Greg Michael: From Russia to Mars

Published: October 1, 2007

Greg Michael originally graduated with degrees in Philosophy, Physics, and Computation from the University of Oxford. He went on to get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Moscow State University and to find a wide and interesting array of professional and educational opportunities in Eastern Europe and Russia including working as an English teacher in Chisinau, a Style Editor for a publication of the Russian Academy of Sciences and, most recently, as a scientist at Freie Universitaet in Berlin working with the European Space Agency in its effort to explore Mars. We spoke to him recently about his experiences. Note: Greg Michael is also an amateur photographer and contributed all photos featured here. 

Greg Michael, ESA Mars Express Scientist

SRAS: Most of your varied working career has been roughly evenly divided between working in Western and Eastern Europe, including a stint as an English teacher shortly after earning your Master’s degree in computation in the UK. Have you always known that you wanted to work with Eastern Europe? If so, why?

Greg Michael: No, I couldn’t say it was so clear as that. I suppose I had some curiosity about life in Eastern Europe as a student: I remember being impressed by Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. I visited the then Czechoslovakia for a month after finishing my BA, and Poland the following year. After the Master’s, I hadn’t much idea what to next. I was applying for a few more conventional jobs, but they really weren’t too inspiring. When I came across a teaching vacancy in Moldavia, I couldn’t pass it up. This was only a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union: a chance to experience the ordinary life of a place about which not so much was known.

SRAS: You went on to earn a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Moscow State University. Why did you decide to study at Moscow State?

Greg Michael: Moscow State University is the biggest and most famous of Russia – it was really the most obvious place to try. I did give some thought to the Pulkovo Observatory in St Petersburg, but since I was already staying in Moscow while I was working with the Russian Academy of Sciences as the style editor of the Russian physics review journal Physics-UspekhiMGU was a simpler choice.

SRAS: I want to ask you more about that position in a minute, but for now, could you describe the process of how you got into that Ph.D. program at MGU? Was there a lot of bureaucracy involved? Who did you contact to begin the process?

Kriskovskii, Russia

Greg Michael: Actually, it was rather easy to find the place as a PhD student. I simply called up and made an appointment to see the director of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute at MGU. He and others there were extremely friendly and helpful, and agreed to my studying at the institute straight away. It was very much more complicated to go through all the university procedures to become registered as a student, to receive a study visa, and to obtain a student room to live in. It’s a long time ago now, but as I recall, it was rather painful.

SRAS: Dealing with the bureaucracy can be hard – and is one reason why many times Students elect to contact us arrange these things through SRAS’s direct enrollment program. Also, I assume that you also had to take a TORFL level 3 to get into this program, as most universities require this for foreign students entering Master’s or PhD programs in Russia. Could you briefly describe how you signed up for the test and what the test consisted of?

Greg Michael: No, I didn’t have to do this. I had spent a year living in Kiev before I enrolled, but my Russian was still at quite a low level. During the first year of study, I spent most effort on learning that – I had about 10 hours of language tuition per week (usually with one other foreign student from Japan) together with the undergraduate final-year astrophysics lectures. Unlike the UK, within a Russian PhD programme, you should pass exams in your field of study in a wide sense (so although I was working on lunar and Mars science, the exam covered astrophysics in general), as well as in a foreign language (in my case, Russian), and philosophy. These were the main focus of the first year. If I remember rightly, I had to speak with someone from the language department before enroling, but it was more an approval of competence than a formal test of any kind.

SRAS: Ah, so you did a year of University preparatory before you enrolled. This is also an option with most unis in Russia. I’d like to ask you a question of politics now. The US, the EU, and a Russia-China consortium have all recently stepped up efforts to explore the “Red Planet.” As you have now been working with EU efforts to explore Mars for several years, can you say that there is mostly cooperation between the agencies, or is there also rivalry? I find this question interesting because one would think that if a country were to be first to develop a program to effectively develop Mars, this would give that country at least the lion’s share of any resources or other economic opportunities associated with Mars.

Sudal, Russia

Greg Michael: Within the science community the approach is generally cooperative. I have frequent contact with both Russian and US scientists – not yet, unfortunately, with Chinese. The scientists’ interests are rarely to do with economic exploitation of the planets, so I’d say that a rivalry doesn’t exist in that sense. I think that governments see the development of technologies and capabilities in space as of strategic importance, and have no doubt that they watch very carefully what other countries are achieving and planning in this field. But because any real mechanisms of economic exploitation of space resources remain unclear, the trigger for such a race has yet to be pulled.

SRAS: I suppose I did grow up on Star Trek and might jumping the gun just a little. But also on the subject of economy and science – you’ve made a career internationally now as a scientist. Do you believe that there are opportunities for others who earn degrees in Russia to find work abroad – or even to find work in Eastern Europe and Russia?

Greg Michael: There aren’t large numbers of scientists moving in this direction, but that’s not to say it isn’t possible. I think that, because of the funding situation, the motivation for such a move generally has to be more than the science alone. My experience as a PhD student was that I was very much welcomed by the scientists themselves. I had to fund both the study and my life there by working at the same time, but this turned out to be a reasonable thing to do. There are opportunities for scientists: during my five years in Moscow I found jobs which made use of my science background in combination with English language: I edited the English version of a monthly physics journal and various other books and articles; I was also science consultant to a British company using Russian programmers to develop commercial astronomy software. Native English skills are in high demand, and in the science field they are especially scarce.

SRAS: So there is demand, at least to the extent that it can help fund study abroad. This is something we have regularly said to students and something we have always found has been generally true. Moving back to your experience teaching English (a job path many of our students take while abroad) – you chose to move to Moldova for a few months in 1993 and teach English shortly after earning your Master’s. Why did you chose Moldova? Any interesting stories from your time there?

Greg Michael: I chose Moldova exactly because it is one of the least-known countries in Europe (and I must admit that when I read the vacancy notice, I had to search for it on the map!). What was fascinating about Eastern Europe at the time was that it was both vast and close, yet we had so little idea of how people really lived there. So I think I was looking not for a remarkable place but a typical one. Of course, Moldova turned out to be remarkable in many ways, but it also satisfied my original curiosity about the typical.

Many nice things happened there – my arrival, especially: I’d just spent four days travelling from London where spring had been beginning, but in Chisinau it was still well below zero. I trudged through the snow into a forest of concrete tower blocks with the pretty teacher who’d met me at the railway station. She took me into a dark lift with rattling chains up to the ninth floor and into her apartment.

Members of an English class in Chisinau

Inside, I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I found: there were 25 people crammed around a huge table groaning with food and crystal… rabbits, chickens, fish, jellies, salads, ox-tongues, pickled cucumbers, roasted peppers, sheep cheese, fermented cabbages, cakes, chocolate… a couple of hours later, fed to the point of bursting, and somewhat the better for champagne, wine and cognac, we went out for a walk in the snow. After twenty minutes we entered another block, another lift, another flat, another gathering around a huge table… There was no use in saying “but I’ve already eaten…” – we had no common words at all. More food, more champagne, more cognac, more smiles… Eventually we set out back home. Some negotiations with a passing car driver got us a lift. He dropped us off back at the first place, but no, it wasn’t the same one – another lift, another company, another table, more food, more glasses… The fourth time it was a house, not an apartment, and the improvised table was so big it ran through the door into the next room. I later understood that 8th March, the day I had arrived, is a special day in the East. (International Women’s Day)

Another story I like – my girlfriend sent a letter from England with just my name, do vostrebovaniya, Chisinau. In a city of three-quarters of a million, the postman brought it to my door.

SRAS: Ha ha. Both very interesting – I’m not sure I would really expect either to be repeated in the present day, but both very interesting. So, after working as a risk analyst in the UK for a couple of years after this experience in Moldova, you found work again as an English tutor with the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. Surely this could not have been a pay increase. Why did you elect to go back to Eastern Europe? How did you find out about this job?

Greg Michael: No, there was no pay increase there! Although I enjoyed the work I did as a risk analyst, I found the commercial motivation unsatisfying. The time in Moldova was far richer in terms of experience, and having understood that, it wasn’t so hard to swallow the loss of income. I didn’t find the new job until after I arrived in Kiev – in fact I also worked briefly at two English-language newspapers there before settling on teaching at the polytechnic.

SRAS: Would you advise science majors to study a foreign language? If so, why?

I’d advise anyone to study a foreign language. It’s not so much a matter of whether it’s useful in furthering your career, but if you have an intellectual curiosity – and as a scientist, you must have that – it’s simply something you can’t afford to miss. It opens a new way of thinking, and gives you access to a different culture of ideas.

If you can speak your own language, you have all the skills you need to speak a second one…

SRAS: Interesting advice. I would certainly agree that if someone can speak their language with authority (ie, they already know how grammar affects the language), it does make studying a new language much easier. As a final question, since we have established that it is recommended for science majors to learn a new major and economically very possible for them to fund their time abroad through work: What advice would you give science graduates hoping to find work abroad?

Greg Michael: It’s a worthwhile thing to do. Science, in any case, has become an international occupation – there are many schemes trying to support international exchange of doctoral and post-doctoral students because of this. Any early experience has to be advantageous. For myself, I didn’t go to Eastern Europe with the plan to develop my career as a scientist – rather the other way around: I wanted to do something worthwhile which would enable me to live for an extended period in Russia. As it happened, the completion of my PhD coincided with the launch of the first European mission to Mars which opened the way to a position back in Europe.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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