Female scientists concerned about Ukraine ‘brain drain’ after millions flee war

Two Ukrainian scientists have described the importance of being a role model for girls interested in a career in their field and expressed concern over their country’s “brain drain” as young people flee the war.

Olena Pareniuk studies bacteria in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone while Kateryna Shavanova is a biologist who works on the efficiency of agriculture.

They both recently featured in the second season of the online docuseries Women in Science, which aims to make Ukrainian female scientists visible to society and inspire young women to build careers in Stem.

Dr Pareniuk, 35, and Dr Shavanova, 39, spoke to the PA news agency about how a year of the full-scale war — including the capture of Chernobyl — has impacted their work and why it is more crucial than ever that Ukrainian women are encouraged to pursue science professionally.

“Ukraine desperately needs smart and young people right now,” Ms Pareniuk told PA.

Olena Pareniuk who studies bacteria in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Olena Pareniuk/PA)
Olena Pareniuk, who studies bacteria in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Olena Pareniuk/PA)

“Because after the victory, we will have to rebuild the country. It should be smart, prominent young people who should do it.

“We should show the opportunities to young people who stayed in Ukraine or who left Ukraine for a scholarship … we should show them that we have something to do here and we will really appreciate you coming back.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency, nearly eight million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded in neighbouring countries and across Europe.

The women, who have both worked in Chornobyl, spoke about their worry regarding young Ukrainian minds fleeing the war and studying overseas, gaining university degrees and getting jobs elsewhere.

Dr Pareniuk added that there must be an approach to combat her country’s “brain drain”.

“The feeling is very strange because by sending good students to another country, it might seem that I’m just facilitating the brain drain,” she said.

“I think that I will do my best to attract some nice funding for our research and I will do my best to employ young people, give them freedom and good advice to proceed in (a) future in science.

“That is how I hope to make my contribution in stopping the brain drain.”

Kateryna Shavanova is a biologist who works in the efficiency of agriculture (PA)
Kateryna Shavanova is a biologist who works in the efficiency of agriculture (PA)

Dr Shavanova echoed the sentiment of Dr Pareniuk and while admitting that brain drain is “a problem” in Ukraine, she said sending young scientists across the world to network and collaborate with colleagues is crucial in their development.

“Brain drain is a problem but I hope it will be something like brain change because scientists should go abroad,” she said.

“You should see the world, you should try to work in the different laboratories because, of course, sometimes it’s better equipment, sometimes you have a chance to work with (a) Nobel Prize guy.

“I hope Ukrainians come back to Ukraine … but it’s so important to be in contact with your foreign colleagues.”

Dr Shavanova added that while brain drain continues to be an issue, it is better to lose scientists to neighbouring countries than to be killed by Russians in the war.

“Now, some of our colleagues are protecting us in the Army, so the risk is very high,” she said.

“The brain drain (is) a problem but, recently, we got the message that one of our prominent colleagues, biologist Bizhan Sharopov, has just died on the battlefield.

“As all Ukrainians, we need a victory — and it will be the best solution for a brain drain issue.

“(If) I know someone brilliant who works in Europe or US – that’s not a problem. When they are killed by Russians, it’s a problem.”

Both touched on the effects of war on their work, including Dr Pareniuk, who spoke about Russia’s capturing of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, which is now back under Ukrainian control.

“They broke windows, they stole some computers, they still have stolen some equipment,” she explained.

“We don’t want to rebuild the laboratories and then watch them being ruined again, so we are basically acting on a minimum scale.

“So, we are doing something just to survive, to maintain some very important research (but) we are not trying to rebuild the institute (or) the laboratories yet because to continue working and reconstruction, we need our people’s and facilities safety to be insured.

“For the very beginning, we’ll let our Army do its job … and then — it will be us, scientists, who’ll contribute to the country’s reconstruction.”

Dr Shavanova also said she knows colleagues and family members of colleagues who have died in the war.

“That feeling when you open your Facebook page and when you see just a portrait of a person, your heart stops because it might mean somebody (has) died,” she said.

“It’s difficult.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine
According to the UN Refugee Agency, nearly eight million refugees from Ukraine have been recorded in neighbouring countries and across Europe (Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

Dr Pareniuk heralded the work of female scientists and praised the docuseries as “very important”.

“It is very important to show successful cases of people who stayed in Ukraine to young school children and students,” she added.

“The message is that we wanted to show role models for girls.

“We wanted to show that it is possible to be a woman in science and have a very interesting life, and be successful in whatever you’re doing.

“That it is actually possible to continue working, to continue doing research, even during the war.”

To watch and learn more about the Women In Science docuseries, go to: