Olga Trichtchenko: Your New Professor, Western!

Hey Mustangs! Get pumped to start another year at Western University! A new year means new memories, new purple shirts, new grades (hopefully better ones), new frosh and, of course, new professors. New professors bring about new opportunities so heads up to all the science students out there, professor Olga Trichtchenko has recently joined the physics & astronomy department. Despite being busy setting up, she was kind enough to have a chat with me.

She was born in Russia and moved to Canada when she was ten. She moved again to McGill University in Montreal for undergrad and did her degree in physics. In third year, she met a really impressive professor in mathematics and they did a joint project with math and physics.

Trichtchenko really enjoyed working with the mathematics professor. So much so that she asked her mentor to have Trichtchenko around for another year. Ultimately, she decided to work with the professor while working on her master’s.

“Halfway through she moved to Vancouver and I followed her. I kind of enjoyed the West Coast and liked being in applied math. Therefore, even though I ended up applying to universities all around, I decided I would stay on the West Coast.”

Trichtchenko did her Doctor of Philosophy at University of Washington, one of the few places on the West Coast with an applied math department. She switched her focus more to fluids rather than electron transport and did her PhD on non-linear waves, which she really enjoyed.

She wanted to remain in academia so she did a postdoctoral fellowship in the United Kingdom. in a mathematics department, which felt a bit abstract.

“This is interesting because it seems that a lot of the math is divided by the physics. After, I decided I needed to broaden my research a bit more, but I wanted to come back to Canada so I moved to Toronto to work in their Aerospace Institute where I would still be working in fluids but doing more combustion navigation.”

Now, Trichtchenko is starting a new career as a professor at Western. She will not be teaching in her first year while she sets up her research program. However, she is still involved in other areas of the department such as SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) - a club which she took the initiative to restart at Western.

“The first course that I’ll teach will be the first year physics class. The department was also talking to me about coming up with a course in mathematical methods for physicists, so I think this year I’ll be developing that as well.”

Although Trichtchenko is very experienced, she could easily be mistaken for a student. Even when she went to get her ID at Western, she was thought to be a student. One of the more interesting times that she has been mistaken, was when she was a  PhD student and taught undergrad class, she says.

“On the first day I was standing upfront and all the third year undergrad students were coming in. They were confused as to why I’m just hanging out there and then I started teaching. They were really surprised. But I think as long you show them you do know what you’re talking about, it’s not really a big deal as to how they start off thinking of you.”

For Trichtchenko, becoming a professor was not unexpected. Her parents are both physicists and she had always enjoyed research and teaching others. In addition to her parents, her professor also served as a motivation, and she wanted to interact with her own students in a similar manner. In fact, she has favourite qualities in students and sticking to them herself has helped her she come this far.

The qualities that stick out to Trichtchenko in her students are bravery, perseverance, and commitment. “One thing that I like is people that are not afraid to do things that they deem to be hard and give it a shot ... Even if people with this quality don’t succeed at first, they will still keep trying and do not give up ...In addition to not giving up, these students try a bunch of well-thought alternatives to a hard problem. They keep [their streak of] doing a good job on homework or a project which is a big deal.”

“Sometimes people ask me how did you do this and I answer: ‘well I was stubborn enough to just keep going and didn’t get thrown off by the fact that things were hard, or that people think it’s hard.”

Trichtchenko, like us, is a millennial so she understands some of the struggles of our time. However, even millennial students face different challenges depending on the time they attended a college or university, especially when it comes to technology.

“When I was doing my undergrad, I did not own a cellphone or a laptop. I didn’t join Facebook until I was doing my physics undergrad. I don’t know how people study right now. I mean, I wouldn’t even know how I would study because there are just so many things that are always asking for your attention. Other people are using them so it’s hard for you not to be. Even personally, as of right now it’s hard to focus. As a millennial student, you still have memorizing to do but you don’t really practice that skill if you have internet available to you at all times. So I would imagine that memorizing and focusing is really hard. If you look something up, there is so much information that you don’t know what to do with. Even though memorizing is not as important, it’s still important to develop these critical thinking skills to figure out what is important from that volume of information. I remember going to the library and having only a couple of textbooks cause that was all the information.”

One thing that Trichtchenko believes is common among students of all times is making mistakes. They are inevitable and everybody makes them, she says. The important thing is how to deal with your mistake.

“It is very important to admit to the fact that you made a mistake. Learn from your mistakes instead of shying away. Even if you know you’re going to make a mistake, it’s still better to try to do something rather than just sitting there and being afraid of making any mistakes at all.”

To her, grades matter but they’re not all that matters. Getting a bad grade could be due to a variety of factors  and not necessarily due to a low intelligence level—a common conclusion a lot of students draw from their low marks.

“Sometimes they are reflective of intelligence, sometimes they’re not. So it’s a bit hard to design tests and evaluations. And I think there’s articles about how exams or certain type of exams don’t really test one’s intelligence. I know with myself, sometimes I wouldn’t get necessarily a good grade. It wasn’t because I didn’t know the material or because I couldn’t do it; it was because I just did not care about the test or the exam or the class. Despite the fact that there are studies that say grades are not reflective of intelligence, you still have to get good grades to succeed further. Even if you don’t think that this is relevant, it’s still very important to try your best to get the grade because that’s what helps you along.”

As undergrad students, managing our time, or motivating ourselves to study can be quite difficult. Believe it or not, a lot of professors understand that, and they have a tendency to procrastinate as well, but they have found ways to overcome this unfortunate habit. Professor Trichtchenko’s secret to fighting procrastination is simple: work during work hours and rest during resting hours.

“Don’t even think about it, just do it. If you put it off more, you will feel worse. When you finally start doing it, there’s just a lot of bad feelings about this whole thing. I think during undergrad it’s a lot harder because the working hours are long. You basically work during the semester, obviously with a little bit of time for friends because you need that, and then you rest during holidays. For us, however, the hard part is that work never really ends. You can always do more research but you just have to tell yourself that you’re done for the day, need the rest.”

“[The general public believes] that science is hard, math is hard, I can’t do it, don’t understand it. It’s not true that you have to be really smart to study science. Sometimes I’m just really stubborn, I’ll read the same thing over and over again until I understand it whereas I didn’t understand it from the first time.”

One of the major difficulties Trichtchenko faced during her undergraduate years was overthinking her assignments and therefore losing time. Believing in yourself is necessary, and if she could give her student-self one piece of advice, she would tell her to be more confident.

“When I was in my undergrad, it might’ve been just my particular year, but I was one of the few females around. The guys were very confident in doing and finishing their homework. Whereas it would take me longer to do that homework, since I was not as confident. I think if I trusted my work a bit more and stuck to what I knew, it would have helped me a lot and saved me some time. Even when I made changes to my work, I wouldn’t think it was necessarily good enough for submission. Part of it was because I was surrounded by physics males, whose interest outside of school was just physics, and to me seemed that they knew more and better but it was merely their confidence.”

To learn more about professor Trichtchenko, where she is located, the SIAM student chapter and more, visit her website!


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