Assistant Professor of Biology
“I lived most of my childhood in a small town near Moscow. It’s an academic town… except there is no college but there is an institute, so they tend to be secret. They would have special people in suits who would check the buses so that no foreigners would slip in and learn the secrets.”
Dr. Arseny Khakhalin remembers playing in the mud as a child just days after the Chernobyl disaster. As information trickled down through the Soviet Union, his parents rushed him to his father’s research institute where a team of scientists isolated him in a room to measure his exposure to radioactivity. He says, “I was five years old, so I don’t remember much, but I remember that chamber.” He recalls that it had “moving sensors” and conveyed a “steam-punk” aesthetic, like something one might see in a Marvel movie. “[I was] alone, and people, including my dad, looked at me through a thick window. They were told to throw away all my clothes, but that I was relatively clean.”
Arseny, now an Assistant Professor of Biology at Bard College, grew up in a small naukograd (science town) outside of Moscow. Naukograds were established by the Soviet Union for the purpose of scientific research and manufacturing, and they were instrumental in the development of sputniks, missiles and other military technology. The town itself is called Mendeleyevo, named after Dmitri Mendeleev, the chemist who created the periodic table of elements. Like other naukograds, Mendeleyevo was once restricted to the researchers and their families who worked at the All-Union (now All-Russian) Scientific Research Institute.
“[Science towns] used to be secret,” Arseny says, “They would have special people in suits who would check the buses so that no foreigners would slip in and learn the secrets.” In Mendeleyevo, Arseny was immersed in a world of scientists and engineers. His father, a physicist, worked on what Arseny calls a “space wars thing.” He explains, “It’s like Americans and Russians tried to make lasers to burn each other from space, and so he was on the non-secret part of basic research that could lead to that.” He adds, “They tried to basically weaponize everything.” Ultimately, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union ever did succeed in creating such a powerful laser.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, the funding for academic towns like Mendeleyevo dwindled. Arseny explains: “The infrastructure was there but people were not paid, so they would keep going to the Institute out of habit and because they liked their work, but they wouldn’t get paid for years.” His mother had previously been employed in a lab that produced components for lasers. “It just switched to making jewelry,” he says, “so they kept growing synthetic rubies and garnets, but instead of making lasers out of them they started making jewelry and selling it. Another lab nearby started making ramen, like, dissolvable noodles. It was a very peculiar time.”
Surrounded by science, Arseny found himself drawn to the discipline himself. He read through physics textbooks as a child, and participated in state-run science competitions. His talents did not go unnoticed— he was recruited by the state to formally study science. He notes that the Soviet Union was effective at “catching people” who were strong in science and funneling them into training programs where they might eventually be helpful in developing weapons.
1990’s Russia, however, was a time of contradictions. Although highly educated, Arseny’s parents struggled to find the means to buy food or clothing. At times they relied on him to bring home uneaten school lunches to feed the family. “It shows how one can be both disadvantaged and privileged at the same time,” he explains. Despite being impoverished and without contacts in the West, Arseny still had access to what he describes as a “decaying yet still functioning streamlined education system”. He notes, “For other people it may be a very different combination of things. It’s possible to be both disadvantaged and privileged, and it’s important to keep that in mind.”
“For other people it may be a very different combination of things. It’s possible to be both disadvantaged and privileged, and it’s important to keep that in mind.”
The streamlined education system Arseny mentions often left him feeling alienated and unsure. He went on to study biophysics at Moscow State University, where he thrived intellectually but found little personal or academic guidance. He says, “you feel like one fish in a giant school, or a little piece of wood in a giant river.” After earning his PhD, he considered various occupations, including journalism, violin-making, and priesthood in a religious group that his ancestors were affiliated with, called the Old Believers. His disparate interests were marked by a deeper search to do something that satisfied his curiosity and his drive to be useful to other people. “You realize that there are certain things you seek,” he says, “it’s not about a particular profession but about the desire to do something.” While Moscow State University gave him little mentorship, it did give him his first exposure to studying neuroscience, the field that became his career.
Ultimately he chose to leave Russia to pursue opportunities in the West. He did his postdoc in neuroscience at Brown University, and started teaching through the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. His passion for teaching and mentorship led him to his current position at Bard College where he teaches neuroscience and statistics. Though he ended up far from where he started, one thing has been constant— his life has revolved around science.
“I believe that science does shape you, that it really changes everything about your attitude”
“I believe that science does shape you, that it really changes everything about your attitude,” he says. “You don’t realize that not all people classify things, and not all people try to break things apart into smaller pieces and hope that the small pieces will combine into a big picture.” Part of Arseny’s teaching practice is to emphasize that everyone can become a scientist and that all people benefit from scientific thinking. He finds himself unsettled by what he sees as a public distrust in science. “Humanity’s only hope of surviving is to find some basic trust in long-term science, even when the immediate effects are not clear.”
Having grown up in a Soviet-run science town, and having experienced the Chernobyl disaster, Arseny still finds the ability to trust in science. In his words, “Scientists believe that science may help humanity to survive, reduce suffering, and improve the living conditions for everyone. Not all people believe in that… When we advocate for science, we advocate for ourselves, but we also genuinely hope that we can be useful to this world. So as long as we keep trying to care about others, challenge each other, argue, and disagree, we’ll be doing the right thing.”
“When we advocate for science, we advocate for ourselves, but we also genuinely hope that we can be useful to this world. So as long as we keep trying to care about others, challenge each other, argue, and disagree, we’ll be doing the right thing.”
Arseny Khakhalin, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Bard College, working in artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and network science. Personal website
by Maia Weisenhaus