In professor Nikolay Mchedlov-Petrossyan’s office at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University in eastern Ukraine, several windows are covered with wood, letting only a little sunlight in. It’s been this way since March 1, when a missile hit the nearby administrative center, blowing out the windows on several surrounding buildings. Another attack, this one on March 2, destroyed the university’s economic department.
Kharkiv has been gravely damaged by Russian shelling, but while many professors were forced to flee the university, some have stayed behind. Mchedlov-Petrossyan, the head of the department of physical chemistry, is one of them. He recently returned to his office, where he teaches online and works on his research as best he can.
In May, Russian forces withdrew from the edge of Kharkiv, but they remain close by, carrying out daily shellings of the suburbs. Mchedlov-Petrossyan acknowledges that the risk of death persists, but says he doesn’t want to be controlled by fear. Like other faculty and administrators at the university, he is striving to continue his work and plan for the future amidst the war.
“I had a PhD student from Iraq several years ago, and he showed me a photo of his native city, Mosul. It was completely destroyed. I hope that we will avoid this fate,” he says.
V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University was founded in 1804 and is the second-oldest university in Ukraine. Three Nobel prize winners have attended the university over the years, including Élie Metchnikoff, who won the prize in physiology or medicine in 1908 for his discovery of immune cells that engulf pathogens.
Now, rector Tetyana Kaganovska fears that the war will deal a massive blow to the university. Not all research can continue on campus, she says, noting that “there are fields of science like physics, chemistry, and biology where . . . scientists cannot do their research online. And now the main task is how to help them to prolong their work,” she says.
To do so, Kaganovska tells The Scientist in Russian that she is considering merging all departments into the main university building in the center in order to cut down on costs, and is currently searching for partner universities abroad and in areas of Ukraine less affected by the war that can host some of the institutions’ research groups. She’s also working to foster remote collaborations between researchers at V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University and colleagues abroad.
Due to the war and lack of water at the university, Mchedlov-Petrossyan says his group is unable to conduct any experimental research. “After some initial period, we started preparing papers for publication, based either on previously obtained experimental data or on new theoretical results,” he tells The Scientist. However, he says that working without experimental studies is only a temporary solution.
Meanwhile, in the astronomy department, professors conduct research at home, probing databases to analyze information gleaned from “astronomical satellites, NASA satellites, European satellites, Japanese satellites,” and the Indian Space Research Organisation, says Vadim Kaydash, who heads the department. The department's large telescope is located outside Kharkiv in an area now controlled by the Russian troops, limiting their ability to collect their own data.
Kaydash adds that the department’s computer equipment has been moved to a basement for protection, similar to what was done during the Second World War. “Astronomers of that generation, our scientific—how to say—fathers and grandfathers, they did the same as I do now. They put all valuable equipment in the same shelter [as] when Germans were here,” he says, pointing out that this department is more than 200 years old and has survived a lot.
Dmytro Shabanov, the deputy dean for science and a biologist at the university, studies a population of water frogs that undergoes a rare form of hybridization in which hybrid offspring pass along the genetic information of only one of their parents. His research has also come to a halt, he says in Ukrainian, as the frogs live in the Siverskyi Donets River, which is currently on the frontline between the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers near the city of Severodonetsk.
Shabanov says he’s continuing to work the best he can, teaching online and finishing work on studies for which his group has already collected data.
Preventing a brain drain
Shabanov says he’s especially worried that fleeing students and staff will not return. While men aged 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving the country, “right now, a lot of workers, especially women scientists, are just getting stolen from here to other universities abroad,” he says. “Personally, for them, it is nice because it gives them new perspectives. But if it is prolonged for us, it will be a total breakdown.”
Similarly, Mchedlov-Petrossyan says that “our most serious problem concerning the future is the problem of students, because many students . . . want to continue their education abroad” due to the war. “So, who will enter the university in autumn, in summer?”
Kaydash, whose wife and child are now in Germany, says that only a third of the professors in his department stayed after the Russian invasion and that he remained because “a captain is the last to abandon ship.” Many of the department’s students have also moved abroad or to other parts of Ukraine.
Kaganovska points out that students and professors are the heart of the university, and that it will lose value if the most talented people leave. More than 20 percent of the 23,000 students have already moved abroad since the invasion, and an unknown number have left Kharkiv. Many staff members have also fled. About 85 per cent of students are continuing their education online, but Kaganovska is not sure whether this is sustainable.
There are 24 universities in Kharkiv, she notes, and she expects that some of them will need to close or merge because of the lack of students. Even if the war were to end tomorrow, she says she isn’t sure there would be any money to rebuild the university. So far, Kaganovska has written more than 200 letters to universities in the US asking for financial help and trying to attract attention to the struggle in Kharkiv. In addition to sending financial support, she hopes that American universities will consider the possibility of issuing double diplomas to students from her university who finish their educations elsewhere.
“I had an online meeting with the president [Volodymyr Zelensky] once with other teachers and professors from around Ukraine. He joked that I couldn’t be in Kharkiv, because I was too calm, too confident, and too optimistic,” says Kaganovska, “But I don’t have any other choice. I have 23,000 students and I am the head of the university. If I am not strong and optimistic, I will not be able to keep the university together.”
Editor’s note (June 3): Tetyana Kaganovska notes that she spoke Russian during her interview for convenience of translation into English.