He was fond of science since his childhood, and now he’s considered to be the most cited Ukrainian scholar in the world. He could have worked almost anywhere but settled down in the US because he didn’t want to be told how he should work. About the childhood and moving from Ukraine, the most important works and the crisis of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences – the way Yury Gogotsi himself sees it in the section “Who is…” from Opinion.
About childhood and first passion for science
Gogotsi got to the scientific environment from the very childhood. He was going with his father to work, where he disassembled old phones and played with various details. However, a real enthusiasm for science arose in him only when chemistry had started at school.
“I was really excited with chemistry! My father, seeing this, brought me to the Palace of Pioneers to a chemistry club. We were discussing the theory, chemical reactions we were making experiments. We coated copper coins with mercury so that they looked like silver ones – an experiment that is now forbidden to conduct for any pupil! We made a model of a volcano by burning ammonium bichromate and particles of chromium oxide created volcanic ash. We learned to understand the chemical reactions by changes of color, the smell of reagents. All this had caused a steady interest for a deeper understanding of science, much deeper than the school program was giving.”
About the first time leaving Ukraine
Everything had changed considerably in the 1990ies, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening of the borders by Gorbachev. Back then the scientist left Ukraine winning the Humboldt scholarship for his doctoral studies in Germany.
“I entered the doctorate, went to Germany, in a year I was planning to return to Kyiv to the Institute of Problems of Material Science. However, during that year a lot of things had changed. First of all, science began to decay in Ukraine. There was no social order. It was impossible to survive for a post-graduate scholarship. Secondly, I understood what opportunities were opened in Germany. As well I got that much of what seemed normal to me in the Soviet Union was not really normal. You know, in order to send a letter to a colleague from overseas, you don’t need to go to an accountant, then to the director of the institute and the head of the first department who will sign the document that you’re going to send fax abroad.”
About choosing the USA
Gogotsi could have linked his future career to a number of countries, however, he chose the United States. Besides, the arguments of the scientist seem quite logical.
“First, I didn’t want to be told what I should do. I wanted to work on my ideas with my team. It is difficult in the European, and especially the Japanese patriarchal scientific tradition. In America, I received the position of Assistant Professor – the lowest professorial post, however, with wide autonomy.
Secondly, the principles of the university system. People in America hold positions depending on their achievements, not on the number of years that they worked in the institute.”
However, the question of self-determination of the scientist is not so simple, since, with absolute justification, he can be called both a Ukrainian and an American specialist.
“I am an American researcher. On the other hand, my entire family is in Ukraine, I regularly visit here and collaborate, so I feel like I’m both American and Ukrainian scholar.”
About citation of his own texts
Together with the name of the scientist, almost in each text, they write, Gogotsi – the most cited Ukrainian scientist in the world. Yury himself explains this success quite simply – it’s a reputation.
“This means that my works are read, they are considered important and people continue the work that we’ve started. For example, I have an article that was cited eight thousand times, that is, eight thousand other works followed our research. However, the authority of the author is not a key factor.”
About his most important works
Of course, as the most cited Ukrainian scientist, Gogotsi cannot but pay attention to this. Therefore one of the criteria for assessing the importance of his works is their citation. In this case, the conditional leader is the research of supercapacitors.
“The article sent the whole branch of science in a new direction. From the perspective of influence on world science, it is a very successful work. Back then, 9 years ago, supercapacitors were only at the beginning of their active usage. There was no correct understanding of the theory. For 20 years before that, apparently, their capacity has increased only by 20%. We gathered all the data, substantiated how to increase the capacity, which materials could be used, explained the existence of pseudo-condensers with reduction-oxidation reactions. We showed a wide picture – something that scientists usually don’t see while stewing in their narrow realms. We’ve created a roadmap for the development of the industry.”
About the life of an American scholar on a salary
Gogotsi is convinced it’s a reality. According to the scientist, a decent salary allows us to understand that our work is appreciated, that it is important and necessary. It also helps people to engage in science, without being distracted by anything.
“When a person can support his family, live normally, and don’t do side-jobs or grow potatoes to feed his family during the winter, he can focus on science, think about science, spend his time with science. Every 5-6 years, for one year American professors, are allowed not to be engaged in their direct duties – not to read lectures at the university, for example. That is, I get my salary and I can do whatever I want.”
About coming back to Ukraine
Thinking about a return to his homeland, Yury Gogotsi admits: it is possible if the state and society will have a desire for changes. That is the creation of such conditions under which Ukrainian scientists would not have to look for better laboratories somewhere overseas.
“I live and breathe with science. I must be able to do world-class science. I can find funding from the same international companies and funds while being in Ukraine, but there should be an interest of society and the state, there must be a structural system where people won’t be overburdened with bureaucracy and paperwork, where they will be able to focus on science.”
About Ukrainian science
According to the scientist, the main problem is that people in most institutions… just stewing in their own juice.
“Another problem is that people don’t know what’s happening in the world if they do not communicate and work with colleagues from other countries. What was published is already in the past. Things that are made right now – that is important, and you won’t know it if you don’t communicate actively.
There is another problem. Sometimes when I talk to Ukrainian colleagues, I say that I’m looking for a good post-graduate student. So they reply, ‘Why would we give our post-graduates, we need them here too!’ You won’t hear such things from an American or European scientist.”
The scholar also has a piece of advice for the National Academy of Sciences. He says that in order to get out of the crisis, you don’t need too much – to focus on science, it’s just enough.
“Academics, if they are worthy to be members of the Academy, should be engaged in science. To yield ideas. To help the state understand what directions it should invest in. Not to work on bureaucracy. Not to distribute money. After all, there is a fundamental conflict – if people are engaged in science and decide to whom the money should be given, the obvious answer pops up – to them. The Academy should be the brain of the state, not the hands that count the bills. Well, the state also must be relevant, the one that needs this brain.”
By Dmytro Zhuravel
The publication was collected from numerous interviews, speeches, and appeals of the material’s protagonist.