An Interview with: Ekaterina Lapanovich

Nuclear conversations on timely topics

Presenting at a conference can be daunting for anyone. The UK PONI Annual Conference is the first presentation experience for some the selected speakers and, for most of them, this event becomes an opportunity to shape their research and progress in their careers. Ekaterina Lapanovich, a PhD candidate, tells Ana Alecsandru why the UK PONI Annual Conference is an excellent forum for students and early-career professionals to discuss and debate a range of nuclear issues in an inclusive environment.

Ekaterina’s presentation is available on RUSI’s platform (as well as all the recorded sessions from the conference). The sessions will also be made available to watch on YouTube.

First, congratulations for an excellent presentation at the UK PONI Annual Conference! What topic did you present on and how did you find the overall experience of participating in our largest annual event?

Ekaterina Lapanovich: Thanks, Ana! Let me also congratulate you and the entire UK PONI Team for an excellent conference! I was so lucky to be a part of it. It was a unique experience, and our presentations were only the tip of the iceberg as we had to go through a number of preparatory stages. I must say that I really admire how all the preparatory work was thought out for participants to make the most out of their experience at the conference.

I presented on the humanitarian initiative, the ways to depolarize it and move it forward. I think it’s a very important topic, but quite a politicized one. Some have called it ‘provocative’ and that is understandable given the sharp polarization around the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that grew out of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons. Still, I believe in the value of dialogue and engagement even when (and especially when) countries and people disagree on a topic. I am grateful to the UK PONI Annual Conference for providing scholars of different views a platform to debate important and difficult issues.

What were your motivations for wanting to present at the UK PONI Annual Conference?

EL: I believe it’s extremely important for emerging scholars to have that kind of experience to grow both professionally and personally. Of course, the annual conference is not only about presentation skills and public speaking. Science and research are all about collaboration, dialogue and debate. Emerging experts need to seek opportunities for frank discussions around issues relevant to their research in order to improve and shape their work. The UK PONI Annual Conference is one of these opportunities.

Honestly, I decided that I would take this opportunity when I read the twitter thread written by one of the participants from the 2019 Annual Conference who shared her personal feedback on the Annual Conference experience, its uniqueness and value for her further career developments. This previous participant wrote about her research (similar to my own) and her UK PONI mentor and I thought to myself: ‘Oh my god, I could not ask for more!’. I ended up applying this year and I had the privilege to work with my dream supervisor, Dr Heather Williams.

For anyone interested in presenting at future UK PONI annual conferences, what is the timeline they should be looking at, all the way from submission of abstract, preparing for the conference, working with their mentor, and presenting? What would you like them to know?

EL: I personally had the interval of one month between either submission and approval or approval and presenting. A month is not that long, so I would advise anyone interested in presenting to write their proposal on something they have been working on for some time, so they really have some hypotheses to test, or some pressing issues to discuss. In that case, I believe they will get the best of their UK PONI annual conference experience. Let’s be honest, there aren’t so many opportunities to really work together (even for a short while) with leading experts in the field. That is something to use wisely and to cherish.

Can you please tell us more about whether and, if so, how has the collaboration with the UK PONI team and your mentor shaped your research from abstract to presentation?

EL: The UK PONI team has demonstrated how masterly conference preparations look like. We worked together on every detail: from knowing the audience and having backup notes to choosing a good PowerPoint template and creating accessible slides for people with visual impairments.

I can’t even describe how valuable the collaboration with my external mentor, Dr Heather Williams, has been for my research and, generally, for me as a scholar. Dr Williams has contributed hugely to structuring my ideas, making my arguments clearer and my recommendations more specific. As one inclined to overthink, I have benefited hugely from exchanging ideas with my mentor. Our collaboration, however, has not been solely about delivering a good presentation. The conference was an exceptional opportunity to brainstorm and structure ideas on some very difficult but significant issues relating to the humanitarian initiative and the ban treaty.

How did your presentation go? How did you find the questions from the audience? Do you have any tips for anyone interested in presenting at future UK PONI conferences? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

EL: I am a perfectionist, so I suppose there’s always room for improvement! But, given all the preparations and practice presentations we had with the UK PONI team and our mentors, I think it went well. Compared to other presentations I’ve given, I felt much more confident before and during the actual presentation because of all the practice and work before the conference. All the questions that were addressed to me were important, quite specific and actually useful for the conversation. One of these questions is the very fundamental question about the possibility of bridge-building between proponents and opponents of the ban treaty. Given the nature of the treaty and the strategy behind it, I understand the scepticism around bridge-building. But I still believe that engagement is the only reasonable option the international community should seek.

Another question I would like to highlight was related to how discussions about humanitarian issues can take place, especially between nuclear-weapon states, i.e. in the P5 Process. This is something I will try to address in my future research. I believe that specific questions will help us focus on more practical aspects of disarmament and draw attention to important details. For me, the Q&A part is always a real challenge as I don’t normally react quickly, especially if the event is not in my native language. My tip for prospective participants would be to just be frank if they need time to think and not be afraid of being judged when they respond to a question because these things happen to the most experienced speakers too; this is all part of the learning process that makes one better as a researcher.

How are you planning to use this experience in your future work or research?

EL: The conference experience will help shape my PhD dissertation research about the humanitarian initiative and the ban treaty and their implications for the existing nuclear order. With my German and American colleagues from the Young Deep Cuts Commission, I am also working on some policy research on widening the discourse around nuclear weapons to, inter alia, risk reduction and bridging the divide between proponents and opponents of the ban treaty, so we will definitely benefit as a group from the UK PONI annual conference experience.

Ekaterina Lapanovich is a PhD candidate and an assistant at the Department of Theory and History of International Relations, Ural Federal University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Oriental and African Studies and a Master’s degree in IR, both from Ural Federal University. Ekaterina teaches and researches in the area of international security. Her particular focus is on nuclear deterrence, nuclear disarmament, humanitarian initiative and the ban treaty. Ekaterina is a member of the Ural Nonproliferation Group, the CTBTO Youth Group, the Young Deep Cuts Commission and BASIC's Emerging Voices Network. She is a Nuclear History Boot Camp and PIR Center alumna.

Dr Ana Alecsandru, Research Fellow in the Proliferation and Nuclear Programme and UK PONI project lead.

Image courtesy of Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

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The UK Project on Nuclear Issues (UK PONI) promotes a cross-generational debate on contemporary nuclear issues. Nuclear Reactions is the blog of UK PONI, where all members can contribute new ideas and research.

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