Meeting Her Moment

How a woman engineer and researcher is helping fellow scholars in Ukraine, one family at a time.

By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

Iryna Zenyuk, Ph.D., is associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, University of California, Irvine, and associate director of UCI’s National Fuel Cell Research Center.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24, and by April, more than 4.5 million Ukrainians had fled their country, and over 6 million more had been displaced. Humanitarian aid has come from all corners of the world, with assistance for Ukrainian refugees flowing from many sources.

One of those sources is Iryna Zenyuk, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of California, Irvine, and associate director of UCI’s National Fuel Cell Research Center. For Dr. Zenyuk, the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine is personal. She was born in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk and has extended family in the war-torn country.

“When the Russian war happened on Ukraine, I felt powerless, seeing my people fighting, dying,” she said. “But it inspired me, to see how brave the Ukrainians were — and are still — taking arms and defending their territories. I knew I could be more helpful here in California, but what should I do?”

Dr. Zenyuk found a way, and a moment, to take action. “I am new to this humanitarian side of academia, but I thought that we as a leading public university could do something more.” She reached out to Jane O. Newman, Ph.D., professor of comparative literature at UCI, who had created a program for Afghan scholars and their families fleeing the Taliban.

“She’s been a wonderful role model and mentor,” Dr. Zenyuk said. “There are four Afghan families already on campus, and she showed me how to apply this model to Ukrainian scholars. I’m fortunate there was already an infrastructure in place for this kind of work.”

Dr. Zenyuk’s idea became UCI’s Ukraine Emergency Response Fund, which operates under the umbrella of Scholars at Risk, an international network that matches refugee scientists and their families with universities that can host them. Dr. Zenyuk is fundraising through crowdsourcing and through UCI’s internal offices, with a goal of $300,000 to be spent on hosting two to three families on campus.

“It’s doable,” Dr. Zenyuk said. “$100,000 must come from crowdsourcing, and another $150,000 must come from the deans and the provost and vice provost for research. We already have a commitment from six or seven deans now, and are waiting on more. Our crowdsourcing effort is at 53% of its $100K goal. We’ve already raised more than half of what’s needed and are looking to bring in a family. We’ve also approached the Scholar Rescue Fund, another program that can send us applications.”

Dr. Zenyuk’s fundraising took her to New York and Los Angeles, where the Ukrainian diaspora is strong. “There are about 1 million Ukrainians in New York, with an infrastructure of churches, banks, and organizations,” she said. “So I went to visit my mother and brother, and connected with the Shevchenko Scientific Society, which also aids refugee academics, and had a lot of useful information. And I joined in one of the protests in front of the United Nations building, which was quite rewarding.”

Continuing to coordinate efforts, Dr. Zenyuk also reached out in Orange County, and to other professors at UCI. “I’m trying to build a local Ukrainian network so when we bring these refugee families in, they have some kind of community to connect with,” she said.

Ukraine’s educational infrastructure has taken a major hit from Russian bombs, and while UCI’s efforts focus mostly on Ph.D.-level scholars, Dr. Zenyuk wants to expand it to include refugee graduate students.

“The largest cities under attack are also home to Ukraine’s best universities,” she said. “In Kharkiv, engineering is very prominent. The National Aerospace University’s Kharkiv Aviation Institute, which draws students from all over the world, was destroyed by shelling, and its graduate students have nothing to come back to after the war. It’s important to think about ways to bring them here.”

Dr. Zenyuk looks to programs developed by Arizona State University, which have brought many refugee Afghan students, scholars, and researchers to its campus, as a model. “Their program has been very successful, so we want to understand how we can do that here.”

“I believe renewable energy will enable more democratic distribution of energy resources — countries that have a lot of sunlight will have more economic power to export their energy. I’m looking forward to a time when we have solar, wind, and hydrogen and batteries — all as energy commodities.”

– Iryna Zenyuk, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, University of California, Irvine; associate director, UCI National Fuel Cell Research Center

War impacts climate change efforts

Dr. Zenyuk leads a 30-member team focused on hydrogen technologies; specifically, renewable energies. “We are looking to decarbonize all the sectors, transportation, industry, grid,” she said, noting the Paris Agreement’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, and explaining how war has thrown a wrench into that goal.

“Now there is a Russian war in Ukraine,” she said. “Europe relies on Russian natural gas. Germany has very aggressive targets toward decarbonization, but 55% of its natural gas comes from Russia. It has to consider resorting to burning coal, which has much worse emissions. So, we are not progressing — we are regressing.

“I feel we need to double down on investing in renewable energy, but at the same time, we in the U.S. need to help Europe bring in more liquefied natural gas to help it overcome an energy crisis. Going back to coal isn’t going to help anybody. As a renewable energy researcher, this situation is concerning, but there are also human lives at stake. I’m willing to compromise temporarily, to say it’s OK to export more natural gas, when normally I would never say that. But natural gas versus coal? It’s a no-brainer.”

Energy security for all is on Dr. Zenyuk’s mind and is a primary goal of her work. “I believe renewable energy will enable more democratic distribution of energy resources — countries that have a lot of sunlight will have more economic power to export their energy,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a time when we have solar, wind, and hydrogen and batteries — all as energy commodities.”

Staying strong, reaching out

As devastating reports from Ukraine continue, Dr. Zenyuk admits that the war has taken a personal toll in stress, lost focus, and lost sleep. While some of her family members escaped into Poland, others remain in western Ukraine. “My aunt and my family are in Kharkiv, so some of my family members are still sheltering in basements,” she said. “They are OK for now, but it’s been difficult. Still, I feel like you don’t have to be Ukrainian to be having a hard time with this. The war has affected so many people in so many ways.”

Dr. Zenyuk reflected on what she’s learned since the war began. “I think we need to be more mindful of the suffering of others,” she said. “I’ve been surprised at how many people have reached out with support — even just a few words — ‘I’m thinking of you.’ The engineering community, my whole department, the dean and administration have been quite wonderful. So supporting each other, not necessarily just Ukrainian Americans — but reaching out, checking on people and seeing what they need — being more sensitive and sensible in the situation is helpful.”

To track the Ukraine Emergency Response Fund’s progress toward its goal, visit https://zotfunder.give.uci.edu/project/31037.

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