June 1, 2022
Former VCU Humphrey fellow in Ukraine gets assistance from university community
The goal is to raise $100,000 to purchase equipment that could be lifesaving in the case of possible nuclear, biological or chemical warfare.
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As war broke out in Ukraine in February, Leslie Lytle and Heather Ashton were in Richmond thinking of their Ukrainian colleague, Oleg Lukyanovych, M.D.
Lukyanovych, a 2019-20 participant in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a citizen of Vinnytsia, a region 161 miles southwest from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. He formerly worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist and is now the head of health communication and advocacy for the Vinnytsia Regional Center for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine.
Remembering the relationships they built with Lukyanovych as a fellow, Ashton, an assistant coordinator for the fellowship program, and Lytle, a 1987 undergraduate and 1999 graduate alum of VCU, wanted to help him. Lytle met Lukyanovych when she sought assistance from VCU for data analysis; they were both participants in an early maternal health task force in Richmond.
“During that time, he made quite an impression on everyone he met,” Ashton said. “He is a very amazing person and so genuine. He has a really big heart and is an incredible person.”
Many people at VCU and in the community also reached out to Lytle asking how they could help Lukyanovych. As a result, Ashton and Lytle joined the nonprofit organization Lift Up Ukraine, co-founded by a VCU Police officer. They’re leading Project Vinnytsia to raise $100,000 for a gas chromatograph and compatible computers.
The printer-sized device analyzes water, air, soil and food samples for chemical and physical contaminants, including those released by warfare. Lukyanovych said to identify various microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi and yeast, his office needs a microbial analyzer, not just a microscope.
“Right now we’re in the early stages of mobilizing to get the equipment there. … The electrical systems in Europe are different than the U.S., so the equipment needs to be formatted for that,” Lytle said. “Hope is an action. We’re not sitting back and waiting for something to happen. We're actively trying to leverage our networks.”
In a recent Zoom interview from Vinnytsia, Lukyanovych said he originally wanted upgraded computers for staff since current models are outdated by decades. Some are still loaded with Windows 98 operating systems.
His focus shifted to the gas chromatograph, and updated computers, after speaking with a supervisor about department essentials.
“We need the lab equipment because the main goal of my organization is the lab analysis of everything,” Lukyanovych said. “This problem may be solved by budgeting by the state, [but] we have a war and all of the money goes to defense and military needs.”
He said Vinnytsia is a producer for the nation’s food supply, a food supplier for Ukrainian defense forces on the front lines and now home to more than 170,000 refugees on top of the regular population of 1.6 million. The influx is turning into a humanitarian crisis, with concerns about drinking water and the ongoing concern about nuclear, biological or chemical warfare.
Attacks leading to the destruction of agricultural storage facilities, and the chemicals they house, could have a major impact on the environment. He said controlling exposure is dependent on modern equipment.
“We need quality of analysis and speed. Our lab right now is using microscopes, but it takes too long of a time and it depends on the human factor,” Lukyanovych said. “In case of attack, we need to do these analyses quickly because we need to understand what kind of danger we face.”
Since fundraising efforts started in early May, Ashton and Lytle have raised approximately $2,000. While their initial efforts have been on social media, they are reaching out to everyone they know for support.
“From a public health perspective, when we think of a crisis, it’s the ability to quickly respond to an emergency that can potentially save thousands of lives,” Lytle said. New technology will help officials in Vinnytsia respond quickly, which could mean life or death for many people, she said.
“People want to donate food, clothes, et cetera and buying this huge piece of equipment doesn’t pull at the heart strings as much and we’re trying to figure out how to tap our own networks, and people Oleg knew, and figure out how to get the story out.”
The VCU Humphrey Fellowship Program, in the university’s Department of Psychology, is a Fulbright exchange program for foreign professionals. Students focus on a broad range of health problems as part of their curriculum.
Lukyanovych reflected on his year as a Humphrey fellow, when he focused on health policy and management for two semesters.
“It was not only an academic program, but it was for my professional development. It was a program that changed my cultural experiences,” he said. “After two years of being outside the United States, I still feel like I’m a part of VCU. We don’t have, in Ukraine, such feelings. [We’re] not so close to universities; maybe it’s something American that they bring from the United States because I still feel like I’m a part of VCU.”
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