Shortly before our conversation, two Russian missiles struck not far from her home in her native Kharkiv, Ukraine, where she was visiting family, says Hanna P., an infectious diseases researcher. When the alarm sounded, she headed to an inner room. She had done so just a few days ago, too. That alarm lasted 16 hours. She and her family have stayed safe, but war brings daily and nightly interruptions. People are coping. “You have to just live,” she says. Right before the war started, she defended her PhD. Many labmates have left the country. One colleague was killed while on the street with her two children, who were injured. Hanna P. is staying in her country; it’s her home.

“You have to just live,” says Hanna P.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, given her expertise in PCR-based analysis, she was called on to analyze many samples. She has worked at an IT company and trained in statistics methods for clinical trials. On LinkedIn, she wrote about her interest in bioinformatics. Serghei Mangul, genomics researcher at the University of Southern California, reached out when he saw the post. “I was lucky,” she says. She had considered bioinformatics before the war, “and bioinformatics found me.”

Mangul develops and use bioinformatics tools, as does Taras Oleksyk, an evolutionary biologist at Oakland University in Michigan. They co-founded Bioinformatics for Ukraine, through which they run online workshops, mentorships and summer schools. Their goal is to elevate bioinformatics skills in statistics, bioinformatics tools and infrastructure, R and Python, genomic analysis, and image analysis, all of which readies Ukrainian scientists for international science collaborations. Participants from biology, mathematics and computer science at any career stage are welcome.

Summer schools combine lectures and hands-on workshops. Some are held in Romania, others in Moldova. They draw participants from across Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. Yet another, the Ukrainian Biological Data Science Summer School, is only for Ukrainians and is held at Uzhhorod National University in Uzhhorod, western Ukraine, near its borders with Slovakia and Hungary.

Hanna P. feels she greatly advanced her skills in last year’s Moldova summer school. She is waiting to hear about acceptance this year. Uzhhorod is Oleksyk’s hometown, and he dreams of it becoming a science and education hub. He holds a second faculty post at the university, where he is setting up graduate programs in bioinformatics.

Says Mangul, the war teaches harsh, tiring lessons. Lab reagents are scarce and blackouts are frequent. People feel like refugees in their own country. But war brings change, too. Ukrainian academia is losing its legacy of Soviet rigidity, he says. And students are embracing online education. Mangul teaches in the Uzhhorod summer school, as does Wolfgang Huber, a computational biologist from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Huber co-founded Bioconductor, an open-source resource in bioinformatics that includes R packages for tasks such as genetic and genomic data analysis.

At the beginning of the course, participants get help setting up their laptops with the software packages they will need. Internet service is good and cloud servers are available, says Huber. In the course, participants work in small groups on a data analysis workflow. He never loses sight of the fact that participants have much on their mind and are tired, even traumatized. “They were still all keen and really eager to learn and actually engage with the science and the topics,” he says. The war against Ukraine is the most disruptive event of his generation, he says. Teaching is his way to express solidarity. Online training is effective, but he sees the difference in-person interaction makes, especially for students used to interacting more formally with faculty. “The coffee breaks and evenings are as important as the actual core teaching,” says Huber.

Lada Isakova also teaches in the Uzhhorod summer school, which is held in Ukrainian and English. She is an evolutionary geneticist who uses wet-lab and in silico methods in her work. Participants are highly motivated, and “that’s very inspiring,” she says. The teaching experience has made her more confident. She is currently in a ‘gap year’ as a research associate in the lab of Fyodor Kondrashov at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, who is also a mentor with Bioinformatics for Ukraine. Isakova interacts with others in Ukraine in the bioinformatics channel on the social media site Telegram.

“This is kind of a happy two weeks where we can just concentrate on science,” says Lada Isakova

Summer school participants attend lectures and then put what they learn to work in a project co-developed with faculty, which they might continue after the course. It’s better than running prewritten R or Python commands. “I feel it stays with you much better when you do it this way,” she says.

Isakova’s love of science began when she was a child. As a high school student, she was a silver medalist in the International Biology Olympiad. She is soon to start her PhD, but is not ready to divulge where. She left Ukraine before the pandemic and learned of the Russian invasion in February 2022 as an intern at Arizona State University. Some of her family stayed in her hometown of Kyiv. Others have left Ukraine. She has studied at the Université Paris Cité and École Normale Supérieure.

In the calm of the summer school, she and other faculty stay open to conversations with participants about the war and their career plans. Says Isakova, “This is kind of a happy two weeks where we can just concentrate on science.”