Ukrainian Researcher Spotlight: Yulia Komburlei

“There was one question; what should I do after this project? Because I couldn’t get back home. My town is occupied now, and I couldn’t do anything. I just had to find a possibility to stay here, to continue my project.”

In February 2022, Yuliia Komburlei was ecstatic over the news that she was awarded an opportunity through the Mitacs Globalink Internship Program to do research with Dr. Brendan Leung, Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Oral Sciences and School of Biomedical Engineering at Dalhousie University. One week later, war began in her home country, Ukraine.

“I was really excited; I was really happy. But then, when war started, I thought, I will not come to Nova Scotia, I will not do this project,” says Yuliia.

Ultimately, Yuliia’s mother decided that going to Nova Scotia for research experience was the best thing Yuliia could do.

Yuliia arrived in Nova Scotia in May 2022 to begin her work with Dr. Leung. Their research observes how obesity affects blood cell development. The results could have implications for various future health research and practices.

At the end of the Mitacs Globalink Internship Program, Yuliia was eligible for a Mitacs Globalink Research Award which would allow her to stay in Nova Scotia to continue her research. However, this award required match funding.

Yuliia and Dr. Leung were informed of Research Nova Scotia’s Ukrainian Emergency Research Support Fund and contacted Research Nova Scotia to inquire if Yuliia would be eligible for match funding.

“This fund was created to provide flexible support for student researchers, like Yuliia, who have relocated to Canada during the Russian invasion,” says Stefan Leslie, CEO of Research Nova Scotia. “We were proud to play a small role in helping Yuliia stay in Nova Scotia and continue her research.”

Research Nova Scotia supports Ukrainian students and researchers relocating to Nova Scotia as part of its commitment to equitable, safe, and inclusive research in the province.

Without the emergency funding, Yuliia was determined to find another way to stay connected to her research, such as finding a job, but she knew from experience how challenging it is to balance those things.

“I know that it’s time for studying, for my education, and this fund has really helped me,” explains Yuliia. “I can continue what I should do, what I am supposed to do in Ukraine. All the students in my age, my classmates or students who have been studying high school and secondary school, they will restore my country.”

Yuliia has been working with Dr. Leung to study hypoxic fat, which is something everyone develops at some point in time. Hypoxic fat is not well fed by blood vessels. Extreme buildup of hypoxic fat can cause health issues such as metabolic diseases and cancer. Dr. Leung explains that we have known for a long time that obesity and health concerns are connected, but we do not know exactly how.

“This program really helps her being here and helps make the connections,” says Dr. Leung. “This is leading to an opportunity, a connection for her to do her master’s here.”

Yuliia’s current research with hypoxic fat and blood cell development has implications in cancer progression. Her master’s will be focused on pancreatic cancer research and be co-supervised by Dr. Leung and Dr. Jeanette Boudreau in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at Dalhousie University

Dr. Leung describes Yuliia as driven, enthusiastic, insightful, and “overall a great positive influence at the lab.” He is excited to continue working with Yuliia and staying connected with her beyond her master’s.

The Ukrainian Emergency Research Support Program offers immediate research support funding for Ukrainian students and researchers who are relocating to Canada, either temporarily or permanently, as a result of the Russian invasion. Learn more.

Story update: Yuliia has received additional funding to complete her master’s studies at Dalhousie. Under the supervision of Dr. Leung, Yuliia will conduct research to understand the role of adipose tissue hypoxia in ovarian cancer growth and chemoresistance using an in vitro T-SLICE model.

It is not well known if hypoxic fat tissue can contribute to the ability of cancer cells to resist chemotherapy. Yuliia hopes to fill this knowledge gap.

Using a fully imageable platform developed in their lab, called T-SLICE, they will recreate the hypoxic environment of fat tissues and tumours. They will study the role of fat tissue hypoxia in the development of tumours and their responsiveness to treatments.

This research can help inform more effective development of current therapies and develop new strategies to defeat chemotherapy-resistant tumours.

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