Nataliia Pinchuk: Hopeful academic through times of uncertainty

The Knowledge Foundation met with Nataliia Pinchuk and discussed research, adapting to Swedish culture, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. She is a researcher whose expertise in wear-resistant PVD coatings not only advance the field of materials science but also showcase the resilience and contribution of Ukrainian scholars in the global academic community. In 2022, Nataliia was one of the beneficiaries of the Knowledge Foundation’s special call for visiting academic scholars from Ukraine—a response to Russia’s invasion, aiming to provide a safe haven and continuity for Ukrainian scholars. Recently, she received yet another grant from the Knowledge Foundation, through the Prospekt program.

Safety in a world of conflict

The special call for proposals by the Knowledge Foundation provided an opportunity for Ukrainian scholars like Nataliia to relocate and integrate into Swedish academic institutions. The initiative supported PhD students and established academics and allowed them to continue their research for periods ranging from three months to three years. It also underscores the vital role that research and higher education play in sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom during crises. The program ran during 2022 and brought six Ukrainian scholars to Sweden providing 12.1 MSEK in funding from the Knowledge Foundation.

Nataliia’s journey from the Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine to Karlstad University is an example of the dramatic shift many Ukrainian scholars had to endure. Despite the uncertainty, she found her place thanks to the welcoming environment at Karlstad University and the collaboration with Swedish industries such as Seco Tools AB.

Nataliia Pinchuk and quote. "International support and solidarity in academia play a crucial role in fostering cooperation, knowledge sharing and mutual understanding."

The Knowledge Foundation interviewed Nataliia to hear more about her experience: 

When did you hear about the Knowledge Foundation’s special call for Ukrainian scholars? What were your initial thoughts and feelings? How did this opportunity influence your decision to continue your academic pursuits during such a challenging time?

“I first heard about the Knowledge Foundation’s special call for Ukrainian scholars from my colleague Mykola Tkachuk. At that time, he had already received a funding decision for a project. I was with my family in the territory of Ukraine in the conditions of the ongoing conflict and tried to continue the development of science remotely at the National Technical University ‘Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute’. For me, it could become a beacon of hope in a difficult and uncertain time. The ability to continue to develop despite the conflict may have been perceived as a lifeline, offering a chance to maintain normality and contribute to knowledge despite the difficulties.”

Nataliia goes on to describe how the initiative provided her with a sense of validation and support for her scientific efforts during a period of turmoil. Knowing that her work was valued by the international academic community became a source of inspiration for her.

”During the preliminary discussion of the future project, I met Prof. Pavel Krakhmalev, who is the manager of the current project. He showed interest in my scientific work. Perhaps this served as a motivation to persevere in my development as a scientist and continue my research despite the difficult circumstances, knowing that my work is valued and supported by the international academic community.”

Adapting to Sweden

Adapting to a new country and culture poses significant challenges even under normal circumstances. Nataliia’s story highlights the emotional and professional adjustments she had to make. The support from her family, combined with the inclusive policies and resources offered by Karlstad University, such as language courses and cultural integration seminars, helped her navigate these changes

“There is no doubt that moving to a new country, especially during a crisis, presents numerous challenges, both emotional and professional. I am very glad that my husband and daughter were by my side and supported the idea of moving to another country. There were almost no problems in communicating with local residents, because knowing English gives many opportunities and opens many doors. Emotionally adapting to a new environment can be extremely difficult. In the beginning, I felt a sense of isolation, uncertainty and even homesickness. But building a support network through friends, family, work colleagues, and the resources of the local Karlstad community provided a sense of belonging and comfort during this difficult time. Today, learning Swedish brings joy and relaxation. Meeting with our friends also contributes to emotional well-being.”

Nataliia reflects on the challenges she faced while adapting to the new professional environment in Sweden. She notes that navigating the work culture required adjustment. The assistance she received from colleagues and mentors who were well-acquainted with the local professional norms has helped her through it. She credits her ability to keep an open mind and embrace new methods of working as key factors that eased the transition into a new professional environment.

How has the funding and support from the Knowledge Foundation enabled you to maintain continuity in your research and academic work? Are there specific resources or support systems at Karlstad University that have been particularly helpful?

“The funding from the Knowledge Foundation has enabled me to maintain continuity in my research and academic work, especially during challenging times. This support has allowed me to pursue my scholarly endeavours with a greater sense of stability and confidence. Moreover, the support at Karlstad University has played a pivotal role in facilitating my academic journey. The university’s research infrastructure, including state-of-the-art laboratories, libraries, and academic networks, are valuable resources and collaborative opportunities to enhance my research endeavours. Additionally, the guidance and mentorship from faculty members and research supervisors have been invaluable in navigating the academic landscape, refining research methodologies, and overcoming challenges along the way.”

Exploring Swedish culture

When we ask what she has done to become part of Swedish society and Karlstad University, Nataliia mentions the importance of her involvement with Karlstad University’s faculty activities. She has participated in academic and social events, which allowed her to connect with colleagues and create a sense of belonging. Even simple social invitations played a crucial role in welcoming her. In addition, Karlstad University´s orientation programs and language courses were very important.

Aside from the formal integration activities, Nataliia has been exploring Sweden’s nature and culture.

”Outside of university, efforts to integrate into the wider society included immersion in Swedish culture and society. This includes learning the language, getting to know local customs and traditions. In our free time, we try to travel with our family. Traveling in Sweden is a pleasure! The surrounding nature inspires, reloads and helps restore lost resources.”

Nataliia recently received further funding from the Knowledge Foundation through the Prospekt program, and her future at Karlstad University looks promising. The continued financial backing enables her to maintain her research momentum and continue to integrate into Swedish academia. The project will not only enhance her professional development but will also strengthen the ties between the academic and industrial sectors in Sweden, paving the way for future collaborative innovations.

“This is a significant milestone that will undoubtedly have a profound impact on my future research. For me, moreover, the recognition and validation that comes with receiving funding from such a prestigious organization twice will increase the visibility and credibility of my research within the academic community and beyond.”

International solidarity in academia

Reflecting on her experiences, Nataliia stresses the importance of international support and solidarity in academia, particularly during geopolitical crises, such as the war in Ukraine. Such support has had an impact on her personal academic journey and reaffirmed the value of global academic cooperation in advancing scientific knowledge. 

“Some of my colleagues from Ukraine also received funding for projects in the European scientific community. This shows that today scientists unite to solve common problems and achieve common goals. Such support has become very important for me. My own experience in the global academic community has once again confirmed the importance of international support and solidarity. Interacting with colleagues from different parts of the world has broadened my horizons, enriched my research and strengthened my commitment to collaboration and cross-border cooperation. This support can take many forms, including joint research projects, academic exchanges and funding opportunities.”