In science, you don’t look for the easy ways.” This popular Russian maxim could well be applied to Yuri Visilter, who has never sought the easy path in his life or work.
Married at 18 (“true love”), Visilter supported himself and his young family on an R80 stipend for being a top student at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), plus a R100 salary as a MAI lab technician. It was a decent income at a time when the metro cost five kopeks and one could buy a kilo of sausage for R2.20. But of course it was not enough to move out of his parent’s three-room apartment, where the newlyweds stayed even after giving birth to their son Alexander in 1990.
And yet, when Visilter graduated from MAI in 1992—when “shock therapy” was being performed on the economy, he did not follow the path of many of his institute mates, who were brokering sales of imported computers.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Visilter offered. “I am not a disinterested altruist. But for me it was no dilemma: i.e. ‘Shall I live well or shall I work in science?’” For him, it was inconceivable to live well without working in science. So, when he was offered a position at GOSNIIAS (State Research Institute of Aviation Systems), one of Russia’s leading, former defense contractors, he was proud of the opportunity, despite the fact that GOSNIIAS was underfunded and coaxed along with vague promises from Yeltsin’s Kremlin of potential riches from conversion.
While studying at MAI, Visilter found time to explore other interests beyond his love of science. He studied rhetoric and theater (“I like to express my thoughts in the right way and get the right reaction from my audience”), wrote poetry and music and developed a passion for badminton and philosophy.
“The basic issue of philosophy is not the relation between the being and the spirit,” he said. “It is about why and how we live.” Visilter has come to believe that the wider the context in which each man considers himself and his activities, the better. And his broad range of interests and pursuits shows he practices what he preaches. So much so that one cannot but wonder how, with such a wide range of interests, Visilter has found the time to become one of the world’s most renowned experts in machine and computer vision and photogrammetry. But Visilter himself is quick to self-deprecate: “I don’t pretend to be a professional poet or philosopher,” he says, “rather a dilettante with a wide profile.”
In science, however, no one would accuse Visilter of dilletantism. He is a frequent presenter at international scientific conferences, and has published over 30 scientific works, with impressively impenetrable titles like “The Object-Oriented Frame Approach to Image Processing and Data Management in Multisensory Remote Sensing.”
Put into laymen’s terms, Visilter’s work is very important in the area of digital image and document analysis. A fairly mundane application of his work is where border guards at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport use software developed by Visilter’s team to “read” text from Russians’ foreign passports. His team also does important work with software for barcode recognition and reading and interpreting X-rays, both for medical and industrial use.
Recently, Visilter, who has just turned 31, was appointed head of the Laboratory for Computer and Machine Vision at GOSNIIAS, and now has under his command fifteen of Russia’s top young scientists. He is also formally the boss of Yuri Tyuflin, doctor of sciences, the only Russian winner of the Brock Medal, of which the ASPRS (American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing) has awarded only eleven in its history.
He may not be swimming in gold, but Visilter is doing well by Russian standards—he makes about $300 a month on the GOSNIIAS payroll, plus earns a percentage on contractual work ordered from GOSNIIAS by private customers. After many years of saving, he bought a two-room apartment for his parents so that his young family could have the three-room flat to itself.
“I am not ashamed to look my son in his eyes. I live normally,” Visilter says, countering questions why he is so stubborn about sticking with a state-funded institute while so many lucrative options beckon. Six months ago he turned down a tempting offer from a private company that wanted to “steal” him from GOSNIIAS and pay him $2,500 a month. He refused because he said the company only offered applied development and did not conduct basic research.
“Traditionally, there is at least one year between any state-of-the art scientific development and its practical application. And here we have the opportunity to be both engaged in pure scientific research and then follow-up with applied developments. Like I said, I regard my work in a very wide context. So I see us doing something very important in the universal dimension. Here we are one of the remaining Russian hi-tech centers so renowned in the West. We are on the cutting edge of hi-tech science. And this is what truly fires me up.”
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