These Ukrainian students are competing virtually in an international science fair

Reena Advani | May 9, 2022
Dmytriy Omelyanov is working with a fellow student on a project involving cockroaches. They will be competing in the science fair virtually from Ukraine.
Dmytriy Omelyanov is working with a fellow student on a project involving cockroaches. They will be competing in the science fair virtually from Ukraine. Society For Science

Updated May 9, 2022 at 12:12 PM ET

Sofiia Smovzh, Serhii Kolomiichuk and Dmytriy Omelyanov are 17-year-old high school students from Ukraine. They were participating in a national science fair in Kyiv on the morning that Russia began its assault on their country.

Kolomiichuk and Omelyanov are from Dnipro, in central Ukraine. On Feb. 24, as they heard explosions go off in Kyiv, they made the long journey home on a packed train.

“Since there was just a huge number of people, we had to sleep two people on the top bunk,” Kolomiichuk tells Morning Edition. “People slept for 10 hours wherever they could — on the floor, in the vestibule and just sitting. Arriving home — constant air raid alerts awaited us.”

Smovzh’s family left Kyiv.

Sofiia Smovzh's work involves cancer treatments. She will compete in the science fair from Paris, where she moved during the war.
Sofiia Smovzh’s work involves cancer treatments. She will compete in the science fair from Paris, where she moved during the war. Society For Science

“My family moved to western part of Ukraine on the first day of the war,” she says. “I have a small sister, and we didn’t want her to listen to all the sounds of explosions.”

Her mom and sister are now living in Spain. Her stepdad stayed behind in Ukraine and she herself now lives in France.

“The atmosphere in Ukraine when you sit and read the news — it’s very hard to focus on studying, and that’s why I moved to Paris,” she explains.

Smovzh, Kolomiichuk and Omelyanov are now finalists in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Atlanta this week. There are 1750 finalists from around the world — many at the event in person for the first time in two years.

Kolomiichuk, Omelyanov and Smovzh are competing virtually.

Serhii Kolomiichuk is from Dnipro, Ukraine. He is working with Omelyanov on a cockroach-related project.
Serhii Kolomiichuk is from Dnipro, Ukraine. He is working with Omelyanov on a cockroach-related project. Society For Science

Smovzh aims to find less-toxic treatments for cancer. Kolomiichuk and Omelyanov are working on a joint project that involves studying cockroaches.

“Cockroaches are carriers of many parasites,” Omelyanov says. “People have long learned to deal with these insects with insecticides but they have already become a problem. We find nontoxic aromatic mixtures that can become a complete replacement for insecticides.”

As they work under trying circumstances, Smovzh talks of what it means to be a finalist in ISEF.

“For me, it’s more than just individual participation and winning something or not winning something,” she says. “I study and prepare for ISEF to show that Ukraine is a strong and independent country and we are strong in every field, in science as well.”


This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hundreds of high school science buffs share a stage at a major science fair in Atlanta, Ga., this week. The finalists from Ukraine, though, are competing virtually in Regeneron’s International Science and Engineering Fair.

SOFIIA SMOVZH: My name is Sofiia Smovzh. I’m from Kyiv initially, but now I am in Paris.

SERHII KOLOMIICHUK: My name is Serhii Kolomiichuk, and my project partner is Dmytriy Omelyanov. We are students of the Financial and Economic Lyceum of Dnipro city.

FADEL: Sofiia’s research is aimed at finding less toxic treatments for cancer.

SMOVZH: When I was in 10th grade, I fell in love with organic chemistry, and that’s why my research this year was in this field of organic synthesis.

FADEL: Serhii and Dmytriy’s idea focuses on how various aromas affect the motor activity of cockroaches. Here’s Dmytriy.

DMYTRIY OMELYANOV: People have long learned to deal with this insects with insecticides, but they have already become a problem. So we should find a alternative for insecticides.

FADEL: Serhii says that they were in Kyiv for the national science fair the day Russia began its assault.

KOLOMIICHUK: We woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning from the noise of explosions. Getting out of the taxi on the way to the metro station, we were stuck by a station that we could not imagine on ordinary life. Then the most unusual and uncomfortable train ride home awaited us. Since there were just a huge number of people, we had to sleep two people on the top bunk. People slept for 10 hours wherever they could. Arriving home, constant air raid alerts and a sad view (ph) awaited us.

FADEL: Yeah. Sofiia, what about you?

SMOVZH: On the first day of the war, I was in Kyiv because I live in Kyiv…

FADEL: Yeah.

SMOVZH: …For my whole life. And my family moved to the western part of Ukraine on the first day of the war because I have a small sister, and we didn’t want her to listen to all the sounds of explosions that we…

FADEL: Yeah.

SMOVZH: …Woke up, we’ve heard them, and, yeah, it was horrible. But then my friend that lives in Paris invited me to go there. The atmosphere in Ukraine, when you just sit and read news, it’s very hard to focus on studying, on something like that.

FADEL: Yeah.

SMOVZH: And that’s why I moved to Paris. And I did it on my own. So my mom, my sister and my stepfather initially left in Ukraine, but now my mom and my sister are in Spain.

FADEL: Are in Spain – and so your stepfather is still in Kyiv?

SMOVZH: He’s in Kyiv, yeah.

FADEL: How did you continue to focus on your project when so much was going on with your country and your family?

SMOVZH: It’s very difficult. I mean, for example, my grandmother, she lives in Kyiv region, and she was in occupation for a month. And also, my supervisor for my project was in occupation for a month…

FADEL: Oh, my gosh.

SMOVZH: …Because she also lives in – yeah, in Kyiv region. But still, she tried to help me and tried to answer all my questions, and yeah.

FADEL: So your supervisor was under occupation answering your questions about the project.

SMOVZH: Yeah.

FADEL: Incredible.

SMOVZH: I mean, she’s very courageous. But I always understood that I have to be strong, and I have to work and to study and prepare for ISEF, you know, to show, like, that Ukraine is strong and independent country, and we’re strong in every field and in science, as well.

FADEL: Do you feel like your role representing Ukraine at the International Science and Engineering Fair is more than just about your individual projects this year?

SMOVZH: For me, it’s more than just individual participation and winning something or not winning. It’s important to show that the whole country is united, and we are strong, and we can present our country on the international level.

FADEL: Serhii and Dmytriy.

KOLOMIICHUK: It’s so hard, but we can do this. Oddly enough, our life and studies in the Dnipro city continued almost in the usual rhythm. Sometimes we meet with friends and hang out together. Despite this, the war reminds us of itself from time to time, and we hear the sounds of invasion above our heads, and sometimes we see air defense missiles in the distance. Right now, we are in safety, but it can change in any moment.

FADEL: Serhii Kolomiichuk, Dmytriy Omelyanov and Sofiia Smovzh – some of Ukraine’s finalists competing in Regeneron’s International Science and Engineering Fair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.