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Overcoming Doubts with Help from Advisors and Role Models

Published February 01, 2019

By Alexandra Boltasseva

Overcoming Doubts with Help from Advisors and Role Models
Alexandra being honored at the 2018 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists ceremony.

Alexandra being honored at the 2018 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists ceremony.

Alexandra giving a talk at the 2018 Blavatnik Science Symposium.

Alexandra giving a talk at the 2018 Blavatnik Science Symposium.

Alexandra at the 2018 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists ceremony.

Alexandra at the 2018 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists ceremony.


This essay is part of a series of guest posts from Academy Members and Ambassadors. For more content by and about our Members and Ambassadors, click here.


I was born in Kanash, a small town on the Southern route of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway in modern day Russia. Being from a small town in the middle of nowhere, one of the first questions I’m often asked is how I got into science. I have often repeated the same answer: “I have always been fascinated by technology and devices.” But the truth is that I have always been fascinated by a much simpler thing – the world around me.

All my life I was blessed to have the most devoted and inspirational people around me. As every child, I loved to come to my parents’ work. Both engineers, my parents worked for railway-related organizations. My mom has a degree in applied mathematics and was on the team who installed the very first computer at the local train repair plant. My dad was the head of a small radio communications laboratory that controlled train communication lines between two of the nearest cities - Nizhnyi Novgorod and Kazan. At his lab, I loved playing with colorful resistors and wondered what they actually did while flipping through Rudolf Svoren’ book Electronics: Step by Step.

In middle school, my life changed because of my physics teacher Valery V. Gorbenko. His true love for physics and devotion to his students opened up a world beyond my small-town school. I joined his after-school physics classes, and soon after participated and won the physics Olympics in our republic. Being a girl meant you were outnumbered at physics competitions, but I never asked myself whether I should do it, I just joined in. I wanted to make my teacher proud.


"I realized having doubts and accepting that you don’t know everything is what motivates people to learn and explore."


It was never a question whether anyone in my family should get a college degree. Everyone knew that doors open when you get a degree. While I was interested in particle physics in high school, soon after I started at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, I became interested in applied physics. I wanted to do something that would make a difference now instead of decades into the future. I had amazing advisors during my Bachelor and Masters projects at the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences who introduced me to an emerging area of quantum-well lasers, and who taught me how to manage my time.

My nanotechnology adventures started at the Technical University of Denmark where I did my PhD studies working in one of the very first Scandinavian Cleanrooms learning about nanofabrication. Focusing on how to bring light down to nanoscale, I was very fortunate to have great role models such as Ursula Keller and my university advisor, Sergey Bozhevolnyi (with whom I still collaborate very actively today).

I don’t think I ever felt “out of place” in the male-dominated college or research communities. For me, it was not about being female, it was about being insecure (though I admit these two things are connected). During the earlier stages of my career, I had difficulty convincing myself that I was suited for academic work. Sometimes I wanted to quit science and open a flower shop.

Once during my postdoctoral work, I felt particularly blue and seriously doubted whether I should stay in academia. In that moment, I spoke with my former PhD advisor who is a very well-known, established professor. I told him I wasn’t good enough at what I do and that I was filled with doubts. His reply surprised me: “Same here - I still have doubts about whether I am doing what I am good at.” He added that only ignorant people would ever think that they are great at something. In that moment, I realized having doubts and accepting that you don’t know everything is what motivates people to learn and explore. I am still learning to believe in myself, but the biggest reward is to share what I do know and feel passionate about.


Role models and mentors played a crucial role in Alexandra’s career development, allowing her to now serve as a role model and mentor to others. Become a mentor today.


2018 Blavatnik National Awards Finalist, Alexandra Boltasseva, PhD, is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University working in the areas of optics and nanotechnology. She is also a mom of three and lives with her family in West Lafayette, Indiana.