February 5, 2023

Larissa S. Brizhik doesn’t have to stay. Like many Ukrainian women and children, she could have fled the war zone. But as head of the department at the Bogolyubov Institute of Theoretical Physics in Kyiv, in charge of seven employees, she decided to keep working.

Late last year, Dr. Brizhik’s institution received a one-year grant of $165,000. The funds are part of a $1.2 million grant announced Wednesday by the Simons Foundation. They are designed to help sustain hundreds of Ukrainian scientists whose work was interrupted when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. Headquartered in New York City, the foundation supports many branches of basic science and is endowed by James and Marilyn Simons. Mr. Simmons founded Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund also based in New York.

In Dr Brizhik’s case, the money will support 53 researchers at the institute, where physicists study plasmas, elementary particles and astrophysical phenomena.

“This shows that we are not alone – that someone cares,” Dr Brizhik said of the funding. “It helps a lot,” she adds, especially in light of wartime belt tightening and the lure of foreign jobs for young scientists. “For those who stayed, there weren’t many opportunities. For those who stayed, it really mattered.”

The Simons Foundation, which is still considering funding applications from Ukraine, extended its deadline after a Russian missile attack cut some scientists’ power and internet access.

Many leading Ukrainian scientists and their staff and laboratories—a total of 405 specialists and doctoral candidates—are receiving assistance from the Simons Foundation. Laureates include chemists, biologists, physicists and mathematicians.

Larissa S. Brizhik, Bogolyubov Institute of Theoretical Physics.Credit…by Larry Sabrick

S. James Gates Jr., professor of physics at the University of Maryland, said the quality of Ukrainian science over the past half-century has been “very high.” Last year, Dr. Gates helped organize aid to Ukrainian scientists as past president of the American Physical Society. Dr Gates said he did not receive any support from the Simons Foundation, calling the grants “an investment in the future”.

He said Ukrainian scientists had done pioneering work on the theory of supersymmetry, which attempts to mathematically unify known forces of nature and postulates the existence of undiscovered particles. More prosaically, many Western companies involved in pharmaceuticals and computer programming have outsourced tasks to the country’s tech-savvy workforce.

Invading Russian troops disrupted the work of the country’s scientists and attacked their workplaces, in addition to damaging the country’s infrastructure and looting its cultural antiquities.

In Kharkov last March, Russian troops shelled the Institute of Physics and Technology, destroying the institute’s nuclear facilities for research and production of medical isotopes. Its experts received an $80,400 grant from Simons.

In October, an exploding Russian missile shattered and bent a window at the Institute of Mathematics in a historic 19th-century building in Kyiv. Experts there received a $310,000 grant.

When the Russians laid siege to Kyiv last March, Dr. Brizhik, her cat and daughter slept in the hallway of their apartment, avoiding bedroom windows.

“Sometimes there are as many as 10-12 air raid sirens,” she said on her website at the time. “We’re lucky – so far our buildings haven’t been destroyed.”

However, Dr. Brizhik decided to stay, not only to help protect science in Ukraine, but also as a symbol of resistance against invaders.

“I love my country,” she said. “It’s important that our military, our soldiers, are not defending empty territories, they are defending the people who live here.”

Gregory Gabadadze, dean of the NYU School of Science, and officials with Simmons who has relatives in Ukraine, said the foundation began considering aid to Ukraine shortly after the Russian invasion last February.

“These are high-quality people,” he said of the honorees. “It’s important to sustain their research so they can pass on that knowledge and skills to the next generation. Once it’s destroyed, it’s nearly impossible to rebuild.”

Dr Gabardaze said the foundation plans to continue providing annual grants as long as the war continues, before moving on to help rebuild Ukrainian science.

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