Donetsk, Ukraine, 2014. Ukrainian scholar Oleksandr Shelestiuk remembers his first encounter with war vividly. “It nullified the peaceful life of our family,” he recalls. He and his five siblings—three brothers and two sisters—were forced to relocate to Kyiv and attempt to start anew. Despite the aching, though, a dream kept Shelestiuk optimistic about his future.
As a young student, Shelestiuk was keen on exploring undiscovered fields of study in physics and mathematics. But destruction is apathetic to dreams. In 2022, eight years after his first exposure to warfare, Shelestiuk had just started his college career as a physics student at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv when he’d soon hear the familiar air raid sound.
“It was February 24. I was 17 by that point. That was the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, and the life of my family was under threat once again,” he recalls.
The air raids never ceased. Bomb shelters became a second home for many families. People lost their jobs and many men, like Shelestiuk’s father, became soldiers. Life had been turned upside down.
“The quality of my education got significantly worse as the educational process at the university was interrupted,” he says. The future began to look bleak and uninspiring.
Shelestiuk’s outlook brightened in the months that followed, however, thanks in large part to some determined faculty and staff at LSA who wanted to help Ukrainian scholars while also advancing vital scientific research.
In LSA’s Physics Department, Associate Professor Tom Schwarz oversees the U-M Physics Summer Research Experience at CERN, which sends cohorts of students to an international particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, over the summer to work with leading physicists on research projects.
The program was initiated in 1998 by the late Samuel A. Goudsmit Distinguished University Professor Emeritus Homer A. Neal and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus Jean Krisch, who gave funds to the department.
When war broke out in Ukraine, Schwarz wanted to help undergraduate students from the country who were interested in physics sustain their learning in a safe environment. Shelestiuk, Fedir Boreiko, and Mariia Tiulchenko, who were being supported by The Simons Foundation at Princeton University at the time, applied.
In partnership with LSA, Myron Campbell, then the associate dean for the natural sciences, and David Gerdes, chair of physics at LSA, Schwarz was able to raise enough funds to support all three students for the fall and winter semesters. Now, he’s working to find additional support to keep the students in Switzerland through the summer.
“Their stories really moved us,” Schwarz says. “And we knew that if they didn’t get these positions they may have to go back to Ukraine, so we were very motivated to keep them in the program for as long as we could.”
The other two students sponsored by U-M had similar experiences to Shelestiuk’s. Eighteen-year-old Boreiko, who was also studying physics and mathematics in Kyiv, found early in the war that there wasn’t time to think about the future because of the life-threatening violence that had become commonplace.
“It felt like the apocalypse had come with how sudden it was and how unprepared we were,” he says. “I sat at home for the first five days, sleeping in the hallway. I didn’t take showers. I would just sit and wait for air raid alerts.”
One day, Boreiko’s mother came to his room and sat next to him. She told him she would be fleeing the country with his sister by the end of the summer, regardless of whether he could make it with them. “Something switched inside myself that day, drawing the final line between the reckless boy I was and a numb version of myself I’d become,” he recalls.
In the Russian-occupied countryside of Kyiv, 18-year-old Tiulchenko, a physics student at Kyiv University, was also being confronted by family with talks of escape. Her family undertook a successful immigration to the western part of the country, and Tiulchenko eventually resumed her studies, but now online because of the threat of missile attacks on educational institutions.
Once Tiulchenko felt physically safe, she started processing feelings about her new reality and revisiting thoughts of the future. “My childhood streets were devoid of people but full of destruction. My home no longer seemed to be a secure and pleasant place for me,” she says. “The comprehension of the problem was pushing me to make a change in my life.”
With guidance from Onsite Coordinator Steven Goldfarb, the three students have been working on the ATLAS experiment, which utilizes a 7,000-ton detector the size of a seven-story building that searches for evidence of dark matter produced in proton collisions. These proton collisions happen 300 feet underground in a 17-mile circle, called the Large Hadron Collider.
“The University of Michigan gave me an opportunity to move on. I’m broadening my knowledge in the high-energy particle physics field, getting invaluable research experience in real-time,” Shelestiuk says.
When they collide protons at these energies, scientists are able to reproduce the conditions of the Universe 1/100th of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. The research allows budding scientists like Shelestiuk, Boreiko, and Tiulchenko to help answer fundamental questions about the nature of the Universe, like why particles have mass and what the nature of dark matter is. Specifically, these three students build and test new hardware to improve the detector and study the data it produces.
“Do I truly deserve to be in the place I am now? Am I taking the state I’m in for granted? I often ask myself these questions because I know so many people that suffered from the war, and much more than me,” Boreiko says. “However, I try not to blame myself for it. Instead, I’m finding the motivation to continue working, continue studying, and eventually, solve the injustice caused by the war in my country.”
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