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Science in the time of war: voices from Ukraine

On 23 February 2022, I drove back to Michigan after giving a talk at the University of Kentucky on genome diversity in Ukraine. My niece Zlata Bilanin, a recent college graduate from Ukraine, was with me. She was calling her friends in Kyiv, worried. A single question was on everyone’s mind: will there be a war tomorrow? The thought of invasion, though, seemed unimaginable, illogical, even absurd.

At 2am, Zlata woke me up. “They are coming,” she said. I remember the color of her face–pale green. The world would never be the same again.

Indeed, the war has changed everything; priorities are no longer the same. Many researchers enlisted and went to fight. Others, their homes destroyed, fled. Many packed and crossed the border in the hope of a better life in the West.

Nearly 600 days later, the war continues, each day amplifying the human tragedy, of lives and futures lost—lives that could have otherwise been dedicated to better and more meaningful purposes.

As a researcher, my colleagues and I could not help but think about the crushing blow the war delivered to the vibrant Ukrainian scientific community. Ukraine is a country with incredible resources, unique human genetics given the land once served as a human migration crossroads, and a large dedicated, community of researchers working on numerous and varied projects. Now, however, research centers have been destroyed, and universities have few new students, as they now go to study abroad where there are opportunities, and they cannot be drafted.

Through all this, although my laboratory is at Oakland University, I continue to work with my colleagues back home, building a research program in genomics at my alma mater, Uzhhorod National University (UzhNU). Several years ago, my colleagues and I dreamed up a project to sequence a hundred Ukrainian genomes to provide data for researchers to have tools to study the history of migration, admixture, and distribution of medically relevant variation in the local population. This collaboration started with President of UzhNU, Prof Volodymyr Smolanka, a neurosurgeon by training, an effective administrator, and an active scientist.

Given his work and his position, for this blog post, I wanted a comment from him on the state of Ukrainian science since the start of the war. I called and asked, simply: “Is it harder or easier?” His reply was one that matches the current thoughts of those now involved in retaining and rebuilding Ukrainian scientific programs, “One thing I can say is that there is a lot less government funding. That’s clearly a negative. On the other hand, there seem to be more grant opportunities from international sources, and this helps us to stay afloat.”

“What about the people,” I ask, “How do they feel about science?”

“I would not say that they were optimistic. I am not sure that pessimistic would be the right word either. You know, those scientists that did not leave, they are working, they really want to work in science.”

Thinking about those who are not leaving, I contacted an old colleague who has stayed: Dr Serghey Gashchak, a legendary field biologist, who, among many things, worked in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone and knew everything there was to know about animals in Chornobyl. We used to call him “Stalker” in reference to a 1979 Soviet science fiction art film about a post-apocalyptic wasteland called “The Zone.”

Given his research background and work in a disaster zone, I emailed Serghey about his thoughts on the current situation. “It’s impossible to work in the Zone these days,” he said. “The barbarians are not at the gates anymore, but there are no research projects, and if there were, there’s no one to work on them. Many of the research staff are fighting in the war. Perhaps it is time to close.”

I was stunned to hear that, knowing Serghey’s inquisitive nature, it was hard for me to believe he would just stop doing research, Worse, I realized, this was likely felt by many. While my head said this might be true, my heart felt there must be a way forward. But, with the war’s destruction of institutions and financial mechanisms, such a mechanism couldn’t rely on expensive infrastructure and top-down government funding schemes. That would take decades to rebuild. What was needed was a way to integrate Ukrainian research into the worldwide research community: to bring opportunity and virtual infrastructure to Ukraine. In fact, the basic mechanisms for bringing research to places all around the world have been in place for decades in the form of international courses and conferences, remote learning, and worldwide collaboration — quite simply we could take the current international infrastructure and modify it to empower researchers in disaster zones.

A case in point is a summer research program developed in 2022—during the war—that takes place at Uzhhorod National University, which, although it is in Ukraine, is a safe distance from the war zone. This research program is led by an international team: Drs Fyodor Kondrashov (OIST, Japan), Roderic Guigo (CRG, Spain), Serghei Mangul (USC), and Wolfgang Huber (EMBL, Germany). Here, international faculty come to Ukrainian students and continue to train them and engage them in work around the globe.

I called Dr Kondrashov at his home in Okinawa and asked what research area he thought would be most useful to bring to a devastated Ukraine. He replied immediately: “Bioinformatics is a good choice because you could accomplish a lot more with the same amounts of resources than in other disciplines, such as molecular biology.”

He was right. The hybrid nature of bioinformatics—combining biology, computer science, mathematics, and statistics—encourages cross-disciplinary collaborations essential for solving complex biological problems—that can easily be carried out across borders. More, skills in these areas are highly transferable, can involve people who work remotely, and can serve as a catalyst for revitalizing war-affected regions.

This is just one example of how already in-place international infrastructure can be brought to Ukrainian research, and it is now one of many ongoing projects to allow Ukrainian researchers to continue their work. Many more examples are presented in the recent review, Scientists without Borders in GigaScience. In fact, we have come to realize, and have described in the review, that these mechanisms can be expanded: taking suitable and already existing international mechanisms and infrastructure to areas anywhere in the world that have been destroyed by political strife and natural disasters.

For Ukraine, and personal involvement, I teach and train Ukrainian students remotely. It is well worth it: an example of the passion of young researchers to continue their training, to embrace new opportunities is Valerii Pokrytiuk. He was admitted to my graduate program in bioinformatics at Oakland University in Michigan, but before he could come, the war broke out. Valerii volunteered to fight and is doing so somewhere in Eastern Ukraine. Periodically, when conditions allow, Valerii still joins us online for book club discussions, lab meetings, and to listen to courses I teach.

The war continues. And so does our fight.

Featured image: “Bucha, Ukraine, June 2022” by U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine, Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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