Rebuilding a war-torn country: Meeting the future of Ukraine
A pioneering Twinning Initiative has boosted bonds between Edinburgh and Ukraine, strengthening the cross-border exchange of people and ideas.
The partnership has enabled the University to support Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (KNU) - and its many students and staff studying and working remotely - to sustain operations during a critical period.
Joint lectures, enhanced learning prospects and placement opportunities have deepened mutually beneficial collaborations between the two institutions, with five students from KNU having recently travelled to Edinburgh to complete research for their Masters theses in Chemistry.
We met with the students, who travelled from their war-stricken hometown, to spend three months at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry.
Shaping the future
Nadiia Hriadchenko, 21, had just moved to Odesa from Kyiv, Ukraine, to work in a lab for the first time after the Covid-19 pandemic. Two months later, the war derailed those plans.
Faced with terrifying news, Nadiia had a number of struggles to overcome while still trying to complete her Master’s degree.
“My life completely changed,” said Nadiia. “All of my classes had to continue taking place online as it was too dangerous to attend the University. Shortly after this announcement, part of KNU was bombed.”
On 10 October 2022, a number of KNU buildings in the centre of Kyiv were damaged following a Russian missile attack, which included the Faculty of Chemistry.
Shortly after on 31 December 2022, buildings on the Exhibition campus of KNU also suffered significant damage as a result of another attack. The buildings included the Institute of Biology and Medicine, the Faculty of Geography and some of the student accommodation.
Nadiia said: “I had to relocate and continue my classes virtually, all the while having to try and comprehend what was happening in my own home country. I couldn’t escape it.”
When Nadiia found out about the Twinning Initiative and the potential placement opportunity, she knew that it was something she had to do.
“The University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry is one of the best science faculties in the world, with a host of advanced technology and automated devices on hand – something that we are not used to in Ukraine.”
In Kyiv, Nadiia studied the intricacies of agriculture as part of her chemistry degree, but upon moving to Scotland, decided to write her thesis – which she would be writing in English - on whisky.
Nadiia explained, “We don’t produce whisky in Ukraine so I thought that Scotland would be the best place to study something so unique – where better than the home of whisky? NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) is a type of research method that isn’t commonly used because it can be so expensive, so I thought it would be a great experience for me to trial it given the high-spec resources available in Edinburgh.”
While speaking with the students, they all received a notification on their phones to alert them of an air raid happening back in Ukraine. To them, this had almost become the norm and an occurrence that happened almost every day.
Nadiia said: “This opportunity has given us a chance to temporarily escape from the troubles we are experiencing. Even though my head and heart is still very much with my hometown, being in Edinburgh has provided me with a small sense of joy.
“Seeing the Ukrainian flag waving outside people’s homes, restaurants, pubs and even painted in to street murals up and down the country has been so touching and that support is something I will never forget.”
First year Masters student Sofiia Zhadanova, 21, from Kropyvnytskyi, has been studying the structure of proteins using mass-spectrometry during her time in Edinburgh after finally deciding to progress her passion for science.
“I came to Edinburgh to enhance my career,” explained Sofiia. “Back in Ukraine, I was working in a completely different field - healthcare and insurance. I liked my role at this job, however I always wanted to work in chemistry and just needed that push to kickstart my scientific career.
“I had never visited Great Britain before, never mind Edinburgh. So, when I heard about the opportunity to travel to Scotland and experience chemistry in a top facility, I quickly changed my plans after reading up on the curriculum and learning outcomes for the degree.
“As a young cohort, the future workforce is open-minded and better at adapting to new technology and research – I want to use this experience to develop Ukraine’s science industry, applying the skills I have learned in Edinburgh to do so as we rebuild our culture following the war.
“The University of Edinburgh is very famous and it has been great to be a part of such an institution even if for a small period of time. I can’t thank all involved enough.”
With an interest in bacterial cells and how these can be used for the treatment of respiratory diseases, 21-year-old Kateryna Dzhihirei travelled from Zhytomyr to Edinburgh to gain new experiences.
Kateryna, said: “I was finding virtual learning really hard to get to grips with and given the situation, this was our only way of continuing with our education in Ukraine. People tend to speak over each other online and it’s hard to get a personable and interactive experience over a screen. I much prefer visual learning.
“Since travelling to Edinburgh, I have been able to speak to a number of different professors and gain knowledge on biochemical methods that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. It is so much easier to understand how things work when you can actually physically analyse them with your hands. I’m looking forward to integrating the skills I have learned into my future career.”
Second year Masters student, Maryna Korobeinyk, 23, from Shostka, made the trip to Edinburgh knowing that she likely wouldn’t get another opportunity like this again before completing her degree at the end of 2023. Like Nadiia, she is analysing whisky for her thesis.
“Edinburgh is a beautiful city,” said Maryna. “Being here has helped me to relax and forget about the troubles back in Ukraine if only for a little while.
“I feel comfortable in the city and it’s been so refreshing to see everyone walking around with a smile on their face. Everyone has been so kind and wants to help me, even if I haven’t always been able to understand the accents!”
Marharyta Voitenko, 22, from Kyiv, who has been researching fluorescent probes at the University said: “I feel proud to be able to say I have now lived in a country with such a rich heritage.
“During my time in Edinburgh, I have climbed Arthur’s Seat, tried haggis, visited a local theatre to watch the Scottish ballet – which I absolutely loved - and spent a lovely Easter cooking a Ukrainian feast on the Isle of Bute with the Chair of Chemistry, Eleanor. She is like our very own Scottish mother!
“I can’t wait to come back and visit Edinburgh one day. The placement has provided me with the best learning opportunity I could have asked for.”
Eleanor Campbell, holder of the Chair of Chemistry and Director of Internationalisation at the University’s School of Chemistry, was integral in coordinating the placement.
She said: “We reached out to KNU’s Chemistry department a year ago to find out how best we could help the institution provide its students with practical skills during this challenging time.
“Chemistry is a very practical subject and essential to build up the science infrastructure in Ukraine in the future so we wanted to deliver hands-on experience to the young, future workforce of the country, giving them access to top-class research facilities to complete their theses.
“Unfortunately, we could only extend this invitation to female students as currently, males are banned from leaving the country in anticipation that they may be called to fight.
“The research that Nadiia, Sofiia, Kateryna, Maryna and Marharyta have been undertaking during their time in Edinburgh provides them with excellent training in state-of-the-art analytical chemistry techniques. We’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some incredibly bright young scholars who could be integral in shaping the future of Ukraine.
“Having seen how positive the experience has been for not only the KNU students, but for our Edinburgh students as well, we look forward to welcoming more enthusiastic individuals from Ukraine to the University through this partnership in years to come and hope that we will be able to raise the funding necessary to keep supporting this activity. I wish all five of our visitors the very best for the future and hope that we keep in contact.”
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