Vladyslav Shashkov, an athlete in mathematics

Vladyslav Shashkov, Master’s student in applied mathematics at EPFL. ©Alain Herzog/EPFL

Vladyslav Shashkov, Master’s student in applied mathematics at EPFL. ©Alain Herzog/EPFL

This Ukrainian refugee – now an EPFL Master’s student – has an unquenchable thirst for mathematics. But the war has created a lot of uncertainty about his future.

Shashkov describes his evenings spent solving math problems at EPFL’s Bernoulli Center for Fundamental Studies as most students would describe their Friday nights drinking beer at the Sat. His eyes light up as he tells us about the excitement, the friendly, open atmosphere, the fun he has with fellow math students and the feeling that in some way they’re solving the world’s problems. Vladyslav Shashkov’s old world fell apart on 24 February 2022 when Russian troops invaded his country. He’s now creating a new life for himself in Lausanne, as a Master’s student in applied mathematics.

Shashkov views the invasion as nothing but the next step in an all-out effort by Moscow to claim his country, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. “It’s only now being recognized as such, even though the conflict isn’t new,” says Shashkov. While still in Ukraine, he applied for EPFL’s Excellence in Engineering program after completing a three-year Bachelor’s course. The program is open to students from around the world who have completed at least two years of Bachelor’s studies. Participants carry out a summer internship for 8 to 12 weeks at an EPFL research lab. Shashkov was admitted into the program and left war-torn Ukraine in June 2022. EPFL provided a financial-assistance scholarship enabling him to pursue a Master’s degree.

Here at EPFL, Shashkov, now 21, feels he’s found a home. Partly due to the shared pride in fellow Ukrainian and mathematician Maryna Viazovska’s Fields Medal. And partly because as an athlete in mathematics, he has time at EPFL to study, train and compete. “Vlad plays with math symbols the way others play with juggling balls,” says Prof. Emmanuel Abbé, who holds the EPFL Chair of Mathematical Data Science and is the co-director of the Bernoulli Center.

Escape rooms in the form of mathematical equations

Shashkov, like other math enthusiasts, enjoys competitions because of the thrill involved in having to solve problems of increasing difficulty in a set amount of time. Prof. Abbé explains: “The problems can’t be solved by simply repeating the things you’ve learned in class. They’re more like brain twisters, and you need to come up with clever solutions.” Put another way, the competitions are escape rooms in the form of mathematical equations. And just as soccer has the World Cup, mathematics has its own Olympiad. Shashkov began competing in them as an adolescent in 2013 and hasn’t stopped since, adding Olympiads in physics, astronomy, linguistics and economics along the way.

I specialize in probability – there’s a lot of uncertainty in that field, but things always end up converging towards something meaningful.

Vladyslav Shashkov, Master’s student in applied mathematics at EPFL

Of course, consistent training is the key to success. “Last September I began meeting up with other students to solve math problems,” says Shashkov. Today, that group has become a student association called Polympiade, and it’s backed by the Bernoulli Center and uses the Center’s premises for its twice-weekly meetings. Shashkov doesn’t just participate but also guides colleagues as they put their heads together to solve problems.

Three gold medals and one bronze

The next step after training is competition. This year, in response to growing interest from students, the Bernoulli Center held its first-ever EPFL-wide mathematics contest, modeled after those held by universities in the US. The winners were selected for the EPFL Bernoulli Team that competed in the International Mathematics Competition (IMC) in Bulgaria in early August.

“The group of around 15 students met at the Bernoulli Center every evening to practice,” says Abbé. And their hard work paid off, as the EPFL Team put in a solid showing at the IMC. Shashkov recalls: “In the end there were five of us who competed, with the backing of the Bernoulli Center. Our team came in 20th out of 70 – a great result for the team’s first time.” Shashkov himself, who has competed in previous editions of the IMC, tied for 29th out of some 400 participants, earning him a gold medal. He’s won three gold medals and one bronze in the past four years.

This kind of success is highly gratifying – but not in the way you might think. “Competitions like these are much more motivating than training sessions,” says Shashkov. “They develop your creativity since you’re always confronted with a new twist that you have to work out on the spot. And of course,” he adds, “there’s the satisfaction in finding the solution.”

Shashkov’s penchant for math is written into his genes, as both his parents are mathematicians. But not all types of math are created equal. “My parents studied pure mathematics, and that was the focus of my Bachelor’s degree,” he explains. “But I find applied mathematics more interesting. While pure mathematics is highly theoretical and based on estimates, applied mathematics gives tangible results that can be verified. Solutions are proven and then used to run simulations.”

Shashkov’s family is currently in Italy and he visits as often as he can, but the environment at EPFL suits him well. Not only is he far from the war, but he also appreciates the respectful climate here, the opportunity to experience new things and the exposure to other cultures – especially since he’d never before been outside Ukraine. After completing his Master’s, Shashkov plans to remain at EPFL for his PhD thanks to his academic and personal experience so far. There’s also the fact that if he returns to Ukraine, he’ll be stuck there, unable to leave. “A lot can change, though,” he says. “I specialize in probability – there’s a lot of uncertainty in that field, but things always end up converging towards something meaningful.”