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These Ukrainian students are competing virtually in an international science fair


Updated May 9, 2022 at 12:12 PM ET

Sofiia Smovzh, Serhii Kolomiichuk and Dmytriy Omelyanov are 17-year-old high school students from Ukraine. They were participating in a national science fair in Kyiv on the morning that Russia began its assault on their country.

Kolomiichuk and Omelyanov are from Dnipro, in central Ukraine. On Feb. 24, as they heard explosions go off in Kyiv, they made the long journey home on a packed train.

"Since there was just a huge number of people, we had to sleep two people on the top bunk," Kolomiichuk tells Morning Edition. "People slept for 10 hours wherever they could — on the floor, in the vestibule and just sitting. Arriving home — constant air raid alerts awaited us."

Smovzh's family left Kyiv.

"My family moved to western part of Ukraine on the first day of the war," she says. "I have a small sister, and we didn't want her to listen to all the sounds of explosions."

Her mom and sister are now living in Spain. Her stepdad stayed behind in Ukraine and she herself now lives in France.

"The atmosphere in Ukraine when you sit and read the news — it's very hard to focus on studying, and that's why I moved to Paris," she explains.

Smovzh, Kolomiichuk and Omelyanov are now finalists in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Atlanta this week. There are 1750 finalists from around the world — many at the event in person for the first time in two years.

Kolomiichuk, Omelyanov and Smovzh are competing virtually.

Smovzh aims to find less-toxic treatments for cancer. Kolomiichuk and Omelyanov are working on a joint project that involves studying cockroaches.

"Cockroaches are carriers of many parasites," Omelyanov says. "People have long learned to deal with these insects with insecticides but they have already become a problem. We find nontoxic aromatic mixtures that can become a complete replacement for insecticides."

As they work under trying circumstances, Smovzh talks of what it means to be a finalist in ISEF.

"For me, it's more than just individual participation and winning something or not winning something," she says. "I study and prepare for ISEF to show that Ukraine is a strong and independent country and we are strong in every field, in science as well."

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.