'I came with $6': how a Ukrainian achieved the title of one of the most promising US scientists


Vasily Lyubchenko – a famous American chemist with Ukrainian roots, and besides, he is an actor of the Russian Drama Theater. He told Our Texas the story of his success and how he manages to combine the serious work of a scientist and his favorite activities that bring pleasure.

“The professor of chemistry at UH (University of Houston) is one of the rising stars of American science,” the University of Houston magazine wrote about him in 2008. Then Vasily Lyubchenko, among 16 others, was awarded by The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation and awarded the title of one of the most promising young scientists in the United States for research in the field of electrical properties of amorphous materials.

For those in Houston who know Vasily by participating in the productions of the Russian Drama Theater, it is probably difficult to imagine that this unusually light and sociable person with a great sense of humor and musical talent is a very serious chemist.

Vasily Lyubchenko graduated from the Kiev branch of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. After receiving a bachelor's degree in Moscow, he studied for a master's degree in Kyiv. In 1992, when things in Kyiv, as elsewhere, were bad, and many of his friends began to enroll in graduate schools in American universities, Vasily also had a chance.

“One of my friends, Felix Scheinerman, went to Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school. This university is just known for its chemical engineering and robotics. According to legend, my friend was asked there: “Felix, do you know someone as good as you?” And he immediately advised me. Thus, in November 1993, an invitation was sent to me from this university”, – Lyubchenko says.

Vasily said that he learned English, passed the entrance exams, and was taken to study – at a somewhat unusual time, in January, and not in August. An unexpected turn was also that instead of physics, he entered the Faculty of Chemistry.

“I came to America with $6 in my pocket. My exams were funded, I was given $200 for a flight from New York to Pittsburgh and a taxi, after all there were only six left – this is how my immigrant story began, – Vasily told.

Chemistry as a science in the USA is a broader discipline than in the countries of the former USSR. It includes not only synthetic chemistry, but also physical chemistry plus spectroscopy. The process of studying at universities is the same as in any master's program: you listen to courses and start writing a scientific paper on it.

'Arrived with $6': how a Ukrainian achieved the title of one of the most promising US scientists

Photo: University of Houston ( uh.edu)

After a year and a half at Carnegie Melon, Vasily transferred to the university, which is considered one of the best in chemistry in the United States – in Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) to Professor Peter Wolines.

“Peter's last name was actually” Volynets” – his grandparents were from Belarus. With him, we worked on a very complex project, which progressed extremely slowly. Once Peter went to Washington “on a sabbatical” and I decided to learn to play the piano”, – the guy remembers.

Vasily admitted that he always loved music and dreamed of playing the piano. He liked “the feeling of having an orchestra in your hands”. At the music school, he played the accordion, and already studying at the institute, he played the old piano, lessons on which, due to moving to the USA, had to be postponed. And only feeling a certain freedom of action, he decided to return to the piano.

“I went to the music department and began to demand the keys to the rehearsal room. “Not so fast, young man, they told me. – You should at least get into the elective””, – says Lyubchenko.

On the course “Music 170” all students of non-musical faculties who wished to study music were provided with an assistant teacher – for half an hour a week and a “cherished” key.

“I started with “Intermezzo” Johannes Brahms, but in the first year he decided to learn Sergei Prokofiev's Third Sonata. Soon I wanted more, and I wanted to study with a professor, not with an assistant. I had to play the audition again. I learned one of Alexander Scriabin's early preludes and the slow movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Seventh Sonata. There were two old men on the commission – the first head of the department and the second, as I later found out, a world-class expert on Beethoven, Kenneth Drake. He, after I played, said: “And you have a dark Russian soul” – and invited me to his class. Subsequently, introducing me to his fellow musicians, Drake said: “This is Vasily, he is playing opus 109” (Beethoven Sonata No.30, Op.109). At first I studied with him for half an hour a week, and then in the evenings at his house, where I rode a bicycle for two years in any weather, ” & # 8211; the guy remembers.

But scientific activity required more and more time, so music lessons had to be postponed again. “Peter Wolines meanwhile moved to San Diego and took his student with him. “Even though I “physically” moved there, but did not finally transfer from Urbana, so he defended himself and received his degree there. My work was devoted to explaining the anomalous properties of amorphous materials and was officially called “Low-temperature anomalies of amorphous bodies”. Then I went to Boston in 2003 to complete my postdoctoral fellowship at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There I also passed the audition for the Faculty of Music, received the keys to the rehearsal room and successfully continued to play the piano”, – said Lyubchenko.

After spending 2 years in Boston, Vasily began to apply for positions in various universities – with the help of ads in professional scientific journals. As a result, he was made an offer at the University of Houston, where he arrived in 2005, starting teaching.

The structure of each top-level university involves the writing of scientific papers by teachers. Unlike most universities in the former USSR, where professors are primarily teaching and very rarely involved in science, the American model combines theory and practice.

Vasily Lyubchenko is one of those who are engaged in science and teaches physical chemistry to undergraduate and graduate students – chemists and biologists, which he calls “the science of cooking.” Over the years, he has written about 40 scientific articles and monographs, fragments of which he uses in his lectures.

Vasily admitted that teaching helps him in his scientific work: “Even Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain something to your grandmother, you don’t understand it yourself”». Keeping all this in mind, I try to explain very complex and important things to students in simple terms, I try to joke, make analogies with life situations. Nevertheless, students of chemistry consider my course to be perhaps the most difficult.”

Vasily Lyubchenko published an article in the Nature Communication journal, which summed up a very long work on the study of one of the genetic diseases.

Vasily told the story of writing this article: “It all started in 2006, when my colleague, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Petr Vekilov, a Bulgarian scientist who graduated from Moscow University, spoke about the result of his experiment. With the help of special powerful microscopes, he saw small droplets in protein solutions – less than a micron in size (this is just a little less than the size that can be seen in the best optical microscope). These droplets are literally 100 times larger than a protein molecule.

The way Vasily explains their joint discovery with Pyotr Vekilov shows that even in such a science as chemistry there is a place for poetry: “It turns out that 2 protein molecules seem to “dance the tango”. Molecules, temporarily forming a complex with another molecule, behave in exactly the same way as dancers at a milonga (tango party) – when you dance 3-4 compositions with one partner, and then sit down and look for the other with the eyes. This is not a joke and not a trivial comparison. We cannot compare these “relationships” with marriage, when two people are united for a long time or forever, and even multiply. Here, the particles “danced” and dispersed. The “dance” of the molecules lasts on the order of a millisecond. It is these temporary compounds that allow droplets to form. But these droplets cannot exist for a long time. Some fall apart and new ones are formed. As a result, some droplets are always present. The “transit” nature of this phenomenon is akin to many life processes: people are born and die, but still a certain number of people live, although no one is eternal. These droplets are still the same protein solution, but in a higher concentration.

After the article was published, the University of Houston foreign relations specialists made it more popular by publishing it on the Internet, which attracted several million readers. Why are people so interested? It turns out that other things can grow out of these droplets of a denser liquid, such as a protein crystal or fibers that grow from hemoglobin proteins in a disease called sickle cell anemia.

“Sickle anemia” was the first disease recognized as genetic in the 1930s. People who are susceptible to “sickle anemia” have historically lived in humid and hot climates where malaria is common – mostly in Africa and Asia. With this disease, blood cannot pass through narrow vessels, a person lives with a feeling of constant, terrible pain.

Inside the diseased cells, these same “fibers” grow – very rigid, distorting the outlines of the cell. If a person has inherited a certain gene defect from both his father and mother, he will have a protein in his body that “likes” to make such fibers. If a person inherits the “bad” gene of only one of the parents, then this is what saves him from malaria. There are a lot of people with this mutation.

The results obtained by Petr Vekilov and Vasily Lyubchenko have clinical implications. “The most important thing is that now the mechanism of fiber formation from protein is fully known. With our article, we added the missing link to the study of this disease by finding out the underlying causes of the origin of fibers from protein droplets. Now it is clear that in order to prevent the formation of fibers, it is necessary to prevent the formation of these droplets. This does not mean that a cure for this disease will appear in the near future, however, it can be made based on our information,” Vasily comments.

For a person who is closely engaged in professional work, especially science, I need something for my soul. For Vasily Lyubchenko, in addition to playing the piano, this is participation in theatrical productions and Argentine tango.

“I played my first theatrical role in the 9th grade, at a skit, after graduating from the Republican Physics Olympiad. We had only guys in the team, and according to the script, one of the characters was a secretary, she was assigned to play me. Already in Houston, Baba Yaga from the play “The Tale of Fedot the Archer” was added to my “female” roles, which became, perhaps, my most famous role. In the play “Strong Feeling” I played a young dude. He also performed several roles in the children's theater – in the fairy tale “Twelve Months” I played the Professor, twice I was Santa Claus at matinees in the Russian Center – and this despite the complete absence of “texture”. The last role – The Distracted Man from Basseinaya Street – this is really my role, because I am very similar to this character, & # 8211; says Lyubchenko.

“I have always loved tango music. Who does not remember the dance of the Wolf and the Hare on ice under “La Cumparcita” in the cartoon “Just you wait!”? I loved this cartoon for this music. Also, one of the pieces that I played at the music school in the accordion exam was the famous “El Choclo” (popularly known as “A pub opened on Deribasovskaya”).

I like tango music because it creates a certain atmosphere. As for dancing, in order to dance well, you must forget about everything, give yourself completely to this dance, relax physically and enjoy the music and contact with your partner. It turns out that two people who are engaged in different things form one thing in the dance. Just like in chemistry, actually. This is great!” , – shares Vasily.


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