Finding sense and science in a life with war

Mariana Kuznietsova fled Ukraine together with her 11-year-old son due to military aggression by Russia. 1 year and 3 months in Denmark was a chance to provide a secure surrounding for her son Stanislav and work with the thing she loves the most: science! At the end of June, she returns to Ukraine – what is next for her?

Mariana Kuznietsova in the lab at DANDRITE. Photo by DANDRITE.
Mariana Kuznietsova in the lab at DANDRITE. Photo by DANDRITE.

Article originally written by Rikke Skovgaard Lindhard and published at DANDRITE website:


” I remember this early morning on the 24th of February 2022, on a train traveling back home from a business trip, and we were very close to Kyiv when my colleague suddenly started crying and panicking because she just heard that Kyiv had been bombed.”

Mariana’s family is from Brovary, a little town just 10 km outside of Kyiv. When the war hit Ukraine, Mariana, and her family were forced to reconsider their life and safety. Her husband was banned from leaving the country, so Mariana saw no other way than to change the direction of her work life and exploit the scientific merits that she had left behind for many years.    

“The bright moments of my life”
Becoming a student at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, a leading university in Ukraine in 2007, Mariana accomplished a master’s, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Her studies were focused on diabetes mellitus and natural compounds of plants that possess antidiabetic activity.

“This period I define as the happy years of my life. I met my husband at the university and had my son. I was very good at studying, and I loved it,” Mariana explains with a smile.  

Although entangled in university life, she accepted a job in one of the biggest trading companies in Ukraine, which develops turn-key laboratory procedures and equipment, back in 2016 after finishing a Ph.D. Before Russia initiated a full-scale aggression against Ukraine Mariana had been working as section head of the Sample Preparation & Life Science Group in this company.

“I loved my workplace. Many of my colleagues have become my friends. We have always been a super team. But my work was not at all science-related; technical support, collaborations with suppliers, training of customers, and organization of their laboratories; it was management mostly. But I kept dreaming about science, and I was so jealous of my friends at the university,” she explains.

1 year quickly became 5 years when one day in February 2022 suddenly changed the lives of Mariana and her countrymen.  

Science became a way out
While finding a safe place to live in Ukraine, a friend of hers sent her a list from EMBO that listed fellowships for Ukrainian scientists at different Molecular Biology Labs across Europe.

“I opened the list and just like scrolling through it when I saw something with insulin receptors that had Poul Nissen’s name and email address. So, I just texted him, sent my application and he replied very soon, accepting my application, and I was so happy,” Mariana explains.

This was the beginning of a new life for Mariana and her 11-year-old son, who moved from Ukraine to Aarhus leaving her husband and family behind. To be safe, but most importantly, free.

“Now I will do what I like, no compromises anymore. I always dreamed of working in a lab and coming back into science. So, it is just like a gift from the universe.”

Thanks to Professor Poul Nissen and the Support Ukraine Initiative of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), Mariana was able to leave Ukraine together with her son and work as a visiting scientist in a group of Structural Neurobiology - Structural and Functional Studies of Membrane Proteins in Brain.

She used this time to restart the scientific career that she had left behind. It was a time for building new scientific networks, both with other Ukrainian nationals and with internationals.

From day one, she pushed herself, burying in work, studying, reading, and learning. For her, this stay at Aarhus University could provide her with an opportunity to use this experience and new knowledge in Ukraine for its prosperity. At the same time, Mariana feels blessed that her son is happy and thrives in school and that her family in Ukraine is safe.

Adapting to reality – and a new future
At the end of June, her 1-year AIAS fellowship is ending, and Mariana will return to her home in Ukraine, where her family will finally be united again. Knowing that the war is still a part of everyday life, Mariana is optimistic about the future and about going back, not least because she is now able to continue a life in science.

Thanks to her stay at DANDRITE and a visit to Novo Nordisk, Mariana will implement her plan to continue her career as a scientist in Kyiv.

“ My family and I have lost a year, and it was hard, but it is life, it’s reality. But on the other side, it also opened a new opportunity for me. I don’t dream of a supercar or anything like that, I realize that happiness is in everyday life if you get up and you are happy about going to work.”

  • Mariana is one of twelve AUFF – Ukraine research fellows, based on a supportive donation from the Aarhus University Research Foundation (AUFF) to the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS).
  • In collaboration with Postdoctoral Researcher of Poul Nissen Group Charlott Stock the study at Aarhus University was focused on insulin receptors and their coreceptor complexes using state-of-the-art tools of cryo-electron microscopy and cell biology.