A researcher tells her story of Ukraine’s “new reality”
February 10, 2023
By Kerri Brown, Ian Evans
As challenges mount for researchers in Ukraine, a professor in Kyiv talks about her experience — and how we can help Ukrainian researchers
Caption: Prof Nana Voitenko, PhD, in her lab in the Department of Biomedicine and Neurosciences at Kyiv Academic University in Ukraine. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, Prof Nana Voitenko’s life has been one of upheaval, struggle and resolve.
Nana started her career much like many researchers around the world. Inspired by the opportunity to work in the lab of a well-known professor — in this case neurophysiology Professor Platon Kostyuk(opens in new tab/window), one of the fathers of electrophysical research — Nana seized the chance to be a part of an emerging field. “The fact that, as a student in the Department of Biophysics, I ended up in a cool scientific laboratory determined my fate as a researcher,” she said.
That department is now the Department of Biomedicine and Neurosciences of Kyiv Academic University(opens in new tab/window) in Ukraine, where Nana is a professor. Her current research is devoted to the molecular and cellular mechanisms of pain, with her team involved in finding specific molecular mechanisms that change the nervous system functioning in certain types of pain and identifying neurons that are involved in the transmission of certain pain signals. She is also editor of the Elsevier journal Neuroscience Letters(opens in new tab/window).
On February 24, 2022, Nana’s life changed dramatically, along with the lives of so many people in her country, as Russian forces invaded the country. Nana recalled:
A day later, we were forced to leave Kyiv, since a part of the region was occupied. Most of our laboratory fellows moved to the Carpathian mountains in the west of Ukraine with us.
Part of the reason for the move was misinformation spread by Moscow propagandists that there were secret genetic weapons in labs in Ukraine, funded by the United States. Nana and her colleagues feared that this could make them a target because their laboratory uses various genetic approaches — as is the case with most research in biomedicine today — and they have a grant from the US National Institutes of Health devoted to studies of neuro-immune interaction. Nana continued:
At that time, we seriously feared that if Kyiv were taken, the occupiers would not sort out the details, and all the laboratory personnel would end up in Russian concentration camps. So we left Kyiv for two months and returned at the end of April, after the liberation of the region.
The team spent those two months in the Carpathian mountains writing papers, teaching online and writing dissertations. When they returned, they picked up the lab work, but it was in what Nana described as a new reality:
That means, air raids, bomb shelters, and recently when Russian drones and missiles destroyed 40% of Ukrainian power plants — power outages. We bought a lot of batteries so that the devices at work would not fail during a sudden power outage.
As Nana described it, planning a day’s work in that new reality is nearly impossible. A day in the lab can be disrupted by a power outage. If the airstrike alarm goes off in the morning, you need to stay home. At a given moment, a meeting might need to shift online if there’s an airstrike, or offline if the power goes out. Ironically, Nana reflected, the disruption caused by the pandemic handed researchers a useful toolkit for these circumstances:
It opened up a wide range of online communications opportunities for all of us.
Thanks to what Nana described as “the courageous team of our veterinary clinic and, personally, Director Andrey Khomyak,” the laboratory animals were saved in the first months of the war, so the research team can continue its work. In doing her work, Nana finds some respite from the upheaval around her, as well as in the connections she has with people around the world:
I work hard to get distracted from the news, from everything that is going on around. Sometimes I feel that I don’t have enough strength, that depression is about to cover me, so I call my friends in different countries via Zoom, and over a glass of wine we just chat about everything in the world. It’s such therapy.
Nana also issued a call to the rest of the research world to help fund researchers in Ukraine, who are ready to continue their work. When the war began, the entire budget of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU) — the main organization that finances scientific projects based on international expertise — was transferred to the Ukrainian army. Consequently, financing of all research projects has ceased.
While there are opportunities for Ukrainian scientists in programs such as Horizon Europe and placements at universities elsewhere in Europe, Nana hopes to see funding for research within Ukraine:
Many laboratories that were not physically affected and are ready to continue their work just don’t have the funds for research. Not everyone wants to leave Ukraine, and according to martial law, men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving.
Nana’s solution is straightforward:
I want to reach out to decision-makers and say, ‘Please help find sources of financial assistance for NRFU. It will support halted research projects. It will keep the best research teams in Ukraine. These projects already have international experts committed to them, and reasonable budgets.
Nana also called for people around the world to continue supporting Ukraine, emphasizing the need to close the skies over the country: “The sooner we close the sky, the less destruction there will be in Ukraine and the easier it will be for us to recover from the war — including science and education. Russian missiles have already destroyed a huge number of universities and research institutes. This must be stopped.
I want to appeal to all civilized people. Use all the opportunity to talk about it. Let your governments hear your voices. We understand that it is not easy for Europeans now — they suffer from inflation and limited energy resources — but Ukraine pays for the freedom of the civilized world with the lives of its people.