Biochemist offers scholarships to Ukrainian scientists

As Ukraine endures the ravages of an unprovoked attack, struggling to survive amid rubble caused by Russian missiles and bombs, Oleh Khalimonchuk faces the murder of his people by offering what refuge he can in the science of life.

Originally from Ukraine, Khalimonchuk spent the first 20 years of his life in the western city of Lviv.

“It’s near the Polish border, and that’s where a lot of refugees are these days,” Khalimonchuk said of the town, where his mother continues to reside amid the invasion that has taken place. started on February 24. I didn’t run any further west.

Craig Chandler/University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Oleh Khalimonchuk, seen here in his lab at the Beadle Center, studies the role of mitochondria in biological processes and human disease.

Much further west, in Lincoln – a community also known as a sanctuary for refugees – Khalimonchuk is expanding a sort of college asylum. On Feb. 27, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln biochemistry professor announced that he would open the doors of his lab to Ukrainian refugees — graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, senior scientists — who are forced to flee their homeland.

“The idea was just to do something, and not just stay away,” Khalimonchuk said. “People, myself included, can feel helpless, unable to help directly.

“I wouldn’t forgive myself if I just sat quietly and did nothing.”

Khalimonchuk estimated that his lab could accommodate up to three or four Ukrainian biochemists. The COVID-related disruptions have left the lab, like many others, with a temporary surplus of funds that Khalimonchuk intends to spend on hiring these Ukrainian transplant recipients.

Tweet by Khalimonchuk Lap

“There are a lot of brilliant scientists in Ukraine,” he said of his native country, which is home to more than 40 million people. “So if someone wants to come here and work, it would be a win-win.”

Many labs across Europe have offered similar deals, and given their proximity to Ukraine, “they might be in a better position to help,” said Khalimonchuk, who also directs the Nebraska Redox Biology Center. “But still, I wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to help. And I guess what we can offer is that we actually have native speakers who can help people acclimatize.

Two of these native speakers work directly alongside Khalimonchuk. His wife and compatriot from Lviv, Nataliya Zahayko, manages the laboratory. Its senior research associate, Iryna Bohovych, has worked in the lab since arriving in the United States nearly a decade ago.

Lincoln itself also has a large Ukrainian population, Khalimonchuk said, with churches that serve Ukrainian Baptists and Catholics. The church that Khalimonchuk and Zahayko attend was founded by Ukrainians who fled the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. These refugees preceded the arrival of many others from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

“Lincoln has always been a sanctuary city for refugees,” Khalimonchuk said of the town he has called home since 2011. “So if there is an opportunity to welcome people here, we should to welcome.”

With this in mind, Khalimonchuk has already started thinking about how the university could accommodate more Ukrainian scientists. The head of the biochemistry department and several professors whose labs are understaffed have expressed interest in supporting or joining Khalimonchuk’s efforts. This feedback also led him to consider the idea of ​​creating a fund specifically to support Ukrainian scientists interested in working or studying in Nebraska.

“There will definitely be more people willing to help,” he said, noting that he had received best wishes from the university and Lincoln communities since the Russian invasion began.

Khalimonchuk, Zahayko and Bohovych have stayed in touch with their immediate and extended family in Ukraine. Some members of Bohovych’s family lived in an area bombarded by Russian airstrikes before managing to escape to relative safety last week.

During a recent trip to the grocery store, Khalimonchuk’s mother was forced to hide in the basement of a nearby apartment building when an air raid siren began to sound. Yet despite constant threats of airstrikes and Russian saboteurs posing as Ukrainian citizens, his mother, like Zahayko’s family, refuses to leave Lviv.

“We could probably evacuate her if she wanted to, but she’s not,” Khalimonchuk said. “I think that’s true for a lot of people there. They don’t want to leave. Their whole life has been spent there. »

This article originally appeared in Nebraska Today and has been republished with permission.

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