Podcast: Ukraine and science, episode 1

How is the Russian invasion of Ukraine affecting scientists?

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I asked scientists in Ukraine how the Russian invasion is affecting them and how they are planing for the future. It's for a new column in Nature Methods called Lab &Life, You can find the story here  and also here

Here is episode 1  of a podcast that includes one of the interviewees in the aforementioned story. This podcast is with Dmytro Gospodaryov, a researcher in the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University in Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine. 

You can also find a letter from him in Nature Aging here. Battlefields for research in Ukraine

You can listen to the podcast right here, it's also on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify  and other podcast streaming platforms in a series called Conversations with scientists. A transcript is pasted below. 

Here is the lab:

From left to right: Halyna, Olha, Karina, Uliana, Maria,  Victoria, Maria. Front row: Dmytro, Vladyslav.

Transcript of podcast  Ukraine and science episode 1

A chat with Dr. Dmytro Gospodaryov, a researcher in the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University in Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine. 

Note: These podcasts are produced to be heard. If you can, please tune in. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and there’s a human editor. But a transcript may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
In Ukraine, it's forbidden for men to go out of the country, for men from 18 to 60 years old. So we should stay, we are obliged to stay. And I asked my wife, maybe you can go. And she said, I will not go without you. 

Vivien
That’s Dr. Dmytro Gospodaryov a researcher in the department of biochemistry and biotechnology at  Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University in Ivano-Frankivsk, West Ukraine.

I spoke to him shortly after the Russian invasion in Ukraine began. And it feels like that was a very long time ago. Just so you know, he is well and safe and still in Ukraine with his family. 

He works on mechanisms of biochemical adaptation, metabolism of so-called reactive oxygen species and this work is ultimately about for example finding ways to slow the aging process or ward off obesity. 

Just briefly about this podcast, in my reporting I speak with scientists around the world and this podcast is a way to share more of what I find out. This podcast takes you into the science and it’s about the people doing the science. 

You can find some of my work for example in Nature journals that are part of the Nature Portfolio. Those journals publish papers by working scientists. And a number of these journals offer science journalism. These pieces are by science journalists like me.

Back to Ukraine and Dmytro Gospodaryov. I asked him to help me learn how to pronounce the name of his university which named after a Ukrainian writer 

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
Vasyl Stefanyk, it’s a Ukrainian writer, here in the region. 

Vivien 
And then here he is pronouncing his last name, so you can hear how it should sound, which is not how I manage it, sorry about that.  

Dmytro Gospodaryov
Dmytro Gospodaryov

Vivien
I asked him how he is. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (2:15)
Well, I'm fine. And this time is not very different in our region. It's important to emphasize that it's our region. The time is not very different from early COVID-time it time when we couldn't go to our workplace. We still wear masks.

Vivien
COVID plus a war makes doing science particularly challenging in Ukraine. Dmytro Gospardyov is an associate professor at Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
Yes. It's classical university. It's mostly humanities, our natural science department, they are relatively young. Our department is 20 years old. And I was at the beginning of our Department, I worked 20 years at this Department and I started to work when it just started. 

Vivien
He is part of a group of 24 scientists and staff and 64 students, overseen by Volodymyr Lushchak.

Dmytro Gospodaryov (3:40)
We don't probably we don't say like principal investigator. We have other names for this, but in general, it looks like this. And we have team, and this is very good team. We communicate with each other, our principal investigators, we have some persons who keep teams, and I work for different teams.

I'm associate professor, so I don't have my own lab, but our lab still works. The head of our lab is Volodymyr Lushchak. And people visit the lab only to keep cultures of fruit flies and mice and so on. Yesterday we talked about some experiments, maybe short ones, so we can’t do our regular analysis, but we decided we can do some behavior tests with mice because it's quick.

Vivien
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, science is grinding to a halt in the country. The day of the Russian invasion February 24, 2022 was a difficult day. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov
Well, it was really difficult in the beginning. On 24 February, this day was chaotic, completely chaotic. Next day was all the news, we followed news. And only after two days I realized I can start to read something and to do my regular work. I tried to figure out what happens, how it may last for how long, and so on. And once I figured out how it goes, then I try to be calm, but it's not possible for all people. For instance, my wife, she is still kind of nervous. Well, this situation is unpredictable.

Vivien
The question for many has been to stay or leave. Many have left Ukraine. Just recently conscription has started for all men in the country, Dmitryo Gospardyov e-mailed me when he was standing in line to be conscripted for military service. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (6:20)
In Ukraine, it's forbidden for men to go out of the country, for men from 18 to 60 years old. So we should stay, we are obliged to stay. And I asked my wife, maybe you can go. And she said, I will not go without you. Yes. And this is also applicable for many of our students. Only probably first grade students can go out. Yesterday, we also decided that maybe during the war or after the war, our students can train in Europe. It's possible to organize because they lost lots of training because of COVID and distance learning and because of this war. So these students, they have really spectacular time.

Vivien
COVID has hurt trainees in Ukraine and I guess one could say hurt trainees everywhere because their training got derailed in many types of ways. And now the war is adding to the challenges all trainees face in Ukraine and established scientists, too To help scientists in Ukraine I asked Dmitryo Gospoardyov if it could be useful to researchers to take part in meetings via the internet or participate in lab meetings electronically. 

What he really wants to do is get back to doing science. But contact with the outside world would be great. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov
It’s possible. It's useful, for instance, for me, because it's development. If I present take part in discussions, journal clubs, of course, it's development because we do not communicate frequently with our colleagues from abroad, from the US, from Europe. And it will be very good for our development. But it's definitely not added value. Added value: I need to produce some knowledge. I need to analyze data or do some at least some bioinformatics or biostatistics or something that people abroad can't do.
 
Vivien
Being a scientist, adding value to the world’s science, is always quite challenging in typical times and especially so during a war. Dmytro Gospardyov has data from experiments done before the war and is working on a paper right now with that data. 

His university department is close to a plant that could be seen as belonging to the defense industry. It’s dangerous to be nearby because it could be a target of missile attacks. Daily there are alarms and air raids. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (9:15)
It's daily today, early in the morning, we had one alarm and it breaks our sleep a little bit. But we adjusted with my wife. We do not go somewhere deep under the building. But we find at this moment we found a safe place in our flat and we go there during this air alarm. Sometimes we may have three air alarms, but usually it's daily. And in some cases we are really bombarded. Now they hit just one point. It's airport in our city. It's five kilometers out of our house. And the first day was the hardest because we heard explosions. And right away we saw a very big column of black smoke or fire smoke, smoke, smoke. Very thin and big and black but. It was not a big destruction because they hit into room where some oil and fuel for military planes. So it was not so dangerous. But when you look at this, it looks dangerous.

Vivien
There is destruction and there are atrocities being committed, people being killed. Relatively speaking, western Ukraine is a little safer than other parts of the country. Humanitarian aid has difficulty getting through. Food supply has been ok in his region. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
our shelves and our shops empty a little bit, but we hope that it's like wave. Maybe after some time we still have as much food as possible as it was before the start of the war. And actually after the start of the war, we went to the suburb near the shops were full of products there. But when we returned to our city, we saw emptied shelves in supermarkets. But now we don't have problems with food so far.

Vivien 
Doing science takes supplies. Getting supplies in a time of crisis and war is especially difficult. 
In his work for the wet-lab part of his work he studies and measures mitochondrial activity in cells such as with blue native electrophoresis. Right before the war he had begun using real-time PCR, which is commonl in many labs. But in many Ukrainian labs it’s been a bit out of reach financially. That has to do with the reagents and the kits. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov
Exactly. And instrument and the kits. 

Vivien
Right before the war, he and colleagues managed to get more funding for their science in Ukraine through the National Research Foundation. Their research project was slated to end in December 2022 so they were hoping for a renewed grant. But alas, the war has changed this situation. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (13:05)
Recently, well in our country, we got working National Research Foundation in our country. And this was a result of a long-term work of science activists in our country who raised this topic every time. So create this foundation, create this fund. And finally, it was created and it worked and it was quite big money.

Vivien
This was government funding for the lab he is a member of and for other labs. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov
Just recently, they informed that they will not fund us. They will not continue these projects. But this was expected because Kyiv is heavily bombarded and likely all money will go for army, for victory, for the humanitarian.

Vivien
Money is needed for the war and for humanitarian aid and therefore science has to take a back seat. In general money for science has always been tight in Ukraine. They have done what they could but that is not stopping them from thinking about what they wish they could do. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (14:25)
Usually until recently, we did what we can, but we did not what we want to do. And we actually didn't think in such terms that in many cases it was not hypothesis driven research. It was more data collection. So we measured all things that we could measure. And in some cases, we also did hypothesis-driven research. Therefore, we tested, this was not exactly my experiment, but we tested how organisms behave when it's subjected to intermittent fasting. And we also try to use some lab preparations to either prolong lifespan or to prevent obesity or . And we have grown from toxicology. First, our works were distantly toxicological, and then we try to move to more global topics, to aging, to obesity. This is very popular. Oxidative stress. It's very easy to study in our conditions.

Vivien 
Modeling aging and obesity is complex but even with modest means Dmytro Gospardyov is happy to work in this area. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
Now aging is it looks like it's connected to metabolism of polyamines and to metabolism of sulphur-containing amino acids something like this? Well, we can also work with our instruments, but for this, I need to be mathematician to develop some mathematician models. But I'm not very well in mathematics. Well, not as well in mathematics as it should be for qualified research on this.

Vivien
Mathematical models of metabolomics is as fascinating as it is complicated. When it comes to making  measurements, instead of measuring gene expression he and his team measure the actual output of genes, the enzymatic activity levels. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (17:15)
Since it's cheap, we often use measurement of enzymatic activities. And I noticed that in Europe and the US labs, it's not very often used because Western blot, PCR and other methods, very progressive methods, they allow to quite precisely measure gene expression. But we try to catch this last level of expression. It means function and it's cheap for us.

Vivien
If they added gene expression data to their data, they could for example compare the effect of over-eating versus fasting. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
Recently our team discovered that all changes that predispose organism to aging. They start middle age point.

Vivien 
Some of his work has involved looking at the physiologic changes in obese adults. And in separate experiments they look at the effects of intermittent fasting on animals particularly at enzyme levels in the liver and the brain. 

It’s complicated disentangle the influence of intermittent fasting on aging. But I wondered given his work in this area if it his science is influencing his own eating habits. Here’s Dmytro Gospardyov:

Dmytro Gospodaryov (19:10)
I do not fast. I do not do this. Maybe I eat meat every day. Well, I like such foods that people found that they prolong lifespan. For instance, olive oil. I like it very much. And I like salads. I like avocado, broccoli. And those products, they're just tasty. I do not like fat food, just from my childhood. I don't like very fatty food. 

And we discovered in well, it's not we it was American scientists, but they discovered the plants that is called golden root or Rhodiola rosea, prolonged lifespan in fruit flies. It was interesting for us because this plant is grown nearby in Carpathians and we bought it on local market because we have a lot of this. 

And certain time. I used this Rhodiola, I take it every day. I don't know whether it changed something, but it's not recommended to take before sleep because it's like coffee. It's rare and it grows high in the mountains. It's not easy to grow it and to obtain some active principles from this plant.

Vivien
I am hoping when peace arrives in Ukraine that the lab will be able to look more into these plants and the potential active ingredients they contain that might affect lifespan. 

Metabolomics is an area in which labs combine data for example metabolic data and gene expression data. Dmytro Gospardyov follows this science with great interest that is all about teasing out which factors might have influence over which aspect of physiology. One experiment he worked on involved fruit flies on nine different diets and involved many measurements.  

Dmytro Gospodaryov  (21.25)
I see people start to there is more interest to metabolomics as well as to gene expression as well as to protein interactions, transcription factors but when we see all these schemes, all these connections, it's not very understandable. In 2018, we did, It was not metabolomics work, but it was a huge work because we used several mutants of fruit flies. They were knockouts on insulin-like peptides. And we measured in their food consumption, triacyl glyceride, glycogen glucose, tregalose and all measures. And this was all on nine diets. So it's a huge work because we have five lines, nine diets and lots of measures. And I spent probably three years to figure out what happens inside these flies. It was very difficult because when I write article, I realize that I need to keep all data, at least in certain moments, during certain time in my head all together.

Vivien 
Right now, of course, the data he has to keep in his head is about past experiments. And there is, I guess you could call it a different kind of data about the war in his country. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
What it would be important to say that now we get many letters with support from our Western colleagues who say you can visit, not you can visit. We can propose a temporary position in our lab. They propose lots of positions, but Ukrainian men are not. It's impossible for us to apply for them. Only women can apply. And this is good, I think. But it's half of our scientists

Vivien
Wow that's good. If you have 50% women, that's better than in the west. They don't have 50% women in science

Dmytro Gospodaryov
We have lots of women in our department, it's probably more than men.

Vivien
The invitations from departments near and far are good for Ukrainian science and will, he hopes, help some of the students in his department complete their training. 

Of course right now many are fleeing. Dmytro Gospardyov is happy about the support Ukrainian scientists are receiving from labs and countries around the world. But he is worried that the war will cause brain drain from Ukraine. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (24.45)
This is actually so because we lose our most smart people, they grow abroad. And I understand them completely because it's sometimes difficult for people to realize in our country because we don't have many money. We need to be very smart to take as much as possible from our equipment and to find some very spectacular ideas to be published and to get very interesting knowledge about fruit flies, about aging, mitochondria and so on. But also we want to develop science inside our country, likely after the war. And in many cases, we are not competitive for grants. In Europe and the US, it's very difficult to compete with European rich laboratories. They have very great works.

Vivien
Competition with other labs that have better funding is hard for scientists in Ukraine. Were European or North American labs or companies willing to ship donated supplies, delivery would be questionable. At the moment.

Dmytro Gospodaryov
At least now it's not possible. And it was actually difficult because we have our RT-PCR from Agilent and our kits from New England Biolabs, by the way. And to obtain this kit, we wait for like one month. And I can compare it with how I got reagent in Finland when I worked as a postdoc there. So it was a little much quicker in Finland. And when I ordered primers for PCR, they came within a few days. And now we need to wait one month. When our technician said, your primers came, I say: great victory.

Vivien 
If a lab keen on donating something wanted to drive something themselves say, from continental Europe to Ukraine, that would be challenging, too. But small amounts of reagents are the types of things that individuals can bring. 

Dmytro Gospodaryov (28.00)
if we could conduct experiments here in the wartime. But at the moment, it's quite dangerous to be for a long time there in our Department, reagents. It's not problem if I say somebody. Our technicians are people who are responsible for getting reagents some guys can pass some reagents to us. They say, no problem. We apply all possible and we try to use this opportunity as much as possible.

Vivien
It struck me throughout our conversation how Dmytro Gospodaryov was talking earnestly about science. But not that far from where he was sitting, war is raging. And there is much uncertainty about what can still happen. But talking about science is also a way to escape this difficult reality on the ground for a moment. Part of the reality is organizing reagents, He and others have found creative ways to do that.

Dmytro Gospodaryov (28:45)
We survive in this way because even in the past if some laboratory in Europe, they move to some other place, they try to throw out all other reagents to trash. And we say, no, don't get them away. We can use them. Still, some of them are not that bad.

Vivien 
While putting reagents or instruments on trucks will likely not work right now, individuals have had a habit of bringing things in suitcases as they traveled to Ukraine.   

Dmytro Gospodaryov 
Our people try to manage this much as possible. For instance, they can take it with them putting in the bags and that's it.

Vivien 
That was conversations with scientists. Today’s guest was Dr. Dmytro Gospodaryov a researcher Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University in Ivano-Frankivsk, West Ukraine. 

And I just wanted to say because there’s confusion about these things sometimes. Nobody paid to be in this podcast, this is independent journalism that I produce in my living-room. I’m Vivien Marx thanks for listening.

(Credit: jorono/Pixabay)

Vivien Marx

Journalist , Nature Portfolio