Ukrainian scientists view wartime work as an act of defiance

Anton Vlaschenko often hears shelling outside his office in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, not far from the front lines of the war. He even sometimes sees smoke rising from Russian tanks hit by missiles.

But the 40-year-old zoologist continues his work, dissecting and labeling bat tissue, while probing the ecology of flying mammal diseases. When news of war overwhelms him, he says, it helps to have something familiar to do with his hands.

He also sees it as an act of defiance.

“Our stay in Ukraine, our continuation of work – it’s a kind of resistance to the Russian invasion,” Vlaschenko said via Zoom, a deluge of bombardment audible in the background. “The Ukrainian people are ready to fight, not only with weapons. We don’t want to lose our country.

Its resolution is not unique. Like other Ukrainians whose work is not essential to the war effort, scientists and scholars want to continue their important work where they can.

A common refrain is that they want to stay connected to their scholarly community, which provides a sliver of normalcy amid chaos and violence, and “keep the light of Ukrainian science and humanities alive,” said Yevheniia Polishchuk. , who teaches at Kyiv National Economic University.

As vice-president of the Council of Young Scientists of the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science, Polishchuk organized an online survey of academics to assess their situation and needs after the February 24 invasion. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 scholars had left Ukraine by early April – mostly women with families – but around 100,000 remained.

Most of those who went abroad ended up in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, gaining temporary positions in European institutions. Some scientists have received grants from the Polish Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Sciences, and other organizations. Polishchuk, currently in Krakow with her children and husband, is a visiting professor at a university in May and June, but says she hopes to return to Kyiv when the fighting stops.

“We don’t want the war to lead to a brain drain from Ukraine,” she said.

While Ukrainian scholars are appealing to international scientific bodies for help – including remote work opportunities and access to journals, datasets, archives and other materials – there is also a desire to prevent the war from permanently undermining the talents and momentum of the country’s academic and professional ranks. , which will have to be rebuilt after the end of the fighting.

“Most of our scholars don’t want to go abroad permanently; they want to stay in Ukraine,” Polishchuk said.

Shortly after the start of the war, Ivan Slyusarev, a 34-year-old astronomer, helped the director of the Kharkiv National University observatory move computers, monitors and other materials into the underworld. floor, which housed historical equipment and artifacts when Nazi forces occupied the city during World War II.

The observatory’s main telescope is located in a field in Russian-occupied territory, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Kharkiv on the road to Donetsk. Slyusarev said he did not know his condition, but believed Ukrainian forces blew up a nearby bridge to stop the Russian advance.

It relies on scientists from outside Ukraine to continue its work. Astronomers in the Czech Republic sent him observational data from their telescope so that he could continue to analyze the properties of metallic asteroids. He can also see data from a small robotic telescope in Spain’s Canary Islands. It operates primarily from a home office on the outskirts of Kharkiv.

Slyusarev, who says he became an astronomer because of “romantic” ideas about stars, finds refuge in scientific discovery. Astronomy “gives only positive news” and is a welcome respite from everyday life, he said.

“It’s very important in times of war,” he added.

After the start of the war, theoretical physicist and astronomer Oleksiy Golubov left Kharkiv to join his parents in Batkiv, a village in western Ukraine.

Although the buildings of the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology were “bombed and bombed and practically destroyed”, Golubov said, the school continues to offer distance education. He kept in touch with students online – in Kharkiv, western Ukraine, Poland and Germany.

The 36-year-old scientist is also a coordinator and trainer for Ukrainian students preparing to participate in the International Tournament of Physicists, a competition to solve unsolved physics problems being held in Colombia this month. The students, who had trained online, met this week in Lviv for the first time, following war-delayed train journeys.

“We still want to participate and prove that even inconveniences like war can’t stop us from doing good science and having a good education,” he said.

Golubov, who was refused to join the army due to a paralyzed hand, submitted an article in March to the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics and wrote in the acknowledgments: “We are grateful to the Ukrainians who are fighting to stop the war so that we can safely complete the review of this article.

Some scholars, like Ivan Patrilyak, dean of the history department at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, have enlisted. Eighteen months ago, he was hosting a lecture series on the legacy of World War II and lecturing on the Holocaust. Now he is part of a territorial defense unit in Kyiv.

Igor Lyman, a historian at Berdyansk State Pedagogical University, had to flee when Russian forces occupied the port city at the start of the war. Before leaving, he had seen troops break into dormitories to interrogate students and order administrators to teach in Russian rather than Ukrainian and use a Moscow-approved curriculum. He said the directors “refused and resigned.”

He then moved to a camp for displaced people inside Chernivtsi National University, living in a dormitory with scholars from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Kherson and other cities.

“Each of these families has their own terrible war history,” he wrote in an email. “And everyone, like me, dreams of our victory and our return home.”

He said Russian forces are “doing everything they can to impose their propaganda”.

Vlaschenko, the zoologist from Kharkiv, wanted to protect 20 bats in his care from bombardment, so he carried them home, a walk of about an hour. It also helped preserve its valuable research, which could not easily be replaced, even though buildings and laboratories can be rebuilt after the war.

“All the people who decided to stay in Kharkiv agreed to play this dangerous and potentially deadly lottery,” he said, “because you never know in which areas a new rocket or a new shell will hit. “.

As he strives to record data and save his rare samples, he sees this as part of his mission – “not just for us, but for science in general”.


Follow Christina Larson on Twitter at @larsonchristina and AP war coverage at


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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