Katia Paramonova (Nuclear Engineering ’13) thought she was going on a short internship in Russia and ended up launching a startup which supports the next generation of engineering leaders and tech innovators.
Katia Paramonova (left) with colleagues from the National University of Science and Technology MISiS, February 2016. Photo: Katia Paramonova.

“You know, it’s about time MIT launches a MIT MISTI-Russia program,” Katia pondered while she cooked blinii (pancakes) during the Russian crepes night organized at Simmons Hall with one of her friends, Timur. 

When the MIT-Russia Program launched in 2011, she was in the process of setting up a junior-year summer internship at the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute (MEPhI), the leading nuclear university in Russia, to experiment on materials for the ITER fusion reactor. MIT-Russia helped her finish the planning for that summer internship at MEPhI. 

Leaving comfort zone through work experience in Russia

For the internship, Katia was trying to find an alloy that could help bond metal and ceramic in the inner loop of the ITER, which is quite a difficult feat. It was interesting to see how some of the equipment they used at MEPhI was 20-30+ years old, but with some know-how and a knowing hand, the researchers there worked magic. She was excited to meet with more Russians her age and older, in a work-context – they were grounded and welcoming, curious and steadfast.

After graduating from MIT, Katia wondered what direction she wanted to go into. She considered a graduate school in nuclear international relations. In the end, she decided to get out of her comfort zone and headed off to Russia, a place that she had seen bits and pieces of but never got to experience. 

While at MIT, Katia was in the Gordon Engineering Leadership (GEL) program. One of its leads, Prof. Ed Crawley, had gone on to be president of Skoltech, a new innovation-focused university under development in Moscow in partnership with MIT. And so she wound up working in a role of an internal consultant at a 3-year-old, 100-person startup university in Moscow. Katia helped launch various processes they needed inside the Institute such as policy development, headcount, and risk management. The one catch was that the rules that she had learned in the U.S., and specifically at MIT, such as being proactive, working in a team, etc. did not work in all countries. The first year was challenging, yet very developmental. 

Setting a goal to making a difference in the country

After a year at Skoltech, Katia set her goal of making a difference at a larger scale. Recently Russia has launched various initiatives to develop universities such as the 5-100 Russian Academic Excellence Project in 2013. The goal is to get 5 of the 21 participating universities into the top 100 universities worldwide. 

Summer of 2015, she ran into a few former colleagues from that MISTI summer internship at MEPhI. After some catching up, they asked if she would be willing to work with them on some of their efforts in the 5-100 Project and beyond. The project they chose to focus on for the next 2.5 months was establishing an integrated student services department, similar to a combination of the Division of Student Life, Registrars Office, Career Services, and Alumni Association. 

MEPhI already had parts of this running but it needed an integrative approach that would complement existing resources and raise it to the next level. Using a combination of the approaches that she has seen at MIT and Skoltech, Katia with her team proposed new directions for MEPhI to move in, found internal candidates to lead the project, and made the first implementation steps. Since then, the group has been continuing to make an impact and contributes significant results to meeting the 5-100 objectives for MEPhI.

Launching Hexagon

Why not approach working on transferring some of the best practices to Russian universities? In December 2015, with two other colleagues she met at Skoltech and MEPhI, Katia launched Hexagon. They started off with three products: student services, career center, and engineering leadership programs, and have since honed in on engineering leadership programs for Russian universities. Why? After pitching the ideas to various universities, they saw that engineering leadership programs were the most attractive and that they were more scalable. 

Engineering leadership programs have been quickly popping up at universities in the U.S. and around the globe, answering the need to prepare engineering students in skills they need outside of engineering that they need at the workplace, like teamwork, leadership, communication and entrepreneurship. Although each program has their own unique approach, many have a core of case-based learning. At MIT they call this leadership labs as well as business courses, a personal development plan, and structured summer internships. 

The program can be built up from a basic package and then adapted to each university’s environment. Hexagon’s vision is to scale up these programs at technical universities around Russia, and then expand to universities in other countries, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), Greece, and others. Hexagon’s vision is to help develop the next generation of engineering leaders and tech innovators in Russia and the world, while at the same time, nurturing the university-industry ecosystem for increased collaboration and research to commercialization impact.

Since the project with MEPhI, Katia and her team have taken a delegation from the National University of Science and Technology MISiS to explore the Rice University Center for Engineering Leadership, ran a 4-day engineering leadership module at Bauman University, and gotten feedback from various universities at 5-100 event presentations. 

Working in Russia takes some time to adjust to, and offers great opportunities for growth, she says. For Hexagon to develop well, it will be important to be able to adapt the engineering leadership programs to the Russian cultural context. Even the concept of “leadership” is tricky in Russia, as it often has a negative and political connotation. 

“I am glad I was able to get my feet with my first working experience in Russia through MIT-Russia back in junior year. It was an insightful start and I’m looking forward to continuing to learn and keep growing in order to make an impact on Russia and the world,” Katia concludes.

  • Russia
  • Internship
  • Nuclear