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The war in Ukraine: “Just as everything else, science was affected”

Viktoriia Tsuber worked as a professor and scientist in Poltava State Medical University, in Poltava, Ukraine. She left the country when the war started and she is now continuing her research at Karolinska Institutet in Solna.

During her research in Ukraine, Viktoriia Tsuber used methods within the field of bioinformatics to analyze big data sets describing how cancer cells react to cancer treatment. She is now continuing her research at Karolinska Institutet, in professor Thomas Helleday’s MTH1 project. Helleday was Viktoriia’s former supervisor when she was doing her postdoc in Sweden in 2015. Just three days before the war in Ukraine started, and her world was turned upside down, she received the textbook for students (that she had published with a top Ukrainian publisher of medical literature) from print.

How has your personal life been affected by the war?

“My family is back in Ukraine. My parents don’t want to move out, they have a dog that they can’t move. My son is also in Ukraine. He cannot be conscripted because of his health but he cannot cross the border either. Men aged 18-60 are not allowed to cross the border even if they can’t be in the army. He is in a safe place.”

“I don’t think anyone can comprehend that this war is happening in the 21st century. Personally, I am fine. Emotionally it’s much harder.”

“They are safe today, but tomorrow I don’t know. It is hard to focus when all these horrible things are happening in my country, it’s very difficult. I don’t think anyone can comprehend that this war is happening in the 21st century. Personally, I am fine. Emotionally it’s much harder.”

What was the environment like for scientists in Ukraine before the Russian invasion?

“It depended. You could work at a research institute at a big university in the larger cities, like Kyiv, Odesa and Lviv. They had more resources than the smaller universities. I worked in a medium-size university. As a medical school we relied heavily on international students. We provided a good education for a reasonable price and therefore we had a lot of students from India and Africa. At a teaching university you have to be teaching, but also, as a scientist, you have to provide results.”

“In my workplace I haven’t heard about anyone getting funded. You can get funded if you do something important for the industry, but we don’t have pure scientific funding, which makes it hard to perform research. Another obstacle is publishing. When people try to report their findings, at least in my town, they look for smaller, cheaper journals and try to publish there. It’s difficult for those who are doing their PhDs, you have to fund the research yourself. Normally, we don’t do costly things, we rely on the equipment and chemicals we have in the respective department, what patients you have access to and what clinical analyzes you can make. We adapt to what we have to work with. We found a balance between what we wanted to do, what we could do and what the university authorities wanted.”

How was science in Ukraine affected by the Russian invasion?

“Just as everything else in the country, science was affected. It’s about personal survival. It’s about being far away from where you can be killed.”

What do you think will happen after the war?

“After the war, I don’t think the paradigm will change much. Our institutions still carry much legacy from the Soviet time, everything just kept on working like it had in the universities and institutions. If it will change, it will change gradually, we won’t see any drastic changes.”

How has the war affected your research?

“If I was in Ukraine, I couldn’t have continued performing my research, even if I wanted to. Often I get notifications on my phone, alarms of the danger that my institution can be bombed. I think people will continue teaching when it’s more or less safe, because students depend on you to get some information; they are keen to get it and you are keen to give it to them.”

“I work with cancer big data, mutations, gene expression, everything that involves databases, and that work I can continue doing here in Sweden.”

“Everything else is not that important. I work with cancer big data, mutations, gene expression, everything that involves databases, and that work I can continue doing here in Sweden.”

Did you cooperate with Russian scientists before the war?

“After 2014 [when Russia annexed Crimea] scientists in Ukraine didn’t cooperate with the Russians. Nobody wanted to and also the authorities didn’t approve of that.”

How do you envisage the future?

“Emotionally it is difficult. People are being killed and I am worried about my family, but I have my plan, I know what to do. I am doing my best and I am planning to publish when we find something interesting.”

Photo of Viktoriia Tsuber: Private