Soon after the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Prof. Iryna Zenyuk, associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research center at UCI, began thinking of ways to help Ukrainian scientists and academics. Zenyuk was born in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager. She still has relative and many connections to her home country. Consulting with other professors at UCI, Zenyuk decided to commence an effort to bring Ukrainian academics to UCI so they could continue their work in relative safety. In this episode of the UCI Podcast, Zenyuk discusses the reasoning behind her recent efforts and what it means to both Ukrainian researchers and the UCI community.
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From the University of California, Irvine, this is the UCI podcast. I’m Brian Bell,
People around the world were shocked and bewildered at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February and the reactions have only become more intense as the ensuing violence has been covered in the media. The news from Ukraine has had a direct impact on members of the UCI community. Professor Iryna Zenyuk, associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, was born in Ukraine and has relatives who live there now. Right after Russia’s attack on her home country began Professor Zenyuk started thinking of ways she could help. Following an example set previously to bring refugees from nations such as Afghanistan and Cameroon to UCI, Professor Zenyuk launched a Scholars at Risk initiative to help Ukrainian scientists and academics find safe passage to UCI so they may continue their work while the war rages in their homeland.
Professor Zenyuk joined the UCI podcast to provide an update on the Ukraine relief fund she helped initiate. Our conversation is up next.
Professor Iryna Zenyuk. Welcome to the UCI podcast.
Thank you, Brian. Thank you for having me.
So, you started your Ukraine relief fund soon after Russia’s invasion of your country began. What was your original impetus for beginning this fund?
That’s right. I started just a few days after the invasion and my motivation was the fact that I’m so far away from Ukraine. I live in California, and I thought I wanted to help somehow. And the way to help for me was that I’m academic, I’m a professor I’m in academia. And I thought you know, as I watched the news as Russians bombed the capital city Kiev and one of the largest cities, Kharkiv, those are two cities are actually major capitals for the Ukrainian education system. So, you have some of the best universities in Kiev and Kharkiv. So as this bombing of infrastructure happened, I realized, okay, we have a lot of academics that and students that will not be able to come back to, to where they used to work, where they studied, where they were teaching. And I thought, can we do something to help them to help place scholars until it’s safe for them to come back? And so that’s how I got to work with Scholars at Risk program at UCI and get to this fundraising and doing all these things to bring scientists in.
This has been going on this, this Ukraine relief fund for a couple of months. How much money have you raised so far?
It’s been close to two months, I would say. And we’ve been quite lucky and successful in raising over $220,000. A large portion of it comes from the UCI administration from the Provost Office and the Chancellor for Research, and the nine deans have committed funds. And then we have the fundraiser and the official ZotFunder, where we have gathered more than $60,000 too. And there was a concert by School of Arts that also have helped with the fundraising. So, so we’ve been quite successful, I think in fundraising.
There have been other Scholars at Risk projects at UCI in the past. How is your project similar or different from those previous ones?
That’s right. The Scholars at Risk program at UCI was founded in 2017, so it’s been five years. We have hosted about I would say seven scholars from different countries and professor Jane Newman from Comparative Literature. She headed up this effort. We had scientists from Turkey from, from Cameroon, and also the most recent Afghani people from Afghanistan. So professor Jane Newman has been really dedicated to this UCI Scholars at Risk program. And I have learned a lot of things from her and at the time she still was very much involved in bringing Afghanistan academics here. And so I, I initiated Ukrainian Scholars at Risk program, but we work very closely together. I mimic essentially the program she set up for the other scholars and essentially Scholars at Risk program knows how welcoming UCI is, how much historically we’ve done for displaced scholars. I think we have good reputation in this domain.
Have you identified any Ukrainian academics or researchers who can come to UCI?
Yes, we have. We have several applications already. Scholars can apply or academics can apply through the official Scholars at Risk program, which is international program to help displace scholars. Um, the challenges that this program now has so many applicants from still Afghanistan, Cameroon, and also now Ukraine. So they are behind on processing applications can take up to three month. So now we are in process of talking to our um, a vice chancellor for the academic affairs to try to see who we can maybe bypass formal Scholars at Risk application process and go directly to UCI to try to bring them faster than three months from now. So this is something time I think is of an essence. And we have identified some of the very bright and talented scholars that can academics that can fit very much very nicely into the UCI. We have scholars for more, more towards physical sciences that can help with nuclear reactor operation that can really, really help us too. So I think it’s really a both way street. I think we are helping them, but they are so talented. They’re so, so strong that they will help UCI community as well.
What are some of the hurdles that you have to overcome to actually get these people to come across the world, to out campus, with their families potentially? There’s a lot of visa issues, et cetera. What are, what are some of the sort of logistical hurdles that you’ve had to cross?
Well that’s right. First of all, yeah, we are far, we are in California, so they need to learn about our program. They need to learn about Scholars at Risk program. This is not the well-known program in Ukraine. Ukraine is in Europe. So actually, there is a lot of programs currently in Europe, in Germany, specifically to bring displaced scholars and also the programs they know about. So it’s getting the word around informing them that we exist, that we have this openings has been one challenge. Second challenge is of course the getting the right visa status for them and getting their families in. And now once we identify, we already identified several applicants, but helping them with the housing and helping them to integrate here with Ukrainian community, with the language, with getting you know, their kids set up with school and all of that. So this is something we will work with as I work with Scholars at Risk and Jane Newman, and this is something is part of this program. So we, we have to handle this. We have to help them. The next step is essentially just getting those applicants through, getting them through the system and getting them appointments. And then we have to deal with all the logistics. So that logistics step is still a little bit further away.
As a Ukrainian born scientist yourself. Can you tell our listeners about your background and how your background influenced your actions during this crisis?
I was born in Ukraine and I lived first 15 years in Ukraine. And then I came here when I was 15 years old. So I’ve been here 20 years and I go back to Ukraine every year or every two years, I still have family there. And you know, so I really speak the language, understand the culture, connected to my family there. I really understand their situation well now, and I feel connected to them, and I feel like yeah, to do something, to help them. So my background, even though all of my education, pretty much after high school, high school and onward was here in the United States. Sometimes I feel challenge understanding their their universities operate, what is actual, the titles they have and things like that.
But I understand the, kind of the basic culture and language and, you know, I think um, so, so that kind of I mean, just, just a lot of, I think you don’t have to be Ukrainian to help Ukrainians. I think at UCI, we’ve been fortunate. The community has risen to the occasion, and everybody helped, everybody contributed. I feel like we’ve been so successful with fundraising because we have really, really good strong community here at UC Irvine. And I’ve been supported well by everybody. So, I really feel like it’s a really community effort, so I’m not doing this alone. And every, like we have really good team of people helping and dedicated to the mission. I can name few like Kevin Bossenmeyer who is with KUCI Radio. He’s been dedicating a lot of his time to the cause. I have a student volunteer Jose. I have a few other people who really, really put, put a lot of their time into this. So I’m not alone in this. So this was, this is really interesting thing I discovered about UCI, and I’m, I’m really fortunate to be part of this community.
Oh, that’s great. One of your titles is associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UCI, which means you conduct a lot of research into different forms of renewable energy. Do you see a connection with this work and the war happening in your home country?
Absolutely. As associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, my goal is to develop renewable energy technologies based on hydrogen. So, these are electrochemical technologies that don’t produce any CO2 emissions. So unlike fossil fuel technologies like burning natural gas or burning oil that always produce CO2 and pollute environment, I’m really pro renewable energy. And then if we think about how is the war influencing the geopolitics of energy, energy domain essentially Europe is heavily reliant on Russia’s natural gas, specifically Germany uses 55% of its natural gas comes from Russia. So, the question if they discontinue buying natural gas from Russia, what are they going to do? Europe is already pledging steep the decarbonization scenarios by 2050 or earlier. So they already committed to electrification and hydrogen, but they still, for example, Germany is shutting down their nuclear power plants.
So they heavily reliant, still natural gas there to discontinue natural gas. They have to either double down on getting renewable energy faster, which is not easy thing to do, or they have to resort to coal. And which will essentially, which be much worse for environment because burning coal produces more CO2 than burning natural gas. So, I think now it’s it’s a really challenging time for all of us who are proponents for renewable energy because the transition is not fast enough for renewable energy and we, if we are to discontinue natural gas fast now then we have to redeploy coal, which is worse. So I feel like now in the energy sector, it really becomes critical for a lot of political decisions being made in Europe. And even here in the United States, as the oil prices go up, the, the prices of the gasoline is going up.
I think a lot of middle Americans are, are suffering from high gasoline prices and this is really hurting our economy here at home. So, the question is, should we drill more oil? Should we help Europe with more natural gas experts? Of course this will not help the CO2 emissions and you know, transition to renewable energy, but there are worse possibilities to go back to coal. So, so I feel like this critical times maybe require more compromises now. So, we have to do the best to help Europe, to help Europe overcome this energy crisis. And we have to temporarily do a little bit more with fossil fuels with like drilling more or exporting more natural gas. Maybe that’s a way to go currently. So I think like, yes, my research currently is, does affect is affected by the current scenario, the current war in Russia, in Ukraine, Russian war in Ukraine. And yeah, it’s really a lot of things to take into account and to think over now.
There’s a lot of things connected and tied together, I guess, huh?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s all interconnected and it’s because of the natural gas of Russia. We are not importing much of Russian oil, or very, very little. So we are, we are not as affected in that domain, but I think Europe will be suffering.
Back to the Ukraine relief fund at UCI. If people, members of the UCI community wanted to help or participate, how would they do that?
Thank you, Brian. So there is a ZotFunder which is set up at the UCI.EDU website. And so one can go to the website and find the Ukrainian relief fund and make donation. And I know a lot of people from the community already done. I’d like to thank those and who supported and contributed to the cause. We couldn’t have done this without you. And the fact that we’ve been so successful in fundraising is because mostly the community came together and helped with this effort.
Well, thank you very much for your time today and best of luck in your relief fund endeavors.
Thank you, Brian, for this opportunity to, to talk to you today.
You can donate to the Ukraine relief fund and other worthy UCI sponsored causes at ZotFunder.give.uci.edu. The UCI podcast is a production of strategic communications and public affairs at the university of California, Irvine.
I’m Brian Bell. Thank you for listening.