're going to be here,” And so that’s the way it ended up, so I just ended up with the Space Program.
Slava, was one of the things that was a problem for you that for the Space Program, you would be working in the capacity of an engineer, and that wasn’t exciting to you?
No, it was more like as a scientist—yeah, kind of yes, it’s sort of like an engineer. I was actually hired not as engineer but as junior staff researcher, something like that—like research associate, which means that it’s kind of scientist, in a way. But the point is that their science is kind of like applied level, while in the Academy of Sciences, it’s a fundamental level. And at that time, my major interest was in understanding the world where we live. So, I grew up as a kid reading a lot of science fiction to the point that the librarian had to call my parents and ban—limit me to five books per week, because they were concerned that I would finish all the books in the library in no time, and—
—there would be nothing for me to read. [laugh] And the parents started watching to make sure I don’t read too much. So, yeah, I was extremely fascinated about our world, and I wanted to know what it is made of.
Slava, as a physicist, did you think of yourself more as a theoretician or as an experimentalist?
That’s another thing. When I was studying at the university, before even going for a PhD, in the regular master’s program—they had theoretical groups, and those people from theoretical groups kept inviting me. They're saying, “Yeah, you have to join this group. You're really a—your brain is like suitable, specifically designed for this. You're really good at understanding all those fundamentals.” And I said, “You know what? I don’t really want to go to the mental institution.” There are a lot—well, we had this little town out there, and we had a psychiatric clinic out there, and a lot of our students ended up out there. So, there was a real curse in PhysTech, that a lot of people—and I felt like whenever I was going deep in understanding those fundamentals, I started feeling that I'm kind of like at the early stages of kind of losing touch with reality. And I was just afraid of that. I didn't really want to go—because I knew that I would be able to do that, but I just was afraid that I would go too far, too deep, and I would not find the way back. That’s what my feeling was. I was just afraid of that.
So I thought, “I’d better do something which is kind of like more or less reasonable.” Not going into the full theoretical kind of thing without any experimental. So, my PhD was actually both experimental and theoretical. I started as experimental scientist exploring new concepts that we later patented, but then I thought that that’s probably not enough for a thesis defense, and so I decided, “Well, I will need some theoretical work on this.” And I did some quantum mechanics, some new area in quantum mechanics. More specifically, it was a theory on how kinetics of light-matter interactions may change if some dimensions begin to collapse in quantum wells created by strong gradients of electric field potential. And on my thesis committee, there were people—full and corresponding members of the national Academy of Sciences, and they had their reviews the other way around. They're saying, “The guy did the theoretical work good enough to defend PhD just on that. But he decided it’s not good enough. He decided to do some experimental work as well.” So, actually, that was the other way around, but that’s how they perceived it. The next year after my PhD defense, a somewhat similar concept was explored in a publication on gradient force optical trapping, which became a seminal paper in optical tweezers research, for which a couple of the authors of that paper eventually earned Nobel Prizes in Physics. Coincidentally, one of them, Steven Chu, was appointed Secretary of Energy in 2009, the same year I joined Department of Energy as federal employee.
Slava, how big a deal was the Cold War at this period of your life?
Well, obviously we were considered to be at the front lines if anything happens. But luckily nothing happened, so we didn't have to do anything. But they trained us so that we would be—they could call on us any time to solve any kind of problems. And so I guess PhysTech and—not Moscow State [laugh], but PhysTech specifically, was probably designed for that purpose, initially. Although it turned into [something] totally different from what they had probably envisioned. Although maybe that was the idea—to bring all those controversial figures in there, so they would have all the weird minds in one place, and to keep them from messing up with brainwashing of the normal people. None of them fully embraced the Soviet system—like our historians, they wouldn't just teach us the way they teach at the other schools, in compliance with the official doctrines. Or always being politically correct like, “Oh, here it is the societal hierarchy—communism, socialism, capitalism, feudalism, and slavery.” No, they would say—invent all different kind of things, like Asian society, whatever. They had free minds, and they were speaking it. A lot of those people had previously been discharged from the high-level positions for their free thinking. And so, I guess they wanted to have those free thinkers out there, but they wanted to kind of control that environment, so the PhysTech students would grow up and learn to think outside of the box but be ready to be called on.
And was your service—was it a civilian appointment, or did you officially join the military?
Okay, so most of the time, it was kind of like civilian. They were training us to know and understand some technical details, which I shouldn't probably be talking about. But eventually, in order to give us the rank of officers, officially, we had to go for one month of training in a military boot camp. [laugh] That was the most humiliating experience in my entire life! So, those sergeants—before we got awarded—after that, we got awarded officers’ rank, so those sergeants would be reporting to us if we were ever called to active duty. But we came as trainees, like cadets. We were nobodies. And the sergeants are in charge, and they can order us to do any kind of goofy stuff. And so they felt like they're gods. So, that was ridiculous. But, it generated a lot of songs, authored by the PhysTech students. They love the art, music and theater; they authored a lot of songs, and they came up with creative lyrics about the things that we were ridiculing. Then after that, we were marching away and singing all those [laugh] ridiculous songs after graduation. So that was kind of silly, but also that was fun.
What would a normal workday look like for you? What were the kinds of things you were doing on a day-to-day basis?
You mean where? In the Space Program?
Okay. Over there, my career was advancing so fast. Because I told them, “Hey guys, whatever you are giving me, even the poor Academy of Sciences were offering me almost triple of what you are giving to me now. They were offering me a position that is several steps or even layers above what you're offering me now.” So, they put me on an expedited course, and I was promoted like every year. So, I started as a—well, as I was supposed to, because that’s how they hire postdocs—as junior research scientist, then research scientist, then senior research scientist, then team lead, then sector lead, then lab manager and also acting department head, and then director of firm or business unit. And I was on the board of directors. And obviously at each level, I was doing different things. But I was totally committed at that time to science. I didn't understand why the girls want to kiss me. [laugh] It was kind of—I thought, “It sounds ridiculous. What do you want from me? Okay, kiss me if you want, but that’s fine.”
So, I was fully in science, and I wanted to work like non-stop, including weekends. So, they were giving me—usually each employee gets a regular badge, which allows you to come on site five days a week, but you cannot enter on weekends. But they gave me an exception, gave me the weekend passes. Then I learned that, well, with that weekend pass, they don’t let you in on the holidays. Okay, so they upgraded me to the holidays. Then I learned, oh, wait a minute, they allow you most of the holidays, but not the special holidays. So, then they eventually upgraded me to the special holidays as well. So, I was pretty much living out there. And I hardly had a regular day. And there were no real regular days for anybody out there. Because the joke was they pretend that they are paying us, and we pretend that we are working. So, ladies usually excused themselves for several hours in the middle of the day to go shopping. And by the time you finish your work and you come to the stores, there is nothing there.
So, that was [laugh] refreshing. The only way I had food all the time—well, first of all, we had luxurious lunches out there. That was a secured territory. You could not enter without a security pass. And second, there was a space flight control center, and with my pass, I would go there, to their buffet, and get all these delicacies and luxuries on the weekend as well. So that’s how I survived.
And what kind of science were you doing, Slava? Did you run a laboratory?
Yeah. Actually, we had a laboratory where we did some research. I was an expert in semiconductors and quantum electronics, I also was in charge of developing technologies for solar cells, thin film solar cells. At that time, most of the Space Program was supported by the crystalline solar panels, which is or at least was initially generating 50% of the International Space Station’s power. You may not know, but that is provided by the Russian Federation’s crystalline panels array, while the American solar array is or was made of cheaper and lighter thin film solar panels, maybe half a dozen times bigger, and it involves a lot of maintenance work replacing those panels, but it’s the same 50% of the power. And that’s what we were working on, that thin film technology.
Slava, was this an entirely classified environment? Would you have opportunities to work with scientists on the outside either within other parts of Russia or even internationally?
Actually, after the breakup of the USSR, our director tried to get complete independence from the government. And that’s why I was so quickly promoted—because those older guys, they had no idea how to function in the market economy. I was not an expert either, but at least I had a fresh mind, so I could think about it. So, he sent us—those younger guys—for the crash course. So—oh, well, that involved a lot of weird things, but among them also was practical training on how to run enterprise in the market economy.
So, you were in this position through the transition from the breakup of the Soviet Union?
Right, right. That’s when I got on the board of directors. Because they wanted some people who actually understand how to function when there is no funding from the budget. So, at that time, there was a crunch on the ruble. It was collapsing utterly. And we had to support people. So, we had to find something—the way to survive.
And so, what you're saying is with the end of the Soviet Union, there was no longer any state support for the program.
Well, you may not be aware of the level of hyperinflation that we had. It’s like about 10,000%.
So, what it means—if they delay your pay by one month, you pretty much don’t get anything. If your salary—you earned your salary, you thought that that was okay, they delayed by one month, you get nothing. So, after that, you learn then that they will actually increase your salary proportionally to adjust for inflation. They do. S,o will they pay to you on time, or will they delay for another month? So, that was how it was going. So, basically you could not support people with the money that they will get paid one month later. That’s a no-go. You have to get money now. So, you have to give them money now. Where are you going to get it? It’s only when you sell something that people need now. Which means that you have to go into the market and find out what actually is that.
And so, at that time, we were actively looking for collaboration with the outside world and whatever companies or businesses or even might be governments. And that was a very treacherous path, because things were still not out of the woods. And I probably was among the first ones to realize it. Because—well, during my job interview, actually, I realized that. When the general director was interviewing me for that position—general director of the corporation, overall—so I was the director of the firm as part of that corporation. And he was asking me, “So, do you want to take my job?” I said, “Well, probably I'm a little bit too young. Maybe not the next ten years.” He said, “In the next ten years, I'm still going to have this job.” And I'm like, “Oh. Okay. Got it.” Which means that they still controlled things; they just wanted you to help them out. He called us Kamikaze, so in other words people to get rid of later, after we get out of this—whatever the mess we've got right now. So, in other words, we were expendable, and I quickly realized that, and just as soon as I got the first opportunity, I ran.
What was that opportunity, Slava?
Okay, that opportunity was created by me. I couldn't speak English that much. Well, in fact, I was pretty good in German, when I was in middle school, but that prevented me from learning English, because it was hard to learn another language when you really were pretty good at speaking another foreign language. And I kept confusing—I couldn't even learn the English alphabet. Just always start, “A, B, C, D” and then continue in German. [laugh]
So, it was very hard, and I kind of gave up on that. Just formally passed, whatever, these courses, the way it was required, but I never really mastered it though my grades were excellent. But at that time, there was the American University in Moscow; they created an opportunity for 60 students in the business school to compete for the top ten spots, and if at the end of the year you will be at the top ten, then you go to the United States, by the invitation of the U.S. Congress. So, of course, most of the people who competed for these 60 slots, just to enter this business school, [laugh] I realized they were mostly people from Moscow State University and PhysTech. [laugh] And, some were from foreign languages universities, like those specializing in linguistics and foreign affairs—this type of competition. So, you either have to be very good in English, or very good in math, in order to get a chance, but also you cannot be totally miserable in either one of them.
Slava, what year was this when you were first considering this opportunity?
Okay, the first time I actually considered it was right away after the collapse, in 1992. And I failed in English, which was the first entrance exam that year. So, I failed in English, and I wasn’t even in the top 200 allowed to take the math test. I couldn't make it into the top 200, even though I studied really hard for that. I even took special training courses and was studying all day long for several months trying to learn as much as I could. But that wasn’t enough. So, I continued even harder for the next year, although I was running out of time. They introduced the age limit. And they would not admit me ever again if I failed the second time around. So, that was my last chance. And then, miraculously, they merged two entrance exams together. Now it was only math, in English. The entire test was written in English, but it was mathematics only. I did really great this time, and I was in the top 20, on the score sheet. And that was great. I was admitted. And then I had to make my way to the top ten, obviously. And I actually finished in the top two. And that was my chance, to get out.
Slava, was your motivation specifically to leave the country? Were you looking to come to the United States?
Well, actually, at that time, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. And it took me a few years to realize. At first, I was curious. I just wanted to see, “What’s out there?” I don’t remember whether I was thinking that way or not. But a majority of people out there were asking, “Why do Americans hate us so much?” So, that was really puzzling. “Why do they hate us so much? What did we do? Why wouldn't they let us alone, and we'd just live the way we like to live?” That probably was the major driving force. But then when I came over here, it was gradually changing. And the longer I stayed, the more it was kind of drifting and evolving. I do recollect that at some point when I was thinking about potentially leaving the country for good, my first choice would be the countries where immigrants were treated as equal. And in this regard, the United States as the country of immigrants has always been rated above Europe in my playbook.
Were there any family considerations that may have prevented you from coming to the United States?
Not really. Like I said, my family—I have kind of a strange relationship. I didn't really know them that well. So, I lived with them through my elementary and middle school, then I never saw them pretty much most of the time after that. And they moved around, too. They moved to Ukraine. So, I would come visit them occasionally, but it wasn’t kind of like saying, “Well, this is my family.” I kind of felt more attachment to my grandparents, because that’s who I grew up with when I was a child. Funny you should ask though, because my wife was required to obtain official permissions from her parents before she was allowed to permanently leave her country for the United States. I asked the head of their consulate what she would have to do if she were over 100 years old and had no parents. He dismissed it as hypothetical question, but they abolished that practice since.
What was your first time in the United States? What year was that?
Okay, that was 1994, summer of 1994. I don’t remember whether it was June or July. I think it was July or something.
And where did you go?
Okay, so that was at the invitation of the U.S. Congress to attend the Symposium on Diplomacy and Global Affairs in Washington, D.C. And also, I had lined up a job interview with a company in New York City. So, basically I was going for that interview, but I also wanted to enjoy D.C. since I was invited there. The Congress paid for my travel, accommodation on the George Washington University’s campus, and they gave us a small stipend, too, so that we could afford buying food. So everything was taken care of. We didn't have to spend a penny. That was very nice, and they arranged attractions for us too, taking us to museums, embassies. We visited several embassies. We came to the—I think it was the House, somewhere in the Congress—I'm not sure; I don’t think we went to the Senate. We came to the House, and I looked at it, and I see like, “In God We Trust.” That was my first question that I asked whoever was a congressman—“What does it mean? Does it mean that you discriminate against atheists?” And he said, “Oh, no, this is just like a historical heritage. It has roots in the early American culture, and that’s what we're kind of saying. That’s what we represent. The American people.” I said, “As long as you don’t legally discriminate, that’s fine with me.” [laugh] So, yeah, I remember that. It was a very funny time. I remember a lot of laughter at the Pentagon after I had casually introduced myself like no big deal, as a matter of fact. So, yeah, that’s how I came.
And how long did you stay for that first visit?
Well, actually, that was my permanent visit. Because even though I was invited only for a couple of weeks, I didn't even stay there in D.C. for the full two weeks. Like I said, I actually was in the top two, not just the top ten. And in the middle of the stay, all of a sudden this—what was he?—president of the Russia House—came to me—came to us, actually—and said, “Okay, the Waynesburg College is inviting the top student for their full scholarship, and they will take care of everything.” One of us was to take an MBA program with them. And I talked to the lady who’s—nobody could decide which one of us was number one, which one was number two. And it kind of was assuming that since she’s a lady, she’s number one. And she said, “You know what? I don’t want to go to this village. Do you really want to go?” I said, “Well, yeah, I would like to stay in this country longer to learn more.” And she said, “Well, I would go somewhere like Harvard, maybe, or something of that nature, but not to Waynesburg College.” And she said, “Wake me up in the morning, when they will be picking you up. We'll see. We'll talk about it more. I haven't made up my mind yet.”
So, I woke her up in the morning, and I asked her if she didn't change her mind. And she said, “Okay, well, let me cook for you some breakfast” and [laugh] just looked at me. So, she cooked breakfast for me. [laugh] And so, here I go! And they took me to Waynesburg. Actually, no, they took me to the airport, I guess. I flew. And already at the Pittsburgh airport, the guy from Waynesburg College met me and gave me a ride to Waynesburg, in Pennsylvania. So, that’s how I wound up in Waynesburg. And after that, the university converted my visa from business—tourism—I had some kind of tourist visa, but with a business kind of tourist sub-category. Because I said, “I have some business in New York City.” So, that’s why I got the tourist business visa. And then there’s business school. I'm like, “Oh, business school. So, that kind of covers it—I'm still like learning business.” And so, they converted it from tourist business to educational business. Business, and business continuous education, was then converted into student visa. And as I was a student there—it was only for a few months, I finished it in a few months, this MBA program—
What were your ambitions with the MBA program? What did you think was going to happen next for you?
Well, I was hoping to get some kind of degree out of this business program. Because this business school at American University in Moscow didn't give us any degree; they just gave us a certificate of completion. So, you completed this program, and they said, “Well, we are not really accredited to award any degrees, but we can help you out with continuing at the other universities.” And so that’s how it worked out.
They invited a lot of presidents of different universities to Moscow, and we gave them tours. So, part of the program was not only grades, but also doing the social service. Which I didn't know what I was doing, but I was doing something I had no idea what it was. And so I guess they were using us for different purposes. We didn't know that. We were just kind of trying to earn our brownie points. And one of those assignments was taking care of visitors coming from the U.S. when they were taking them for a tour. And at one of the tours, I saw that one lady, like old lady kind of—well, older lady—was shivering. We were standing on the top of Sparrow Hills, where Moscow State University is. And you can see the entirety of Moscow from there. It’s the highest point in Moscow. And the wind was very strong, and it was kind of chilly, and she wasn’t really dressed up for cold weather. So I offered her my coat. I said, “Maybe that will help.” And so she took it and thanked me. Turns out she was a wife of the president of Waynesburg College. And she remembered that, and that’s why she was—whenever she learned that I was coming, she told the president of Russia House—he told me that—“You don’t need to take any exams. You are admitted to the program. And they will take care of everything.”
And that’s how it was. They just took care of everything. They just rented an apartment for me. They got me TV. They paid for TV, paid for telephone, paid me a stipend, bought—I mean, school supplies and all on-campus services, the bookstore, all of it was available at no charge to me, “Just take anything you want.” Calculators, books, notebooks, anything, pens. I just come in, I put the signature that I took it, and somebody else pays for it. I don’t know who. So, it was paid for me. They were even trying to convince me, “Get a t-shirt.” I'm like, “No, I don’t feel like taking advantage of somebody. I don’t know who is paying.” But that was very nice and sweet. So, that’s how I got a longer stay than my initial visit was supposed to be.
And you knew at this point this was going to be a permanent visit? That you would ultimately make a life for yourself in the United States?
Well, at that point, I realized that I really like it here, and so I would like to stay longer and learn more. And I asked if there’s any chance like I could get some kind of job here, because that was my primary reason for coming to this country, to get some kind of job. So, they brought a vice president of the company headquartered in Washington, Pennsylvania, and he asked me, “Okay, Slava, what can you do?” And I said, “Well, sir, anything in science or engineering. You name it. I know everything, except for chemistry.” And so that was enough. That was the end of the job interview. He said, “Okay. You got an internship position. So, it will be like an extended training. We are a chemical company though.” So, the practical training—a student visa allows that, after graduation, you have this option for extending this visa for practical training. And on that extension, they offered me a position—an engineering, electrical engineer position, with their company. And I eventually converted it into H-1B visa, which is limited to six years. So, that’s how I gradually extended my first visit—and even at that point, when I got that, my boss was asking, “Slava, so what do you want? What’s your plan? Are you going to stay in this country?” I said, “I don’t know. I have no idea. I might.” [laugh] So I still—it was kind of evolving very slowly. I just didn't make up my mind right away.
Slava, what were some of the main responsibilities in this new position for you?
Okay, the main reason why they offered me this electrical engineer position was that it was a chemical company—more like ceramics, glass ceramics, paints—so on one hand, it’s chemical, but it’s more like ceramics chemistry, glass ceramics. And the problem was that they did it for automotive industry, and their paints—they call it paints, but actually it’s kind of glass—glassy kind of paints—were sticky, very sticky, and tearing up even stainless steel cloth on the press bending equipment used to shape the car windows. Whenever they're making the automotive glass, they have to bend it to designer shape. So, they use this press—press bending—and it sticks to this protective enamel and just pulls it off, and it wears out the cloth wrapped around the press bend, and that creates a whole lot of problems. And they started losing market share and were really doing miserably financially. And the competition used some paints developed in France, and they hired a guy from there, and that guy just transferred the knowledge he had, and they beat us.
And so, they hired me to solve this problem, to kind of help them figure out what makes their enamel different from ours. And I said, “Well, I need some money to have good equipment to properly figure out what’s going on with this thing.” And they said, “Well, we'll give you $200. How about that?” [laugh] I said, “All right, I guess I will have to do something else.” And in addition to that $200, I had to kind of rig stuff out of very cheap other things, put it together, instead of relying on commercial quality equipment—like the data acquisition and commercial systems for measurements and what not. I kind of rigged it myself, and started measuring. But noise was obviously horrible, and so I had to apply some kind of data analytics to this, to filter out the noise and actually identify what is happening. And whenever I told them what is happening, they said, “Well, no, that is not possible. There’s something wrong with your equipment. Because we've been doing this thing for several decades. Whatever you're saying is absolutely impossible. It never happened with thousands and thousands of enamels that we were developing from different compositions. It’s just not happening.” I said, “Well, wait a minute. Even in spite of this noise, after filtering, it shows that 95% confidence. I can possibly guarantee you that that’s what is happening.” Luckily, my boss wasn’t a dummy, and so he said, “Okay, Slava, we'll give you a little bit more money. Maybe we'll give you a few thousand dollars now. So, get the good equipment, and show us that this is still true.”
So, I finally got good equipment and proved it to them. And a lot of people were still in disbelief, thinking, “Well, they hired some kind of stupid Russian, and who knows what he’s trying to pull.” But like I said, my boss was quite smart. And after that, I started getting a lot of visits from senior management or executives, like tours coming to the place where I was working out there, and they were just looking at me—and wouldn't say anything. But the point is that they apparently realized that that’s real, and they finally understood what’s happening. But even my boss said—he said, “Well, I studied it in the grad school, but I thought that this was just a hypothetical thing. I never thought that it’s possible in reality.” And so, they got convinced, and they started a new research program, and I helped to refine that program, and then we beat the competition. We designed—our company came up with an alternative patent. They actually found the patent matching to what this research identified, and they circumvented that patent with our patents. And due to my equipment, they perfected it way better than the competition, and they started driving them out of business. So, it’s kind of role reversal. That’s what happened.
Slava, you were working in this capacity more as a materials scientist than as a physicist?
Yeah, that’s sort of—well, it’s a combination. I was also working like as a mechanical engineer and an electrical engineer, and electronics engineer. So, that was very—integral part of the project. So, you had to understand those things, otherwise I wouldn't be able to do the measurements.
Did you have ambitions to get more into a physics-specific kind of job?
I didn't think it was possible. I gave up on physics. So, I thought it might be chemistry, which is kind of like part of physics in a way. These days, it’s all merging. There is no such thing like just, “This is physics. This is chemistry.”
Right. Of course. There’s a convergence.
Now, it’s all merging. Integrated. So, these days—I kind of was working at the intersection of physics and chemistry.
And how long were you in this position for?
Well, my optional practical training on a student visa was expiring within a year, and they were afraid to apply for H-1B—apparently they never did that before, applying for non-immigrant visas for the foreigners. And besides, they were having plans to participate in some business opportunities sponsored by the government. In 1990s, plasma TV technologies were just kicking off. At that time, plasma displays cost tens of thousands of dollars, but they were happy that it already was cheaper than $100,000. So, everybody got excited, and they were hoping that they would drive costs down to $10,000 to $30,000 per TV set, at which point they thought that it would already be commercially viable. So, they considered participating in those programs, and they were trying to keep—the government tried to keep all those foreigners out of it. And also, with the help of the experimental testing that I had developed we were driving our major competitor out of business, and they decided to buy us out. And we tried to buy them out, but the bankers wouldn't give us the money. Say, “Well, why would you need the losers? They're not going to help you much.” But they were easily getting the money—it was a competitor in Cleveland—because they would say, “Well, this is a great company to acquire.” And so they easily got the money to buy us!
And the problem was that when this happens, people usually have to go, en masse. So, they shut down their competitive plant entirely, in the Pittsburgh area, and put our management in charge of the entire corporate research, but at the same time let go a lot of people from our place. Anyway, that’s how it ended. I already had to leave the company anyways, for the graduate school. Because the rule was that you have to be full-time at the university in order to get the PhD. You cannot get the PhD part-time. So, that was one thing. And the other thing is that, well—since they announced layoffs—I was one of those who would go—then I was trying to find another opportunity.
Also, at that time, my H-1B visa was near expiration. And I previously had troubles moving from optional student training to H-1B. As I was telling you, there was a non-immigrant visa issue after my optional practical training, and I didn't finish. That was resolved for me thanks to a job offer from Space Machine and Engineering Corporation in Tampa area. Actually, that was in St. Petersburg, Florida. So, they offered me a job, and I said, “Hey, those guys in Florida already got the labor certificate approved. And you guys are afraid of doing anything.” And only after that, they asked me, “So, how much are they offering?” And they’re, “Okay, we are offering you like 20% more.” And so that’s how they had finally decided to sponsor my H-1B visa. But then again, they were reluctant to sponsor my employment-based immigrant visa a few years later. Eventually they did, almost at the very end of my H-1B visa term. And in September, 2001, I think it was either 9/10 or 9/11, I received a letter in the mail that my ‘genius visa’ was approved. So, my status as alien of extraordinary ability in the sciences was granted, and I could apply for the Green Card, to officially certify my permanent residence.
And Slava, were you actually pursuing citizenship at this point? Is that the next logical step for you?
Yeah. Well, at that point, I was still kind of thinking, “Well, it already was good enough for me, just being able to permanently stay in this country.” But obviously the idea was that I probably should become a citizen, eventually. So, at that time, I was already kind of thinking, “I don’t think I want to go back.” In fact, I skipped one little detail. So, when I did accept this invitation to study at Waynesburg College, I was still in D.C., I faxed a resignation letter to my company in Moscow region, saying, “Well, you know what? I quit.” And the response was, “You don’t. You come back immediately.” Even though I was on vacation. And my annual leave had been pre-approved. “You report to work immediately. Now.” So, I'm like, “No. I don’t. I just told you I quit.” And so that was the kind of thing that—there was not really good parting with them. And in fact, it took like about three months after that, one of my friends was trying to do the paperwork for me so that there was a formal separation. And only after three months, I guess they finally realized that I'm not coming back, and they finally let me go. Well, so to speak. I wasn’t there anyways. And so at that time, I already didn't feel safe coming back.
And so I already started thinking about—well, I never actually left this country, by that time, before I got this ‘genius visa’ approval. So, once I got this approval, it was the first time I actually left the country after that, a few months later, to Canada, in order to—well, that was unrelated to work. It was just my personal life. I finally decided to get married, and so I just wanted to have a visa for my fiancée. And obviously you cannot apply for visa once you are already approved for permanent residence. That kind of threw a monkey wrench into our lives. And she wouldn't want to come earlier, because she wanted to finish her semester at school. And no matter how hard I pushed, she just said, “No, I have to get something out of it. I have to get credits I paid for. I have to finish it.” And because of that, it created a problem legally. So well, now, I am approved as immigrant, but it turns out H-1B visa is the only non-immigrant visa which allows you to have a dual status, which allows you to have intentions to immigrate. So, even though I was non-immigrant, which is not allowed to have intentions to immigrate typically, but with exception of H-1B visa.
So, I did have the right to have intentions to immigrate, and so I had the right to have dual intentions. And I went to Canada to get H-1B visa stamp in my passport, that time sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh where I was offered a temporary job. So, that was kind of like—immigration was not very straightforward for me. It was going back and forth. It was kind of reflection of how my mindset was developing. But the reason why I wanted to be here initially—I wanted to understand, like I said, people. Not just like, oh, I just wanted to, whatever, make money or something. I wanted to understand the people. And that’s why I didn't really care about what position, or what kind of job I took. And I was socializing with the technicians, with labor workers, not only with engineers, scientists and managers. Although, of course, there was a lot of work-related communication with scientists and engineers, but I was equally socializing with everybody. Going to a lot of parties, to the bars and what not, to better understand them. And they were teaching me the ropes. So yeah, that was a really exciting time in my life during that six-year span. I really enjoyed that.
And Slava, what kind of science were you doing at this point?
Well, going back to the job with the company in Washington, PA, the science was very simple, kind of like trying to make good measurements, and to measure things the right way and accurately, and confidently.
So, for instance, let me tell you, the French scientists, how they measured the properties of their enamels. Well, we changed the owners several times, and at one point, they became part of our corporation. There was a different name of the corporation each time, but the headquarters always stayed in Washington, PA. And so one of our vice presidents went there and visited them. And he comes back, and he says, “Slava, I can tell you—those people, they’re just like lazy brats. You know how they start the day? They don’t show up at 8:00. They kind of keep trickling in, maybe by nine, 9:30ish, or something like that. They finally come. Where do they go? To the lab? No. They go to the lunchroom and they start discussing the politics. So, they kind of discuss the politics, what’s going on out there in their politics. Then already closer to the lunch time, they're like, ‘Oh, okay, we have to show you how we work here, right? So, let’s go and get some measurement.’” So, they go and do one measurement, by hand, without anything like the equipment that I had built, all those engineering gadgets that I designed, and all this—I had to actually show some analytical solutions—like one-page derivations of equations proving to my boss that that’s going to work before he gave me the go-ahead. And he presented it to the board as his own. And then he said, “Well, sorry, Slava, I thought that at that time you said that you don’t want to stay in this country anyway, so I just wanted to take credit for this. Hoping to get a promotion. I apologize for that. But you convinced me that you don’t need it anyways.” I said, “Okay, well, that’s fine.”
Anyways, but the marketing VP said after his business trip to France, “Okay, that was it. They finished this measurement. Then after that, they go for”—well, I'll call it a dinner, obviously; not a lunch. “And their dinner is like two or three hours. They drink wine. They enjoy conversation. They talk about everything. Whatever. Ladies or something else. Then finally they say, ‘Okay, so let’s go back to work.’ They come to work, and what do they do? Another measurement? No. They now start just looking at this—the cloth, the enamel, to see how many holes in there, how it looks, at what temperature the press was pulled off. And they kind of analyze and start discussing what just happened. And start thinking like, whether it happened too early, too late, what exactly happened, and how much of it.” And so he said, “This is really so far from what you're doing here. You have precision within so—like 5, 10%. You make nearly 20 measurements per day, almost automatic, precise temperatures, precise range, and everything is controlled.” He said, “This is just like—they're like Stone Age [level]. It takes them like maybe a year for what you do like in one week.” Please don’t get me wrong though. Those French guys were brilliant scientists. And that’s basically what my science was. Make sure I do things the right way. I design what needs to be designed, to prove to people that that’s gonna work and that’s gonna be accurate and reliable, despite whatever misconceptions they might have in believing the opposite things.
So, that wasn’t just the routine things; it was a kind of revolution in this business. So, it was hard to break those preconceptions that people believe. “Well, that’s just impossible.” So, it was that kind of science. Show them that this is based on sound scientific engineering principles. Well, of course, I also did some other work, like I said with the plasma display panels. That’s what we were trying to work on. And so, I had to make sure we’d properly test the properties and properly characterize those glass-ceramic panels. In such structures—where compartments are tiny—the large electric potentials applied across very small distances. So, we have to make sure that material has the right electrical properties. So, it’s kind of electrical engineering.
And prior to that, we had electrical engineers in France, doing the measurements, and they shared the print screens—with certain patterns, how they measure it. I tried those screens and checked how the data changes depending on thickness and everything, and I realized that they're measuring the wrong stuff! They don’t measure what they think they measure! They actually characterized a totally different charge transfer mechanism. And of course, the vice president for R&D, the one who presented it to them at our corporate meeting, said, “Well, this is statistics, not a fact.” “Well, what if it’s a different trend? What if Slava were to draw the line fitting the data differently?” I said, “Well, statistically, this is almost improbable that that would be the way you draw, based on the number of data points, and how it goes from one distinct cluster to another, with only minor scatter.” And I said, “Besides, there is a physics mechanism that matches that function, its exact shape, it shows with very high confidence that the electrical breakdown mechanism is totally different from what they thought it is.” And then I suggested, “I can design my own screen and prove it to you.” And so I designed it, and I showed it to them, that the results were totally different. And I showed it to those guys from France. They right away offered me a job out there. I said, “I cannot speak French. All I know of French is from Tolstoy.”
Because those [laugh]—well, they made us read this literature in school, and then all those nobles were speaking to each other in French. And so that’s the only way I learned it. All I know is just je vous aime, qu’est-ce que c’est, and all that. And they said, “Well, you learned English. You can learn French as well.” I said, “Well, maybe I will pass on that.” [laugh] “Some other time.”
Slava, when did the opportunity at NETL first present itself to you?
Okay, when I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. I was obviously working on totally different things. There, I was doing chemical physics, basically, or physical chemistry. Officially, it was physical chemistry, but there was a lot to do with physics.
Slava, why did you feel like you needed additional training in graduate school?
Well, because the company that I worked for was a chemical company, to start with. So, I didn't see any opportunity for promotion, although my boss asked me, “Do you want to have a managerial job?” I didn't know why, but apparently—well, now I know; because he got promoted to the vice president position, so he was looking for a replacement. And I said, “Well, you know what? I don’t think I'm ready yet for this right now.” For various reasons. First of all, I was burnt out when I was in managerial jobs, previously. It was so stressful. It was one of the reasons why I ran away, because I was just totally burnt out. And I didn't want any responsibility for anything. I just wanted people to tell me where to start digging, and where to finish.
So, this was my mindset when I just came over to this country. I just wanted to take orders. I didn’t want to decide for people what they’re supposed to do. But eventually I kind of got some rest and recovered, and decided that, well, maybe I need to get some promotion or something challenging. But there is no way to get a promotion for electrical engineer at that company. There’s nothing really to do out there. It’s mostly chemistry. And so I decided to go for chemistry. First, I’ve got my Master’s in Chemistry sponsored by the employer while I continued working full time. It involved investigation of counter-ion diffusion and plasmon resonances in light scattering by nanoparticles, which contributed to undesired discoloration in automotive glass applications, also known as silver bleed-through. My employer was happy with that research.
Then, as you already know, a lot of things changed at once. For a while I was busy settling into my marriage, and then enrolled full time into the PhD program, which was my way back into science. Unlike the former USSR, in this country universities are the primary academic institutions doing fundamental research. For example, my research at the University of Pittsburgh was focused on spectroscopic analysis of molecular vibrations with sub-wavelength spatial resolution, thus overcoming the principal limitations imposed by the physics of diffraction. The idea is that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle only limits the accuracy of detecting spatial coordinates of the far-field photons but not of the molecular source of the photons in such experiments.
In fact, while working with the research group at Pitt, I was able to collect chemical images of approximately 10 nm sized particles, using a combination of atomic force microscopy and laser optics to induce and collect infrared radiation at about 10 micron wavelength. And while I was there, we got a lot of different emails—like people are looking for this, and that, and that—and I was already in the last year, pretty much, my advisor was moving out to the University of Toronto where he got a better position, so we were trying to kind of quickly graduate. And so, I was already looking for a job at that time. And so, I did pay attention to—there was an email that popped up—they were looking for a postdoctoral associate in Pittsburgh area. National laboratory. And I did reply and sent my resume, and they were extremely excited and offered me a postdoc position.
Did you see working at NETL—would this require citizenship? Is this something that you realized would have to happen?
No. For the postdoc, you don’t have to be a citizen. In fact, for instance, in certain areas, like—well, I was at one point, as I said, a team lead—that was later on as a federal employee in computational sciences division. And there, people were telling me, “Ninety-nine percent probably of our postdocs are foreign nationals. We cannot find Americans with this set of skills for the money that we offer.” And they said moreover, 90 to 95% of them are foreign nationals from the sensitive countries. In other words, that skill set is very limited, and it’s very hard to find people. So, there are a lot of postdocs who are foreign nationals at our lab. On the one hand, it presents a language barrier to a certain degree. But on the other hand, it allows you to utilize brains and knowledge and expertise of very talented people for the money that we can afford. So, that gives an opportunity for people who didn't find a job yet. And for Americans, obviously, it’s a very brief cameo stint, if they have a citizenship, because usually they quickly find another job somewhere else. They don’t stick around for too long. But for foreign nationals, it’s usually—they sometimes even move from one postdoc position to another somewhere else, if they don’t get the permanent residence. But usually they are getting it.
Slava, what was your initial work at NETL and what were your impressions of the laboratory?
Oh. Well, initially, I was just happy to get some kind of job, especially at a national laboratory, and I didn't really realize that this one was a little bit different, maybe, from the others. And when the person who was offering me this job brought me to the division director—and so we kind of like, in a way—well, I wasn’t really extremely polite at that time, yet I didn't know how to—be politically correct and everything, and all the time say niceties. So I was just saying things the way it came across my mind. And I ask him what’s his background. He said, “I'm a geologist.” I'm like, “A geologist?”
[laugh] To me, it’s like, “Really? And a geologist can actually work at a National Lab?” That’s what my impression was. I'm like, “Well, is it possible?” And he also made a similar comment about myself, before I even left, to the other person—“So, okay, whatever, it’s up to you, whatever you decide. But you’re hiring a rocket scientist to do geology work. Okay. We'll see what happens.” [laugh] In fact, it actually worked out really well. The funny part was that that division director became my soccer buddy. So, we worked together very well, and the project that I was initially working on was kind of similar to the electrical engineering job that I had at the company in Washington, PA. It involved a lot of data acquisition, data analysis, and understanding all the processes, like how geological materials interact with various gases and liquids. So, it had some chemistry involved. And I was developing theoretical concepts for how coal can be plasticized through those chemical interactions, and also there was some need for understanding of the underlying physics. What happens to compressed gases at various conditions. Identifying the mechanisms of gas-solid interaction. And the type of sorption—it can be physisorption or chemisorption, so both physics and chemistry are involved.
So again, you can say that it was materials science, in a way. Actually, at one point I needed to develop some models for quantifying sorption measurements using infrared probe with attenuated total reflection, where signal attenuation was due to near-field interaction between the sorbent and the evanescent infrared modes. So, it’s everything, but also like I said, it also involved my skills as an electrical engineer as well, to make—because it was, again, not off-the-shelf equipment. I had to again work with equipment, which was kind of jerry-rigged, primarily because I guess they could not afford to buy certain equipment, or maybe [they] didn't know what to buy. So, there were a lot of similarities with my prior experiences in this country, unlike the unlimited cash resources that I initially had with the Soviet space program. So, eventually we ended up getting everything automated, and more sophisticated, more expensive equipment, so it’s on a different level. But that’s how we were starting.
Slava, at what point did the position transform from a postdoc into a contractor position?
Well, that transformed because there was the end of this—postdoctoral appointment was only allowed for three to four years, so it was the latest extension. Actually, as I was entering my fourth year as a postdoc, for about a year during the same time University of Pittsburgh employed me as invited scientist to help a research team developing nanotechnology for chemical assay arrays, perhaps with the help from my idea. The idea was using photon diffraction for inducing surface plasmon, to circumvent the momentum conservation issue. So, about the contractor position, it was time for me to try and see if—and, luckily, they had an opening. The NETL contractor had a job vacancy. That was perfect timing. Well, first, of course, it’s because they liked me, and they wanted to keep me. And second, because there was a job opportunity. The contractor, if they get the right person, they get a job for themselves as well. And it’s very difficult for them to find qualified people. Otherwise, if they cannot support certain research, then it gets outsourced to somebody else. For instance, as a federal employee now, we are not allowed to outsource it if it’s in the contract and they can provide personnel to do the job. But if they don’t, and if it’s not in the contract, then we are free to outsource it to somewhere else, and then they lose money. So, they obviously are happy if they see that there is a project—the project is successful and there is money in the project, then they are happy to get a person who can do the job. So, that’s how I got it.
You saw this as an opportunity that this is a place where you were going to have a career, not just a job?
Honestly, I was kind of hoping to get—already at that time to get a federal job. And on a funny note, I was kind of upset a little bit that they kicked me out of my office. Where, as a postdoc, I was sitting together in the same area with the federal employees, and I had an office to myself—so that’s the way they arranged it. And then as a contractor, as well, but they have to be separate from the feds. We cannot have contractors and federal employees sitting in the same place. So, they moved me out of that area to contractor areas. And there, they had limited space, too. So, some people didn't even have an office, whatsoever. So, one of the contractors was complaining, “How come Slava is a contractor, and he has an office all for himself, in the federal employees’ area, and I don’t have an office space at all?” And so I said, “Well, you know what? You're not going to get it. What is going to happen—I'm going to lose it.”
And so that’s exactly what happened. So, they moved me out of this office to the contractor area. And that guy actually joined me—they found a room for us, so he did get a chair, and a desk. So, for him it worked out well, but I wasn’t really that happy, that now instead of one person in the room, I have three people in the room. That’s a funny part. But the real reason was job security. Because some contractors, they are saying whenever the contract changes, they always lose seniority. So, even though they try to keep the same people, if they sign the contract with a different company, they transfer people to that company—usually it’s almost mandatory—but they lose the seniority with that company. And they’re upset about that.
And also, there is another issue that contractors don’t feel like they have that much research freedom. So, you cannot just go ahead and run your own project because you came up with this marvelous idea and you think that “Oh, I'm going to just do that.” Well, usually you do what you're assigned to. So, for me, it was kind of a transition point. I didn't feel like I really wanted to—well, I was happy. I was treated really nicely. In fact, they gave me so much money. Well, they gave me more than—I thought that I was just asking something as a negotiating point, but they gave me way more than that. So, they just wanted to keep me for sure, and to make sure I'm happy. And the management treated me extremely well. So, to a certain extent, I cannot complain, personally, for myself, but I'm just saying that strategically, I did really want to have a federal job at that point.
Slava, what was your sense of the overall mission of NETL, and how did you see your own research as fitting into that mission?
Well, the mission of NETL is—if you just say it in two words, it’s about clean energy. Providing technology solutions and securing the foundation for abundant, resilient and reliable clean energy, at affordable cost. So, that’s pretty much guaranteeing energy security for the country today and tomorrow so to speak, but at the same time, making sure this energy is environmentally friendly, with a low environmental footprint. So, that’s just to put it in a nutshell—I cannot quote it for you. It may somewhat change tomorrow anyways, even if I just go to the website and read it for you. So, the way how my work fits—it also changes. For instance, initially I started with what they called carbon sequestration. Now they said that the Brits didn't like that word. Sequestration is more like almost incarcerating people.
So, they're like, “Oh, no, no. No. Don’t use that word.” And so Americans were happy to oblige, and now we started calling it carbon storage. And so we were working on carbon storage, initially. Assuming that we will be capturing all this excess carbon dioxide from fossil energy, basically from the power plants, and then we store it somewhere in geological formations. And that turned out to be easier said than done. So, we were trying to estimate the storage capacity, and several options turned out to be not workable. Some of the options were viable, but still would require something else in addition to that. And at the same time, renewable energy was kind of competing as well. It was getting more and more competitive in price, not without hefty subsidies, obviously, and thanks to outsourcing to China, but nevertheless, it was getting into the area where you can reasonably talk about it.
And then, later on, I was moving towards pretty much optimizing the power generation, when I was working in computational science. As a team leader, I was supporting multiple projects engaged with my team. So, my team would support different projects, including innovative projects, on new ways of generating power. There was an innovative technology portfolio that was of particular interest to me. With support from the computational science and engineering focus area lead, I became a lead on the data science initiative. The objective was to develop data science capability that would help us—make sense out of all the data and accelerate those projects. And then eventually some of the projects again became relevant to actually optimizing materials for the fossil energy power plants or processes for alternative technologies. And so that’s where we're—I'm using my physics and materials science expertise, blended with my newly acquired data science expertise. So that’s how I support the NETL mission—make sure we provide novel and mature materials and technologies for better energy efficiency with lower environmental footprint.
What interactions at all did you have with the policymaking world? Given the fact that NETL is close within the DOE infrastructure.
Well, basically our results on one hand provide input to the policymaking. So right now, actually, we are trying to make use of data science—we want to develop artificial intelligence, actually, that would use domain knowledge and machine learning to make sense out of the data, and then digest and visualize it for the decision-making, so that policymakers would be able to actually see and understand the data and see the proposed solutions and what potential outcomes would be of the various policy decisions. Yeah, right now, there are some other things we are involved in, because of this pandemic, similar in the way that we develop computational frameworks to support informed, scenario-based decision-making with the help of real-time processing and interpretation of the data streams. Like for instance, for the governors of the states, how they actually make sense of everything, and how do they make decisions and policies. So, the same goes for the Department of Energy.
Incidentally, a former DOE Chief Technology Officer for whom I once presented a review of all computational activities at NETL, including materials and processes for power generation as well as geological and environmental science, while I was acting on behalf of the senior personnel who were on extended leave during the CTO visit at NETL; so now as industry liaison for DOE headquarters, he partakes in our task force meetings that were initially intended as potential outreach to address the recent emergencies, but then pivoted back to DOE’s mission of ensuring America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy and environmental challenges through science and technology solutions. In order to come up with the right policy, you actually have to make sense of the data and technologies that are available, and process it together. And then artificial intelligence gives you alternatives. The world becomes so complex and complicated that it’s not that easy to just kind of come up with the idea and say, “Oh, you know what? We are going to have a Green Deal. Oh, it’s going to cost you $30 trillion, and you will have to use a train to get from Hawaii to the state of Oregon.”
“Wait. How do you do that?” “Oh, well, I'll get back to you on that.” “All right. Yeah.” So, you cannot do it anymore these days. You have to really be savvy. Well, at least you have to have some tools which are processing this information, and give it to you in digestible form, so that you could actually see what the consequences of your policy decisions are.
Slava, on a similar note, given how your tenure at NETL crossed over from the Obama to the Trump administration, given the very different approaches to fossil fuels between those two administrations, I wonder if you felt those differences at your level, in terms of the kinds of things that were emphasized in research at the laboratory.
Well, I would say mostly it’s probably felt in the—like what you're saying—on the policymaking stage, like the rhetoric and all that. That’s the major impact. I remember when George W. Bush, after he served his terms—there was a very brief statement which kind of quickly disappeared from the mainstream media. He said, “Well, it doesn't matter what they're promising during those campaigns. Whenever you become a president, they will tell you what to do.” In other words, they will tell the president—Trump is less inclined to listen, but then they are less—“they” are less inclined to listen to him. And so, as a result, the machine works the same way as it worked before, and we do the same things as we did before. But sometimes, you have to say it differently. You have to provide different justification. There are some changes in portfolios. There are very minor changes, like for instance carbon storage program, which was already kind of winding down, it kind of accelerated its winding down and was restructured, because of that. And then maybe with the role of fossil energy, there was more emphasis on saying, “Obama administration proposed “all of the above” approach,” which means that we have to keep the entire portfolio. We cannot just go green energy, like only with renewables. That was Obama administration. Okay? Trump is more blunt. He’s saying, “We’ll keep fossil energy.” It’s still the same—"all of the above”— but he’s saying it more honestly—we cannot get rid of fossil energy. It has to be at the core of our energy mix driving the economy.
And it doesn't matter what you say. The point is that you have to optimize this portfolio. And that’s not the policymakers who optimize it. So, it doesn’t matter what they say—you can say, “Well, we have to leave at least 45% fossil energy.” Yeah, that’s one thing. And then you can say, “Well, we need to have 55% of renewable energy. Well, maybe we can leave like 45% of fossil energy.” But it doesn't matter what you say; the point is that it’s 45% of fossil energy, 55% renewable. Actually, right now, it’s the other way around, about 80% fossil and less than 10% renewables. So right now, it’s mostly fossil energy with a gradually increasing hydrogen component in it. And it’s going to keep remaining this way for quite an extended period of time, regardless of who’s going to be running the administration.
Slava, to bring the conversation right up to the present day, what are some of the major research projects you're focusing on, of late?
Well, currently I'm a technical project or program lead for the machine learning for the subsurface. So, the focus of this effort is to support the overall multilab—we call it the SMART initiative. The idea is to develop solutions where physics is informing the machine learning and artificial intelligence models. Because what I told you a bit earlier that if you just use machine learning on the data, you cannot explain the results, whatever you come up with, and most of the engineers will just dismiss it. They will ask you, “And how do you know that?” You say, “Well, I don’t really know. There is the black box, and that’s what it came up with.” They will just look at you—“Okay. And so, there is like 0.1% probability of a nuclear disaster if it’s wrong, so what should we do?” You say, “Well, I don’t really know.” From that point on, they will stop talking to you. Because they have to have some idea of what happens if it’s not correct. In fact, usually, they don’t have 99.9% correlation. You never get it, with just machine learning models, unless you use physics, some kind of high-fidelity modeling in addition to that. So you are lucky if you get more than 90%. Typically it’s like 85%, for instance.
And you have to understand why it is like this. And if it doesn't make sense to engineers, they will say, “Well, maybe it’s so. Maybe not.” Unless they have some kind of idea of why it would happen like that—maybe they don’t know precisely whether the pressure would be 700 megapascal that would break material such as advanced alloy or superalloy, or 1,000 megapascal. They don’t know. They cannot tell just by waving [their] hands in the air. They cannot use first principles computations or even density functional theory approximations, which are not useful at the extreme temperature of interest in power generation or aircraft engine applications. But at least they know that if you change the temperature, and if you get too high a temperature, it’s going to start going down. Materials become more plastic or fragile. They understand that. So, if your model gives that, and they wouldn't have that understanding, and you just tell them, “Well, I just see that it’s going to go down,” they're like, “Why?” And you say, “I don’t know. It just says so.” So, that’s not what they want.
I led a team of university collaborators whose focus was on developing such solutions for iron-based alloys and then got involved with a similar DOE multilab effort on other materials for extreme environments. My AI algorithm is capable of not only predicting and interpreting behavior of existing alloys based on their composition, processing and virtual microstructure but also designing new materials and processes with improved performance. Using somewhat different learning approaches, such as Bayesian inference, my other team is trying to find the ways to mitigate degradation of the electrochemical conversion devices that produce electricity by chemically oxidizing fuel, with very low environmental footprint.
So, that’s basically a common motif of my recent projects—this interpretability challenge that we are working on, to make sure we understand what is happening. And particularly for the subsurface one, with the oil and gas production, there are some issues out there which scientists don’t understand and cannot quantify properly, for example the phenomenon known as “frac hits” when a hydraulically fractured well communicates with nearby old production wells and adversely affects their performance. And so, we are hoping that machine learning and artificial intelligence combined with the physics-informed modeling, if you do it properly, they will help us to advance understanding and make more accurate and reliable predictions. So, that’s the idea.
Slava, how do you understand NETL’s larger role in mitigating climate change from carbon emissions?
Well, I would say NETL is the leading lab in developing mature technology solutions to reduce carbon and other emissions that negatively affect the environment. Overall, it’s a leading fossil energy lab, in many aspects. Not only doing such in-house research, but also, we are funding a lot of research outside of NETL. I'm not part of the latter process, although we as researchers are regularly reviewing the external proposals. So, they sometimes ask us to provide an expert opinion, review and rate those proposals. But even if we are not doing that research that goes outside, still NETL decides what research is potentially worth pursuing and which one is not. With regard to mitigating climate change per se as you put it, this is not our mission. We are not charged with controlling the climate of the entire planet. In fact, in my recent book Greenhouse Gases and Clay Minerals, you may find a discussion on what is more effective and perhaps more progressive, going back to the Stone Age or adapting to change.
And in the larger effort, of course, as our society moves increasingly to decarbonize, in what ways do you see NETL reinventing itself so that its research remains relevant and useful to those national trends?
First of all, like I said, fossil energy—whenever they asked Joe Biden during the debate—President Trump asked him a question—“So, tell me, when are you planning to eliminate fossil energy? By what year?” Biden didn't want to answer this question. Because he was afraid of the consequences.
You mean the reality is, is that he wants to say to the progressive base that we're going to do it quickly, but the economic and technical reality is that fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere for a long time?
Right, they aren’t. And so he said 2050. After that, Trump stopped talking to him and was just smiling. And the moderator starting arguing with Joe Biden—“Why would you do that?” And you know why—to please the left radicals. But on the other hand, his rating dropped 3% the next day. So, it’s impossible. I mean, this is ridiculous. You're not going to take—like the solar panels airplane? There are no such things.
They're not flying on solar panels. So we have to burn a lot of fuel, and that’s not going anywhere, for any extended period of time.
So, you're not really worried about the relevance of your work any time soon, is what you're saying.
No, the relevance of the work is not an issue. How the funding is going to be affected—that might be a very hectic period under the next administration. We don’t know. But on the other hand, we are also looking into alternative forms of energy generation. And like I say we've been looking for it already for a very long time. Like several years ago, when I was a team lead in the computational sciences, we already were quite engaged in that. In addition to the electrochemical conversion devices such as solid oxide fuel cells, my team was working on other promising technologies for direct energy conversion from fuel to electricity to increase power generation efficiency and reduce the emissions. Our primary focus still is on supporting the fossil energy program. In this regard, we have less funding flexibility than other DOE national laboratories. However, to hedge against potential political turmoil, we do maintain healthy engagement with other DOE offices as well as the Department of Defense and other agencies. Actually, a few months ago I talked about it with our director, and he shared with me his approach to forming alliances with directors of other DOE national labs. One such alliance that he said he is currently leading, called “Future of the Energy Systems,” can help integrate NETL research with the national trend toward reducing environmental footprint of power generation so that it remains relevant and useful.
Do you see technology in fossil fuel research leading to a point where we could use fossil fuels without concern about carbon emissions?
Well, actually, it already is very close to that. Well—but let me just break it down for you. So, what we are doing right now—we are demanding that it has to be captured at more than 90%, okay? Ninety percent is cheap. Capturing—it doesn't affect the energy cost. If you go above 90%—95% already probably would significantly increase the cost. And if you go to 99%, you would like more than triple the cost. And it will be—now you'd make renewables competitive. Because renewables, if you do it now, they will triple the cost, easily, and in addition to that, environmental damage, because they would take a lot of agricultural space. You would have to shut down all this agricultural production. But let’s just focus on the fossils, okay? So okay, we put in place the policy decisions like, “Okay, we will not allow here in this country less than 95% capture.” So, what do we do? Those energy-consuming companies like steel-making, whatever else that requires a lot of energy, a lot of power plants will shut down. Where is it going to go? It’s going to go to China, where they don’t have any environmental regulation, but the demand for the same goods is still there. So, people still want the same amount of the same goods. Which means that China will produce the same amount of the same goods that we stopped producing, but now their environmental footprint will be 20 times higher, because now instead of 5% pollution, it’s going to be 100% pollution, and not just carbon dioxide. They're not going to capture anything, okay? And that’s what they do.
If you look at the trends, the U.S. air pollution hasn’t been changing for the past 30 years. It actually goes down, slightly. China’s right now already is way bigger than ours, already for more than ten years, and pretty much becomes the dominant global source. U.S. carbon emission already becomes almost negligible. It doesn't really matter anymore how much you pollute over here, but it’s now controlled by China. And, in addition to that, the efficiency of their technologies and power plants is way lower than here. So, they actually will burn even more fuel to produce the same amount of energy, and ultimately the same amount of consumer goods. So, it’s not going to be 20 times; it’s going to be 50, 60, or maybe even more times greater pollution, for the planet. You think that’s going to stay in China? No. Even the trash in the ocean which comes from Asia drifts all the way to Hawaii. But the air circulates within just a few days. In weeks, it’s all spread throughout the entire world. We are going to breathe it here.
Slava, on that point, are there opportunities for technological breakthroughs that happen at NETL to be shared with countries like China so that they mitigate their pollution?
Oh, yeah, we share. We have joint projects. So, China actually is right now praised by a lot of world leaders—those Greenpeace advocates—as a leader in developing such technologies. So, what I said previously—the problem is not developing technology. Making them commercially viable and so that people would actually use them. And so, China is not going to have any regulations—according to this Green Deal, China is excluded entirely until 2030, after which they will be slightly, slightly regulated, but not to the point of a return back to the level of 2010 or 2000. No. But at the level which it will climb to by 2030, which is going to be a disaster. Which is going to be a total disaster for the planet. And nobody wants to regulate them. And that’s in fact—so President Trump just used it as a—pretty much all the justification of why he pulled out of the Paris climate pact, at least initiated the pullout of these agreements. Because he said, “Because China is not part of it.” Well, they are part, but they're excluded from the regulations, until the point when it’s going to be totally out of bounds. So, that’s a policy thing. I'm just a scientist, so I don’t know what the politicians decide.
It’s a very interesting and unique perspective, and it’s one that you don’t often hear in the news media.
Well, our news media sound like they are just reading somebody else’s script. Like I said, it is not likely that two people repeat the same sentence precisely, word by word. It is not probable, not without coordination. But whenever you see like several countries, totally different news media sources, keep repeating the same things synchronously—yesterday they said one thing in the evening; today, in the morning, they say totally opposite, word by word—I don’t know.
It makes no sense to me. It’s impossible. Statistically, it is not probable.
[laugh] We'll leave that one there. Slava, for my last question, I want to ask—it has been so fun talking with you and learning about not only all of the different places that you've worked, but all of the different ways that you've been a scientist. And so I've been excited to ask you this, over the course of our conversation, and that is—in what ways does working within the environment of NETL, in terms of your collaborations, in terms of the unique relationship between NETL with the Department of Energy, in terms of your access to technology and instrumentation, in what ways is it so valuable to you as a scientist to be at NETL?
You know what? Like I said, I'm not really that particular about what happens to me, as a scientist, or any other things. I just want to—I love to work with different people and learn something from them. And NETL actually is a very open environment. So, I visited a lot of other national labs. Sometimes people don’t sound that friendly. Well, some of those, my former collaborators, they are very nice people. But some people are not really that friendly. Maybe that’s because of this contractor thing. You know, contractors are more worried, and there’s more competition between them, rather than collaboration. NETL is more like in a friendly environment, and people like to chat with each other, communicate, have meetings, discuss things. And so, that’s really very enjoyable, and you can share your ideas, and you're not worried about it, that somebody is going to go and publish something—a patent, whatever you say. We work together as a team. So, that’s how as a scientist I perceive myself as just part of the family. We work all together here.
That’s wonderful to hear. Well, Slava, I am so glad that we were able to connect for this project, and I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. It has been great listening to all of your stories and all of your insight over the course of your career. So, thank you so much.
Thank you so much for inviting me for this interview. I'm really thrilled and humbled with this opportunity, because like I said, sometimes I just don’t really feel much about myself. I'm just a regular guy.
Well, it has been my pleasure, Slava.