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I fled Russia’s bombs in Ukraine, now I’m in Sweden researching a cure for infertility. This is my story.

Ukrainian scientist Nataliia Petryk ran a fertility clinic in Ukraine before Russia attacked.

Ukrainian scientist Nataliia Petryk ran a fertility clinic in Ukraine before Russia attacked. Image: Erik Flyg

Nataliia Petryk
Postdoctoral Researcher, Karolinska Institutet
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Ukraine

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Nataliia Petryk ran a private clinic in Kyiv and helped countless women give birth to healthy babies before being forced to flee the country when Russia invaded.
  • Following a call by the European Research Council for EU teams to take in Ukrainian scientists, she is now working in Sweden to find a cure to chronic inflammation that can cause infertility and cancer.
  • The world now knows how heroic Ukrainians are — Dr. Petryk wants to remind us that they are not just fighters, but scientists, doctors and innovators, too.

Like many others, I was forced to flee Kyiv with our two children when Russia invaded Ukraine. We were no longer safe, and our stable and fulfilling lives had taken a dramatic turn — one that we could not have imagined even days before the bombing started on 24 February last year.

When our youngest son, a happy and lively ten-year-old, saw the explosions with his own eyes, he changed completely. He could no longer sleep at night, worried that we would die.

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Fleeing Ukraine

The day after the invasion, we took our passports and backpacks, spontaneously leaving for the western part of Ukraine, only to find that bomb sirens went off there too. We continued by car towards Poland, but long queues at the border held us back. We drove towards Romania, where we crossed the border on foot. My husband returned to Kyiv to do his duty as a medical doctor, while I took a bus with the boys to Italy where we stayed with a childhood friend.

Once there, I searched the internet to plan a new life in a new country.

Just days after the start of the war, the EU funding body, the European Research Council (ERC), had taken action and appealed to its grantees across Europe to open up their teams to Ukrainian researchers seeking refuge.

Niklas Björkström was one of the many who responded at once to that call. His cutting-edge medical research at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm is backed by a large ERC grant. After my search, and thanks to his tremendous help, I was offered a job as a postdoctoral researcher in his group and I settled with our boys in Stockholm. With my background in medicine, it was a perfect match. Niklas Björkström’s group studies human natural killer cells — a part of our immune system important in cancer, infections and pregnancy.

Ukrainian expertise in a Swedish team

I am a gynaecologist and surgeon by training, but my interest in science also took me to the field of chronic inflammation, which can not only lead to cancer, but also infertility and miscarriage.

Targeted treatments for these conditions are in high demand, so I completed a PhD in 2021 at the pathology department at Kharkiv National Medical University — a top Ukrainian institution just miles from the Ukraine’s border with Russia. My work was published in three international journals, my husband and I ran a private clinic in Kyiv where we provided world-class medical care and we mainly focused on female infertility.

Over the course of my career in Kyiv — cut short by Russia’s invasion — we provided many women, both Ukrainians and those who had travelled from abroad, with a new shot at motherhood using an innovative medical technique that allowed women with ovarian failure to give birth to healthy babies from their own eggs.

In the darkness of war, work with the Karolinska Institutet gave me back a sense of purpose. I develop new techniques and take part in high-tech programmes that I plan to use later in Ukraine to provide better treatment to patients in our clinic — there will, no doubt, be demand.

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The crisis, despite its horrors, has provided me with a unique opportunity to advance my research. With my specialised medical knowledge, I’m now helping Niklas Björkström’s team develop new treatments and cover new ground in our research.

My boys, aged ten and fifteen, were traumatised. Living in Sweden was hard in the beginning. It was a new country, but now they love the educational culture and methods, and they have made friends. They are happy here and I am being useful — even if the tragic situation in my country is always on my mind.

Looking back, I had to take the leap without planning and start a new life abroad, but above all, I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a wonderful research team. It is heartening to see that even a smaller initiative — in this case, matchmaking between the ERC‘s top researchers and refugee scientists — can change the course of people’s lives, giving them a future. Europe and its research community reached out to help, and a number of those who had fled responded to the call. This has resulted in a win-win situation. I hope this can inspire others to reach out to their communities.

The future of Ukraine and Ukrainians

I also hope that soon I will be able to bring back this experience and knowledge to Ukraine, and help to rebuild the Ukrainian scientific community.

The world now knows that Ukraine is strong — we are defending ourselves.

But, on top of that, the world must understand that Ukraine has brain power too, and can stand its ground also with science, technology and education. We are ambitious, intelligent and are willing and able to contribute to cutting-edge scientific, technological and social developments. My experience at the Karolinska Institutet is evidence of this.

My experience also highlights that, even in the fragmented world we live in today, science knows no borders.

I have seen firsthand how scientific cooperation promotes understanding and exchange amongst people in the midst of geopolitical turmoil. It gives hope and strength. By collaborating, researchers can take science to new heights — vital for the future for Europe and beyond.

Such collaborations in the long-run benefit people worldwide, not least in the medical field wherever the research was done. We must remember this also these days when Russia’s bombs continue to fall on my country.

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