Monday, Jan. 4 was an exciting and interesting evening for 35-year-old Joseph Brown. He and his wife Beth sat down at their temporary rental home in Niagara-on-the-Lake to watch Canada take on Russia in the World Junior Championship semi-finals.
Joe donned his Team Canada jersey for the game. But the computer science professor and his wife have been living just outside of Kazan, the capital city of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, since 2014, and the couple couldn’t totally push aside their allegiance to that country’s national junior squad.
While Brown was still attending Niagara District Secondary School (he graduated in 2003), his parents, Ruthann and Gary, sent him to a computer camp, where he learned to build websites. That piqued Brown’s interest in programming. Until then, his love of the Hardy Boys novels had him setting his sights on a future involving forensics, specifically DNA analysis.
He enrolled at Brock University for an undergraduate degree in computer science, and subsequently earned his master’s degree at the same institution. The University of Guelph was next, where he earned his PhD in the same discipline.
While waiting to defend his thesis there, he took a job at Polycon Industries, a Magna company in Guelph. He spent a year at Polycon as a manufacturing systems analyst, crunching numbers, collecting data and helping engineers troubleshoot to solve defect problems on the automotive bumper production line.
Once he had successfully defended his thesis, Brown decided that he preferred the world of academia to industry, and began shopping his curriculum vitae around to various institutions. Two months into his search, he was contacted by Innopolis University in Russia. In consultation with Beth, who grew up with a bit of a nomadic lifestyle due to her father’s work, he decided to accept the invitation to an interview via Skype.
Following two such interviews, Brown was invited to the university for a face-to-face meeting. “So I went over to Russia for a few days,” he reminisces, “which was a huge process, as you have to get all the visas and that sort of stuff. I headed over, and when I got back, they offered me the job. We decided to take the offer.”
Innopolis University is Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley in California. “It’s about a 45 minute drive away from Kazan,” explains Brown. “It’s on the top of a hill, just across the Volga River. They went in there and bulldozed a full forest. They are putting in a full city in that area.”
While construction of the campus was still underway, his first year was spent working out of an office building in the larger city of Kazan. The university helped Brown and other international professors assimilate into that community, with some basic language instruction and help finding them living quarters. A year later he was on the campus and living in the brand new high-tech community, also called Innopolis.
All instruction on the campus is conducted in English. The students are a mix of Russian nationals and international students. “It’s a private institution, with government support,” Brown explains. “We only focus on the IT (Information Technology) aspect. The partner companies that are doing the funding, when a student is in here, they agree to also work a year in one of the partner companies.”
Innopolis is tuition-free for students in exchange for that commitment to one of the more than 150 IT firms involved, including Yandex, the largest technology company in the country — think of it as Russia’s version of Google. A bachelor’s degree is offered in informatics and computer science, while master’s programs include AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robotics, software engineering, cybersecurity and data science. They can also move onto postgraduate studies in theoretical foundations of computer science.
As a professor at Innopolis, Brown splits his time almost evenly between teaching and research. An additional 20 per cent of his time is expected to be spent in service to the community, which could include public communication and administrative duties, among other tasks. With co-writer and fellow Innopolis professor Hamna Aslam, he recently published a textbook, Affordance Theory in Game Design: A Guide Toward Understanding Players, which he uses in one of the fourth-year computer science electives that he teaches.
COVID has forced most of his instruction online. Like Canada, Russia went into a lockdown last March. “They put us all on vacation,” Brown says. “They told us to just stay in our homes and only come out for groceries to our nearest store. As a foreign national, I have a registration for where my home is, and I have to carry that. There’s an equivalent for Russian citizens, an internal passport. During the pandemic they were stopping people, and you had to have that on you.”
He and Beth arrived in Canada in mid-November and had to follow quarantine procedures for 14 days. Comparing the current lockdown that began on Boxing Day to what he experienced in Innopolis, Brown can’t believe how lax the restrictions are here. When he returns to Russia next week, he will have to test for COVID, but he says there will be no forced quarantine period for him. The private medical insurance that is part of his employment with the university gives him a higher class of medical coverage, too.
When he does return, he will be doing so alone. As Beth does not have a work visa in the country, she spends much of her time supporting Brown’s academic endeavours. The pair met at Brock and married in 2013. Brown describes his wife, who holds a degree in calculus, as his scientific equal. “She’s my editor-in-chief, my proofreader,” he says. “But because she doesn’t have a work visa, they are not allowing her to return at the moment.” Currently, they have no idea when she will be able to rejoin him in Innopolis.
Brown says he stays away from politics in Russia as much as he can. He feels safe in Innopolis and doesn’t see a large military or police presence there or in the larger Kazan. “Like in Canada, people are separate from their government,” he explains. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say that a lot of the Russian people, especially the youth, are happy with what their government is doing. You have to live in the system, and kind of mind your tongue while you’re there.”
The Browns spend most of their time socializing with other members of the academic community. Joe’s love of hockey, though, has resulted in the couple becoming huge fans of the Russian pro league, the KHL.
Specifically, they attend the games of the team based in Kazan, the Ak Bars. “They’ve been around since the Soviet league,” says Brown. “They’re really good. They won the championship, the Gagarin Cup, two years ago. We were there for the equivalent of the Stanley Cup finals. The ticket prices are so cheap, about 2000 rubles, about $40 in Canadian funds, 6000 rubles for the Cup games.”
Which leads back to this year’s World Junior Championships. “We’ve been cheering for Russia, and for Canada,” he admits. So when the two bitter enemies faced off in the semi-final game, he had to choose sides, and Canada won out. They won the game, as well, shutting out Russia 5-0, punching their ticket to the gold medal contest and forcing his second favourite team to vie for the bronze against Finland Tuesday.
As of press time, those games hadn’t yet been decided. But Joe was happy to not have to make the decision on which jersey to wear. He simply planned to switch between games.
NOTE: Canada lost to the USA 2-0; Russia lost to Finland 4-1. The USA took gold, Canada silver, and Finland bronze. No medal for Russia.
Life in Kazan
Kazan – population 1.169 Million (2012 Census)
Innopolis – known as an urban settlement and satellite of Kazan, founded in December, 2012, designed to house a population of 155,000, about 42 km southwest of Kazan, 790 km east of Moscow
Travelling from Toronto to Kazan – via Turkish Airways, Toronto to Istanbul, Istanbul to Kazan
Innopolis University Student-Teacher ratio is 16.8:1; 23 per cent of its students are international, with currently under 700 full-time students enrolled
KHL is the Kontinental Hockey League
Ak Bars Kazan plays in the KHL’s Kharlamov Division; their current captain is Canadian Justin Azevedo from West Lorne, Ont., a 2008 draft pick of the LA Kings; Patrice Cormier of New Brunswick, a 2008 draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, is also a member of the team; the team was originally called Mashstroy Kazan, then SC Uritskogo Kazan; notable NHL alumni include Vincent Levalier, Brad Richards, Alexi Kovalev and Pavel Datsyuk