Ukrainian researchers flee trauma and terror of war | Science

At this time of year Maryna Kravchenko, a population ecologist at Kharkiv National University (KNU), normally heads into the forests of eastern Ukraine to track frogs and toads emerging from hibernation. Instead, after 1 week sheltering from bombs in a basement, she fled with her young children to Germany, where colleagues at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich had found them an apartment. Her husband, KNU zoologist Dmitry Shabanov, stayed to defend Kharkiv. “We’ve all stopped wishing each other good morning,” Kravchenko says. “Instead, it’s now ‘How are you?’ to both check whether the other person is still alive and show that you still care about them.”

The humanitarian toll of an increasingly brutal war is rising. More than 2.8 million refugees have fled since Russia began its invasion on 24 February, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Scientists like Kravchenko are among the dispossessed. Others are staying put, hunkering down or taking up arms in the war zone. The upheaval is touching the Russian science community as well. Cut off from many international collaborations and, in some cases, opposed to the war, some Russian scientists are fleeing their own country.

Before the invasion, Ukraine had nearly 80,000 scientists, says Brokoslaw Laschowski, a Ukranian-Canadian postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. He’s volunteering for an impromptu international effort, Science for Ukraine, that has lined up hundreds of jobs for refugee scientists—mainly women, as Ukraine forbids most men under 60 from leaving the country. When war broke out, “My first thought was that one generation or two generations of scientists were going to be destroyed,” says Sergio Ponsá Salas, a chemical engineer at the University of Vic-Central University of Catalonia who’s helping coordinate Science for Ukraine in Spain. His university has already thrown a lifeline to three food scientists and a hydrologist who have escaped.

Others want to stay. The day after fighting began, KNU astronomer Oleksiy Golubov, 36, rushed to the local office of the Territorial Defense Forces. A recruiter took one look at his left hand—limp from a hereditary nerve disorder—and turned him away. “He told me I’m not fit. That I wouldn’t be able to hold a weapon properly,” says Golubov, his voice hoarse with emotion.

On 7 March, Golubov and a group of fellow scientists escaped the besieged city, only half an hour’s drive from the Russian border. He’s now holed up at the home of a family friend in Batkiv, a village in western Ukraine. There he pulled off a second escape—this time, an intellectual one—when he joined a virtual poster session last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston to present research about an iron meteorite recovered in 2021 in Sweden. When attendees learned about his plight, he says, “it became impossible to speak about science.” On the spot, several European colleagues offered to host him in their labs. “I’m grateful,” Golubov says, but he doesn’t intend to leave Ukraine.

As the Russian onslaught intensifies, civilian casualties are mounting and infrastructure is taking a pounding, including scientific facilities. One day after a deadly missile strike on a maternity hospital on 9 March in Mariupol, shells fell on the city’s Pre-Azov State Technical University and on the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, damaging a linear accelerator and a subcritical nuclear reactor that generates neutrons for experiments. That same day, Russian forces overran and destroyed the Institute of Irrigated Agriculture in Kherson, its director told local media.

Several days earlier, a rocket strike on Kharkiv’s city administration building blew out the windows of a KNU building on the other side of Freedom Square. “Broken glass everywhere and not a soul,” Vadym Kaydash, director of KNU’s Institute of Astronomy, emailed staff after visiting the scene the next day. When the missile hit, says Glib Mazepa, who lives three blocks from the square, “Our building started swaying like a ship in a storm.” A graduate student at the University of Lausanne and Uppsala University, Mazepa returned to his native Kharkiv last year to save money, he says, as he finishes a Ph.D. on frog evolution.

As the Russian bombing of Kharkiv grinds on, Mazepa is working with friends to secure collections in the city’s museums and universities, one of a number of frantic efforts nationwide to safeguard specimens and research samples. Mazepa and his wife have also learned a grim new skill that’s in high demand in Kharkiv these days: making Molotov cocktails.

Nika, a medical aid, sleeps at their workplace.
Astronomer Veronika Lipatova rests while volunteering as a medic in war-torn Kharkiv, Ukraine. She later evacuated to the western part of the country.Veronika Lipatova

Veronika Lipatova, a KNU astronomer and member of Golubov’s asteroid modeling group, initially served as a volunteer medic, sourcing medicines and triaging wounded soldiers while her colleagues moved computers and astronomical cameras into a cellar that was used to safeguard equipment when Nazis occupied Kharkiv during World War II. Last week, Lipatova evacuated with Golubov to western Ukraine, but keenly regrets that decision. “I’m here, safe. My friends in Kharkiv aren’t. I feel bad,” she says, fighting back tears. “Like I’m not a good human for leaving.”

Olga Malyuta, meanwhile, was worried about the fate of thousands of human embryos. The embryologist with IVMED, a private in vitro fertilization clinic in Kyiv, says that on the first day of the invasion, she and her coworkers flash froze all of IVMED’s cultured embryos in liquid nitrogen—“the right decision,” she says, as the clinic soon lost power. As liquid nitrogen stocks in Kyiv began to run low last week, they mounted an operation to evacuate 25 large dewar flasks filled with nearly 20,000 embryos from 4000 patients—including a dozen of Malyuta’s that she hopes to use to get pregnant. Over several days, she and the flasks escaped to Slovakia. “It’s surreal,” Malyuta says. “It’s hard to imagine how this can happen in the 21st century.”

Some Russian scientists are ashamed of the war their nation is waging. “It’s a very bad feeling when you can’t do anything to stop it,” says Ilya Schurov, a mathematician with the Higher School of Economics University in Moscow. “It’s a moment in which you find yourself in hell.” He and his wife joined a street a protest on 27 February that he had publicized on social media. He also signed two letters denouncing the war. After learning the police were looking for him, the couple found seats on a flight to Tajikistan, and then flew on to Istanbul. “My professional life is ruined,” Schurov says. But he doesn’t regret taking a stand—nor does he plan to return to Russia anytime soon.

With President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly totalitarian regime cracking down on protestors, many Russian scientists may be too frightened to speak out. KNU astronomer Irina Belskaya, who knows many Russian scientists from conferences and past collaborations, says she heard from just one, in Moscow, who congratulated her on International Women’s Day on 8 March. “I replied, ‘Do you realize now there’s a war? Russia is bombing Kharkiv University.’ He wrote back simply that he did not vote for Putin.”

Others may be oblivious to the true nature of the war, with Russian state media pushing propaganda and disinformation. The National Research Foundation of Ukraine says it emailed 49,000 Russian scientists with an appeal to speak out against the war. The vast majority did not respond; many who did sent responses the foundation claimed were “obscene, full of imperial malice and chauvinism.” Mazepa says he got a similar reaction when he emailed Russian friends and colleagues from joint expeditions and projects. “These people don’t respond, or [they] say, ‘Bullshit, you are not being bombed, it’s a liberation,’” Mazepa says. “I always imagined it would be the role of scientists and artists to speak out, but to me it looks like the majority of Russian scientists are supporting this nightmare.”

Although he has not taken up arms, Golubov is engaged in the fight. After wrapping up his conference presentation, he got back to posting war updates on Facebook and reassuring worried friends that he’s still alive. (KNU’s Facebook page notes that two of its professors and a student have been killed.) He’s particularly proud of some computer jocks in his institute who he claims hacked into a Russian state TV broadcast to show brief video clips of atrocities committed against Ukraine—and dead Russian soldiers. “At the moment, this is more important than creating computer programs for simulating astronomical objects,” he says.

The war’s scars are likely to linger. After 1 week huddling in a bunker, Volodymyr Nemchenko, a 73-year-old computer scientist from Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics, escaped with his wife to Luxembourg, where his son lives near an airport. “Every time a plane comes near, we’re afraid,” Nemchenko says. When they hear a loud noise, like a door slamming, “we’re shocked,” he says.

The outcome of the war is far from certain. But Kravchenko, for one, knows what she will do if Ukraine prevails. “I’m crystal clear that I want to go home,” she says. “My city may be ruined, but we will build it back.” Golubov too is optimistic. “Ukrainians are more united than ever,” he says. “When the war ends, and we’re able to return to science, it will be the best science we’ve done in our lives.”