“A student ready to fight for the future”: an EACR member on her evacuation from Ukraine

"This experience truly changed the course of my life. People helped me to regain understanding of the concepts of kindness, humanity, trust and fairness."

Marco Saponaro, Sandra Agnes and Bohdana-Myroslava Briantseva (right)

As an international community of cancer researchers, the European Association for Cancer Research stands united in support of our scientific colleagues in Ukraine. We offer financial support to displaced researchers from Ukraine in the form of funded short-term placements in international cancer research labs to help give them time and safety in which to plan their next move or apply for other roles. You can learn more about this support here.

Bohdana-Myroslava Briantseva was a student at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv when the Russian invasion started. She received EACR Ukraine Grant funding to help her move to the UK for a placement in Dr. Marco Saponaro’s lab at the University of Birmingham, and she has since become an EACR member and taken up a place at the University of Southern California, USA. She writes here about her moving story and the many people who helped her.

How did you come to apply for an EACR Ukraine Grant?

Many researchers at the University of Birmingham volunteered to host Ukrainian students in their lab. I emailed Dr. Saponaro asking about research opportunities in his lab. He was trying to allocate funding from the University of Birmingham, but it didn’t work out. Then one of his colleagues shared with him about the existence of this grant at the EACR, we checked the eligibility and immediately applied for this position.

It was my opportunity to evacuate from the war and take time to figure out what to do with my life which had recently been ruined. I evacuated in April and three months later the war came to my native city. While my family was forced to flee the city, I was in safety doing research at Dr. Saponaro’s lab.

Did you take part in any interesting local or cultural activities in the UK?

I was lucky enough to visit the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, which, unfortunately, became her last jubilee. Together with my host family, we visited a concert at the city centre and had a party with all neighbours from our street with snacks and chatting. Extraordinary, how genuinely excited people were about that date. A real lesson we can all take from a monarchy is that in quiet determination and responsibility lies a remarkable inner strength.

Marco Saponaro and Bohdana-Myroslava Briantseva in the lab

Did you have a personal mentor or anyone who particularly helped you?

People around were determined to help me in any way they could, and I felt support from everywhere. Of course, Dr. Saponaro became not only my supervisor but a wise mentor. I always could rely on his support however bad my situation was. He helped me to find psychological support when I needed it, and did everything he could to help me come to the USA.

“In order to become gold, you have to go through fire.”

Dr. Sudha Sundar and Dr. Juraj Bracinic who decided to host me in their family certainly became a part of my own. From the very first day they have treated me like their own child. I enjoyed family dinners, conversations, parent-like advice, and walking the dog. They gave me a feeling that I still have a family right here with me. I will always remember an Indian quote Sudha told me once: in order to become gold, you have to go through fire. This is your time of becoming gold.

Please tell us where you’re going next and what you’ll be doing.

Unfortunately, the war in my country is not over, and I was delighted to know that I had been admitted to the master’s program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Southern California. I arrived in Los Angeles directly from the UK, and started my program the next day after my arrival on 27 August. Now I am studying and working in Dr. McMahon’s lab at USC.

How has the trip inspired you, either in your research or otherwise?

This experience truly changed the course of my life. I arrived in the UK being absolutely disoriented. People helped me to regain understanding of the concepts of kindness, humanity, trust and fairness. Like a sponge, I was absorbing everything people were giving me, and now I can say that they have given me the best they had. Everyone noticed a remarkable transformation of a refugee scared of the present, to the student ready to fight for the future.

How has this visit been beneficial to your research and your career?

During my internship, I learned important molecular techniques, such as RNA isolation and purification, immunofluorescence imaging, Q-PCR, and tissue culture, which today I use at Dr. McMahon’s lab at USC. This experience gave me a strong background for my current research and confidence in conducting my own projects.

I also had time to decide what major to choose for my future career. Today, I am becoming a specialist in the field of regenerative medicine, and because stem and cancer cells share lots of features, having a background in cancer research, I feel much more experienced in this field than other students. I believe that experience and circumstances shape our future; EACR helped me to stand up during the most difficult times of my life, and today I understand that no matter how bad your life situation is, as long as there are people ready to help and support you, you can cope with anything.

Bohdana-Myroslava, Juraj Bracinik (host family), Marco Saponaro (supervisor), and Sudha Sundar (host family) on her day of departure

A short summary of Bohdana-Myroslava’s current research: Our genetic information is preserved in DNA, while RNA is responsible for its realisation. Replication, or duplication of DNA, is necessary during cell division when both daughter cells receive identical copies of maternal DNA. During this process DNA-polymerase uses DNA sequence as a template. This template is also used by RNA-polymerase II during the process of transcription, or synthesis of complementary RNA. Importantly, that “collisions” between the machineries involved in these processes are increased in different cancers, indicating their negative impact on cell survival. My current research is aimed to better understand how these two processes coexist on the genome without affecting each other and how impairments in one process can affect the other.

Want to find out more?

To find out about our Ukraine Grants, please click here for more information: EACR Ukraine Grants.