Nadiia Kasianchuk, 21, is a medical biotechnology student from Ternopil, Ukraine. Her interest in STEM started at the age of 12 when she went on to represent Ukraine at an international competition in Paris. Since then, she has participated in various scientific projects in Poland, Germany and the USA, and has published several articles. Nadiia believes that science and education empower people, so she wants to promote them in Ukraine, especially among young women, by sharing some outstanding opportunities with them.
Nadiia’s ‘STEM Story’ is one of a series of interviews with promising female professionals in science and technology, who want to share their experiences and motivate young girls to choose a STEM career.
1. Could you please tell us more about your major – what do you study? What is your greatest success that you have achieved so far?
Currently, I am a master’s student at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, majoring in Medical Biotechnology. Because of the Russian full-scale invasion, I had to flee my country and transfer there and, eventually, I managed to finish my bachelor’s in Poland in three months – that is why I am currently the youngest student of my master’s programme.
My first serious scientific achievement was back in 2019 when I participated in the GENIUS Olympiad in the USA, the biggest student science project competition in the world. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, as I could share my ideas with thousands of peers, high-level scientists and entrepreneurs, strengthen my problem-solving and public speaking skills and improve my science project.
This opportunity boosted my STEM career, and I have since co-authored several articles that have been published in international journals and attended a couple of international conferences. A considerable part of my studies is dedicated to the nature of human diseases and the development of advanced treatment techniques. To my mind, these topics are of the essence, because human health – and human life – should always be the greatest values.
This year I also became the ‘New Technologies for Women’ Scholar. This is a prestigious scholarship given by Intel and the Perspektywy Foundation to the university and PhD female students who are actively involved in STEM. As part of the programme, we improve soft and hard skills, work with a mentor for nine months and attend diverse sessions and workshops. Such opportunities have helped me to deepen my knowledge in data analysis and data science, the field I was really curious about. That is why I am proud that on 9 March I will present my first interdisciplinary study about our machine learning algorithm in cancer genetics at a conference in Germany.
2. How and when did you become interested in a career in STEM? Why did you eventually choose this particular field?
Once, when I was 12, my maths teacher came to a classroom and told us that there was a national championship in mathematical logic with the winners being able to represent Ukraine on the international stage in Paris. “But you know what…” she said. “Maths, as well as such high-level tech championships are rather made for boys. So, I encourage the guys to try themselves – maybe some of you will end up in Paris this summer.” I was a very shy girl, but somehow, I convinced myself to raise my hand and ask to join the competition.
Six months later I was in Paris with the blue-and-yellow flag, representing my country at the biggest maths-logic competition in the world. It was the moment when I realised that I see myself in STEM and that everything is possible if you believe in yourself and work hard to reach your goals. This situation motivated me to dive into diverse STEM subjects, so I joined the Junior Academy of Science of Ukraine – a unique organisation enabling high school students to make their first research at great scientific institutions, cooperate with world-class scientists and present their findings at national and international competitions, conferences, and science fairs. I was taking part in several clubs and sections to choose the one that suits me the most. It wasn’t easy – I am the kind of person who likes using logic, maths, biology, chemistry and programming (and sometimes even literature!) but applying them in a very interesting and unexpected way. I knew that if I studied in a very theoretical programme, I would get bored very soon. So that is why I have chosen biotechnology – the sphere, where it is possible to blend totally different knowledge and tools in order to find innovative solutions for various challenges, revolutionise industries and improve people’s lives. Unbelievable though it may seem, in my teen years I got an opportunity to visit the NASA biotechnology lab in Houston, Texas, or discuss new cancer treatment approaches with the Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse at the Francis Crick Institute in London. After these opportunities that science opened to me, the major choice was pretty logical.
3. Have you ever experienced gender inequality or gender-based stereotypes during your studies or career?
Luckily, I did not experience major issues of gender inequality, though I faced a number of ‘everyday’ stereotypes – that is, stupid jokes about technical university being a dating agency or dresses and high heels as a must to get an excellent grade.
Not to repeat the story about the maths class, I would tell you the one about my physics professor. Each class started with a joke about girls not being able to really comprehend technical subjects due to their lack of analytical and logical mindset. What makes it even more ridiculous is that most students, including those taking AP Physics, were girls. Eventually, our whole class decided to explain to the professor how inappropriate such jokes are, and why it is essential to treat all people with respect no matter their gender, nationality or beliefs. Luckily, it did help and he realised his mistakes. Therefore, I believe that it is necessary to target not only the new generation but also the professors, teachers or entrepreneurs, showing them why and how diversity should be promoted.
4. Why is promoting STEM disciplines, particularly among girls, an important priority for the EU and Ukraine?
The world currently faces a number of devastating challenges that need to be solved with the help of new technologies and cutting-edge approaches. During the COVID-19 outbreak medical workers, molecular biologists and virologists proved that science literally saves lives. They worked unitedly and tirelessly to develop safe vaccines, as well as effective treatment options that alleviated the burden on the healthcare systems and saved millions of lives throughout the world. Food insecurity is also a huge issue that scientists can help with. Nowadays, a lot of research is done to make plant-based meat, enhance the nutritional value of existing products and increase their stability and transportability of them. It will definitely help to provide developing and low-income countries with cheap but qualitative food.
Furthermore, one of the important goals of the EU is digital transformation. I am proud that Ukraine was the first country that implemented an e-government service called ‘Diia’ enabling us to use digital IDs, passports or driving licences at will with no need to carry paper variants – and now several countries in the EU are considering applying the same approach. I believe that many more cutting-edge technologies are in the offing, and therefore young professionals in STEM, especially those coming from diverse contexts and backgrounds, will lead such changes from the front.
In the case of Ukraine, STEM specialists are definitely in need. The Russian unprovoked invasion is going on and, among others, Russia cruelly targets our kindergartens, our schools, our universities, our education in general – so our future. Thus, to successfully rebuild everything after we win, we have to educate our youth now. Civil engineers, town planners, energy experts, but also cybersecurity specialists, developers, and wet scientists are those who will make a critical contribution to the country’s peace, development and stability by bringing their valuable knowledge and expertise.
5. Are there any female scientists who inspire you? Why are they so special?
I would not say that I have an idol, yet a lot of female scientists do inspire me because of their devotion and hard work.
One of those I would like to tell you about is Nana Voitenko. She has made significant contributions to our understanding of the neural mechanisms that underlie pain perception and the development of chronic pain. One of her research has focused on the role of specific ion channels in the development of pain, and she has discovered new targets for pain relief that can help humans to tackle chronic pain in different diseases. In addition to her brilliant scientific career, I admire her involvement in science popularisation. She has given numerous interviews, public lectures and workshops to promote STEM careers among youth and especially young girls.
I believe that great school teachers and university professors are those who motivate students to start their careers in science. I was lucky to have such professors at Kyiv Polytechnical University, where I studied before the full-scale invasion. One of them was PhD-student Olena Syroid, who had several lab classes with us. Being one the youngest at the faculty, she still remembered how it felt to be just starting her bachelor’s degree and moving to another city – so she was very supportive of any situation that might arise. Moreover, Olena tried to engage us with diverse science-related extracurricular activities. Once, during the pandemic lockdown, she organised a hybrid discussion about bioethics and biotechnology, where all students could participate and express their opinions. Moreover, I remember the first weeks of the Russian invasion, when everyone was scared and anxious about the uncertain future, so Olena with her friends organised a series of online lectures about diverse branches of science. My classmates were joining these lectures and discussions even from the bomb shelters and the occupied regions, as it gave some sense of routine and resembled more peaceful times.
There is one more woman who really inspires me – my mum. I was born into a family of university professors, who always supported my decisions and ideas regarding education and my future career. My mum started her first experiments when she was just a bachelor’s student and even now she does everything possible to develop Ukrainian science and promote it abroad. She has taken part in various fellowships in Europe and the US and has always been very open to new challenges. I think that perseverance and adventurism are what inspire and fascinate me the most, both in her and the two other women I told you about.
6. What advice would you give to girls who are considering entering STEM disciplines?
A great way to improve your own skills and get new acquaintances is to participate in conferences. For young researchers or those who are taking their first steps in science, I definitely recommend trying to apply to student conferences – it is much easier and usually cheaper to get accepted there, yet your work will still undergo a review process, so you can see how your study could be improved. What is more, you will present your work to your peers and senior judges – it is a stressful experience, though you will learn how to communicate your findings in front of a pretty diverse audience and join an active discussion. However, what is even more important, conferences usually gather dozens or even hundreds of like-minded people with similar values and goals, so you can network with them, exchange ideas for further projects and, probably, cooperate during your further research.
Secondly, if you are considering a career in science or technology, you should look for international summer schools or internships at universities. Usually, they accept bachelor’s and master’s students, who are willing to join some research teams and cooperate with them on some advanced research topic. For instance, I took part in an international Students Summer School in Torun a couple of times, and it was one of the most exceptional research opportunities I have ever had. Together with my supervisor, we investigated how hypoxia (the reduced level of oxygen) affects the development of breast cancer cells, as well as the influence of melanin (a special skin pigment) on melanoma cells. Such opportunities strengthen your skills and CV, but they also help you to learn a lot of new cultures and just have fun with students and researchers from all over the world!
And last but not least – be curious. Always.
The STEM path is not an easy one. Sometimes it can be daunting, repetitive, or frustrating. But it is never boring. So my advice is to live and breathe science from the very beginning and follow all your dreams.
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