Researcher fled the war: "Message from AU felt like getting wings"

After a long and gruelling escape from the Russian invasion, a fellowship at Aarhus University became the ticket out of war-torn Ukraine for researcher Yevgeniya Lekomtseva.

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When Russian bombing made her desk shake Yevgeniya Lekomtseva had to leave apartment, job and Kharkiv behind. Photo: AU Health/Jakob Binderup

Yevgeniya Lekomtseva sits on the edge of the couch, with just a few breaks in her flow of speech. She is talking about the events of the past seven months that have turned the life of the 45-year-old doctor and scientist upside down.

In her home country she was living a peaceful life in the East Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where she devoted all her time to her patients and her research position in a neurological department of the National Academy of Medical Sciences.

But all this came to an abrupt end on 24 February when Russian tanks rolled over the border and began the invasion of Ukraine.

A few days later, the Russian soldiers reached Kharkiv.

“On the Sunday, I heard a bomb strike every half hour. It was so bad that the computer and printer were shaking on my desk. That was when I realised that I could die if I stayed in Kharkiv,” says Yevgeniya.

Lost 11 kilograms

She decided to leave her job and her apartment and flee the city westwards, to get as far away from the hostilities as possible.

For the following weeks, with no access to food or public transport, Yevgeniya Lekomtseva was dependent on the help of some of the patients she had worked with in connection with her research into epilepsy and other neurological disorders.

After several weeks on the run, Yevgeniya Lekomtseva had lost 11 kilos by the time she reached the town of Poltava, roughly midway between Kharkiv and Kiev, at the start of April, where she was apparently finally safe.

“It was like coming to another world. In the Kharkiv region, everyone stayed indoors, because it was forbidden to go outside. In Poltava, people still went to work, and the war was just something they saw on TV,” she says.

Knew only H.C. Andersen

Today, Yevgeniya Lekomtseva sits telling her story in a sunny atrium at the bottom of University Park on a quiet Tuesday in Aarhus, which has become her new home.

After arriving in Poltava, where she had access to the Internet for the first time since her escape from Kharkiv, she began to explore the possibility of getting a research fellowship abroad.

“I looked at various countries and then came across Denmark. I could remember Hans Christian Andersen, but otherwise I knew nothing about the country. But it sounded like a nice place,” says Yevgeniya, and continues:

“I knew I didn’t want to go to a large city or capital. I just wanted to go to a small town with a quiet setting, because I was so exhausted emotionally, and I couldn’t sleep at night.”

AU replied after a week

It wasn’t long before Yevgeniya saw an announcement about an AUFF-Ukrainian Research Fellowship at Aarhus University – an offer for researchers fleeing the war in Ukraine.

She saw it as a unique opportunity to get away from the war and continue her research activities, so she had no hesitation in sending an application. From there on, things moved quickly.

Just a week after submitting the application, she was informed by the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) that she had received a fellowship, including full pay, her own office and access to AU’s modern research environment.

“I thought I would have to write more than 20 applications and then perhaps be lucky enough to get a single positive response, so I was delighted when I received the message from Aarhus University. It was like getting wings on your back,” says Yevgeniya.

Different research environment in Denmark

Three weeks later she arrived in Aarhus, where she was attached to the Translational Neuropsychiatry Unit and the research group of Professor Gregers Wegener.

“One of the first things I did when I came to Aarhus was to talk to Gregers, and he introduced me to his research. I was very interested in his methodology, and his laboratory is fantastic, compared with what I come from in Ukraine,” says Yevgeniya.

“I showed him some of the equipment we used in Ukraine, and I had to explain that the machines were produced in Stalin’s time. That says something about the difference between the research environment in Ukraine and Denmark.”

At the department, which is part of the Department of Clinical Medicine, Yevgeniya Lekomtseva will contribute to research into the neurobiology behind various psychiatric conditions.

And although the Ukrainian research environment is far behind in relation to the Danish, Yevgeniya Lekomtseva has plenty to offer, says Gregers Wegener.

“Yevgeniya has special skills in neurology and psychiatry, and she has run a clinic in which the patients had epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, for example. In this connection, she has collected biological samples from patients in the course of their disease, both before and during treatment, for her research, and this material can be used to understand the disease mechanisms,” he says, adding that the Ukrainian researcher has already settled in well in the department.

“Yevgeniya is a very sociable person, and she approaches her work with great seriousness and diligence.”

"Glad I chose Aarhus"

And it is not only at work that Yevgeniya Lekomtseva has settled in well. Aarhus has turned out to be exactly the calm and welcoming corner of the world that she needed.

“I’m so glad that I chose Denmark and Aarhus. People are so friendly here. For example, I’m not used to the cashier in the supermarket saying hello. That’s unusual. And it’s not because they can see that I’m from Ukraine – that’s just how it is here in Denmark.”

The original plan was that Yevgeniya Lekomtseva’s fellowship would last six months. This has since been extended until the summer of 2023.

She is determined to get the most out of her time in Aarhus, where she is looking forward to learning new methods and sparring with top researchers.

“I hope that it will benefit my career, and I believe I can take a lot back with me to Kharkiv when I return home one day. Hopefully it will be next summer, but no one knows how things are going to develop,” says Yevgeniya Lekomtseva.

About the AUFF-Ukraine Research Fellowship:

  • Established to support researchers who have had to cease their work because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • The fellowship makes it possible for the recipients to continue their research and collaborate with other researchers in a secure, international and interdisciplinary research environment.
  • The fellowship includes full pay and access to office space, library and research facilities at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS).
  • In order to be able to apply, you must as a minimum have a PhD and be affiliated with a research institution in Ukraine as an active researcher.
  • A fellowship is awarded for a period of either six or twelve months. This may be extended, depending on the situation in Ukraine.