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Ukrainian chemists reflect on a year under attack

‘We are here, we are working, and we are not going to give up’

by Laura Howes
February 10, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 6


A classroom with smashed windows and broken glass on the floor.
Credit: Valentyn Chebanov
V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University has suffered damage from Russian attacks.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. The war has caused tens of thousands of Ukrainian deaths, and over 8 million Ukrainians have left the country to settle across Europe, according to the United Nations refugee agency UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Despite this upheaval, Ukrainian scientists have kept working. “Research in Ukraine is alive and kicking. This is the most important thing,” says Olga Polotska, executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU).

As Ukrainian researchers approach the year anniversary of working while under attack, C&EN spoke with chemists about their experiences, how they have kept going, and how to rebuild what has been lost.

Some scientists left Ukraine and are now working at foreign institutions on temporary contracts, while others continue to work for their home institution from outside the country. Yet a survey of over 2,000 Ukrainian science researchers published by UAScience.reload, a support project for Ukrainian scientists, suggests that most remain in the country and continue to work. But the conditions for performing that work have fundamentally changed.

A chemistry classroom under blackout. Glass bottles cast shadows against the wall.
Credit: Yuriy Khalavka
A chemistry classroom under blackout in Chernivtsi, Ukraine

Yuriy Khalavka is part of the leadership team of UAScience.reload. He became an activist for Ukrainian researchers when war broke out and also runs a large Facebook group called Ukrainian Scientists Worldwide. He teaches chemistry and works on nanomaterials at Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University.

When the war began, Khalavka’s university shut just like all others in the country. But the staff tried to keep things running for students, just as they had done during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning how to manage remote teaching during the pandemic has come in handy across Ukraine.

“Luckily, and unluckily, we had experience after COVID,” says organic chemist Oleksandr Grygorenko of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. But the first month of online teaching during the invasion “was very hard from emotional and psychological side.”

And teaching has had to adapt as conditions have changed. Chernivtsi National University is far from the worst of the fighting and has a small student population, which has made it easier for Khalavka to keep teaching labs for undergraduates in person and perform research in his own labs, he says.

It is obvious that we have to minimize this effect from war, and of course the best way to do this is Ukrainian victory as soon as possible.
Oleksandr Grygorenko, chemist, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv

At Taras Shevchenko, in Kyiv, some in-person lab instruction was possible in September. But in October, renewed bombings changed that. The chemistry department may have suffered “only a few broken windows,” but it was no longer safe, Grygorenko says. He and his colleagues went back to teaching in a fully remote, asynchronous fashion, allowing students to watch lectures when conditions allow. A mixed model of virtual and in-person instruction is planned for the next semester, he says, but that may change. “Each month we update our teaching plans according to the situation,” he says.

In Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, universities and research institutions have been more badly affected by attacks. Valentyn Chebanov, who works in the city at the Institute for Single Crystals (ISC), woke at 5:00 a.m. on Feb. 24 to the sound of explosions near his house. He and his wife quickly grabbed some things they had already packed in case of attack. “Within an hour we, together with my friends and colleagues, had arrived at the Institute, where there is a special bomb shelter. For the next six months I lived in my office—it was much safer there than at home,” he says via email.

In those first hours, power surges damaged multiple pieces of ISC equipment, including the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer console. As no service technician could travel to repair the machine, ISC researchers tried for months to fix it, Chebanov says. The team has only recently managed to secure parts after receiving financial donations from outside the country.

In the meantime, ISC scientists have had to send samples to Kyiv for analysis, “which significantly slows down and complicates the R&D process,” Chebanov says. Air strikes have also damaged other pieces of sensitive research equipment and have affected the buildings, windows, heating system, and sewage system, he adds.

Science under attack

For all the researchers in Ukraine that C&EN spoke with, the combination of power cuts and air-raid warnings hinders practical science.

“It is much more difficult to plan and perform experiments,” explains Alexander Pud of the V.P. Kukhar Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry and Petrochemistry of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Experiments must be scheduled when institutes have electricity, which often isn’t enough time for longer experiments. And researchers can never be sure that some processes will be able to run to completion before a power outage or air-raid warning.

There are also safety implications to consider with power outages. Some materials can be stored and worked on only in low temperatures. At Chernivtsi National University, Khalavka has been attempting to find work-arounds so his students can run experiments without power-hungry machines such as fume hoods, perhaps by wearing more protective gear than normal.

But research doesn’t need just equipment and electricity. It also needs money.

A ceramic rooster surrounded by laboratory glassware.
Credit: Andriy Yakymenko
The ceramic rooster has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and strength after one was pictured undamaged in a ruined house in Borodianka.

Many chemists that C&EN spoke with say financial support is needed for researchers who have remained in the country. Khalavka says this group, which includes the majority of Ukrainian researchers, requires less money compared with displaced Ukrainian scientists because the salaries and cost of living in Ukraine are lower than in many other European countries.

Inside Ukraine, money is restricted. The government is focusing its funding on military spending, so while university researchers are still getting some salary, Khalavka says, technical staff are less likely to be funded. An increasing number of assistance programs are providing grants and projects for the remaining researchers to help them stay in the country. “For those who are still working in Ukraine, such support would be highly important,” Pud says. Access to materials and equipment is also vital, he adds.

Rebuilding after the war

A missile sticking into the ground outside the Institute for Single Crystals.
Credit: Valentyn Chebanov
The Institute for Single Crystals in Kharkiv, Ukraine, has been damaged by missiles and rockets.

“It is obvious that we have to minimize this effect from war, and of course the best way to do this is Ukrainian victory as soon as possible,” Grygorenko says. That message is echoed by others C&EN spoke with for this story. But while the country fights on, its infrastructure will continue to be degraded. Ukraine will need to rebuild the entire research ecosystem.

For Polotska, the research funder, the damage is not just physical but also psychological because of the loss of connection that researchers have experienced. She has kept contact with nearly all the research groups that the NRFU funds and says that the loss of key project members, whether through death, injury, or migration, is one of the “terrifying obstacles” of keeping going during the war.

Many chemists are concerned about a longer-term brain drain. In Kharkiv, Chebanov says the constant missile attacks on civilian infrastructure mean that “many people can’t return back to Ukraine from abroad and start a normal life.”

Polotska says the flip side of researchers’ going abroad is that they may return with new skills and new networks of collaborators and projects. At the NRFU, she’s been building networks with funding agencies and organizations across Europe since war broke out and hopes that once the war is over, science can be rebuilt with these new skills and collaborations.

Research in Ukraine is alive and kicking. This is the most important thing.
Olga Polotska, executive director, National Research Foundation of Ukraine

Yuliia Bardadym is one Ukrainian chemist who left. She worked at the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, in Kyiv, before the war, but friends and family encouraged her to leave. Polymer chemist Heikki Tenhu invited her to work in his lab at the University of Helsinki, as he had received 6 months of funding to host someone from Ukraine there. Within a few days of speaking with Tenhu, Bardadym moved to Finland.

A woman in a pink jumper smiles at the camera.
Credit: Yuliia Bardadym
Yuliia Bardadym moved to Finland in April 2022 and has just started a new 2-year research project.

Since then, Bardadym has attended lectures and conferences and spent time learning how to work with equipment that was not available in Ukraine. She has also spent time getting to know Helsinki. But it was a hard decision to leave friends and family behind, she says. She speaks as often as she can to her mom in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in southeast Ukraine.

Tenhu hopes that Bardadym can take her new knowledge and skills to an independent Ukraine in the future. But Bardadym is hesitant to make any firm commitments, pointing out that a year ago she had plans that are now destroyed.

For now, Bardadym has moved on to a 24-month project with Vladimir Aseyev, one of Tenhu’s colleagues at the university, to investigate polymer solubility in ionic liquids. “Of course I want to come back [to Ukraine], but I cannot say now what will happen in future,” she says.

The Ukrainian government has identified the importance of science and education in its draft recovery plan. It hopes to use science and innovation to drive economic development in a postwar Ukraine with initiatives such as increasing research funding and establishing an equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But there will be many pulls on the government as it works to rebuild. The fractured nature of Ukrainian science will make keeping science on the agenda difficult, Khalavka says. For example, there is currently no chemical society in Ukraine. “Sustainable science without professional associations is very difficult,” he says. He says that once the country is rebuilding, advisers from the American Chemical Society and other societies would be very welcome (ACS publishes C&EN).

The country’s scientists also have a part to play. “Ukrainian scientists already have many ideas on how to effectively develop the scientific infrastructure and improve the management and administration,” Chebanov in Kharkiv says. “Give them the opportunity to express and implement these ideas through joint efforts.”

“The main thing I would like to say is that despite the war, constant bombardment and shelling, destruction and death, science in Ukraine continues to work, and many scientific institutes and universities are working,” Chebanov adds. “We are here, we are working, and we are not going to give up.”


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