World leading mathematician is dreaming of a bright future for Ukrainian science

25 Aug 2022 | News

Last month, Maryna Viazovska became the second woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal. As war in her country rages on, the Switzerland-based mathematician reflects on the need to support and preserve science in Ukraine

Maryna Viazovska, Ukrainian mathematician. Photo: EPFL, Fred Merz.

On 5 July, Ukraine-born Maryna Viazovska became only the second woman in its 86-year history to be awarded the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Here, she talks to Science|Business about her career and her views on how to keep Ukrainian science going as Russia continues to wage war on her native country.

Born in Kyiv in 1984, Viazovska was six when Ukraine gained its independence from the USSR on 24 August 1991. Over the thirty one years since, science has not been at the top of the agenda. While the country has an abundance of talent, deep traditions and some excellent research structures, there were many structural problems to deal with.

For Viazovska, the lack of focus on building Ukraine’s scientific capabilities has been a mistake. “If we look at this over the years, we have lost a lot of potential that we could have had otherwise,” she says.  

She herself took a liking to mathematics at an early age, and received suitable encouragement, taking part in national and international competitions and attending a specialist school, before enrolling in a bachelor’s degree programme at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

After graduating, Viazovska moved to Germany, completing a master’s degree at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern in 2007, and later a PhD on modular forms at the University of Bonn.

Viazovska went to Germany by chance, on the advice of a teacher, but the transition from Ukraine to Germany was positive. She found the German academic environment more open, with more knowledge sharing between different institutions than in Ukraine, where academics tend to work in the same institution for years. Keeping motivated was also easier, as her fellow students in Germany had more freedom to focus on studies rather looking for jobs, as was the case in Ukraine.

During her postdoc at the Berlin Mathematical School and the Humboldt University of Berlin, Viazovska took on and solved the sphere-packing problem – literally the best way to pack equal-sized rigid spheres. Previously, the problem had been solved for only for up to three dimensions. Viazovska solved it in 8 and 24 dimensions, winning the Fields Medal in recognition of her breakthrough.

In 2017, Viazovska moved to EPFL in Lausanne, becoming professor of number theory in 2018.

Saving Ukrainian science

In some respects, Viazovska’s experience as a Ukrainian whose career took off elsewhere in Europe can be seen as a reflection of the state of the country’s science and higher education system. There is talent and a willingness to engage with science, but opportunities seem to knock elsewhere.

If the science and higher education system was underpowered before the war, it is now in a much more parlous condition, as men are called up to fight, refugees flee, buildings are destroyed, and the country’s resources are eaten up by the war effort. In the face of this, Viazovska hopes science will continue to be supported. “Having one big problem does not cancel all others,” she says. Science is “something we do for the future”, and “if we don’t do it, we won’t progress.”

A few weeks ago, Viazovska visited Kyiv for the first time since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion. While she’s been remotely supporting family and friends back in Ukraine, visiting the city made her realise the huge psychological burden the war brings. “It’s something that people can’t feel outside. It’s a cloud hanging over the heads of all people. I know I have tomorrow and next year, but there, people don’t have this certainty,” she said.

In Ukrainian cities, science infrastructures have been badly damaged and destroyed. Some scientists have taken up arms. Many others, especially women, who were allowed to leave the country, have fled.

Kharkiv, the second biggest city, and a huge scientific centre near the frontline of the war, is a major concern. Among science infrastructures, Viazovska points to an active nuclear physics station that was recently subjected to direct physical threat. As a mathematician she needs few resources, other than access to literature, links with other scientists and the right state of mind to work, and feels for her colleagues in applied sciences who have lost access to laboratories and equipment.

Viazovska believes salvation for Ukraine’s science is now largely in the hands of organisations beyond its borders. “Ukrainian science and education are in a very difficult situation right now, and I hope the collaboration with European countries could be this saving [grace] which keeps them floating,” she tells Science|Business.

As an academic who’s been living abroad for over 15 years, Viazovska does not pretend to be an expert on exactly what help and support Ukraine’s scientists need right now, but suggests money and the ability to carry on with research are crucial.

For some, the hardest task is focusing on their work. During her visit to Kyiv, Viazovska spoke to university professors about the day-to-day experience of living in a country under siege. They talked of finding it difficult to keep their students motivated; of the pressures of dealing with the burden of the situation in the country, and with online teaching, as many university buildings are unavailable or unsafe, adding further complications.

Looking to the future

At a few months short of her 38th birthday, Viazovska has already had a brilliant and successful career. In the future, she hopes to see more women mathematicians recognised for their work. There are many exciting, up-and-coming mathematicians that could do it. Perhaps some of them will be Ukrainian, she says.

After six months of war, preserving and nurturing this potential underlines how important it is to keep an eye on future. “I think in these difficult times it is important for people to have some kind of dream and have future plans - even though they are uncertain and there is an existential threat to everyone,” says Viazovska.

Science, by definition looks to better the future, and that’s why it’s especially important to think about it, no matter how difficult the times are.

In the thick of war, the dream is of a future as an independent European state, and Viazovska hopes this will encompass science. “I hope that in the process of integration, there will also be an integration of scientific systems,” she says.

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