Ukrainian scholar finds safety, ‘great scientific community’ at Purdue
Ukrainian citizen Yuliia Khoma describes her new life in Indiana as “beautiful,” and yet, certain memories haunt her—distinct moments burned in her memory from the most harrowing day of her life. Her voice cracks with emotion when she recalls the look in her son’s eyes when they fled their apartment in Kiev, and the terror of air raid alarms while trapped in traffic jams with no safe place to take cover as the city emptied.
Khoma is one of nine Ukrainian scholars that Purdue University invited to the West Lafayette campus to continue their studies when war erupted in their home country. Although “Indiana is like a second home” now for Khoma, her husband and son, her torn heart worries endlessly about the family and country she left behind.
“I remember the look in my son’s eyes as he wanted to take more of his toys from our apartment, but we only let him take his five favorite small-size ones, since we only could take the essentials in our car. It is very difficult to leave your home…when you don’t know if you’ll ever return there. For my son, it was very hard,” says Khoma. “When you understand that at any moment, a rocket can hit your house and you and your family can die, this is the scariest thing you can imagine.”
Khoma feared for their lives as they tried to drive out of Kiev amid air raid alarms, because “you don’t know when and where a rocket will fall.”
“In the car, I wrote on paper our names and the phone numbers of our relatives,” she says, “as we didn’t know if we’d be able to survive.”
Khoma’s family arrived safely at her parents’ home in west Ukraine and stayed there until Ukrainian forces defeated Russian troops, and they withdrew from Kiev. Khoma’s family returned to their Kiev apartment in April of 2022, and she attempted to continue her biological research to earn her PhD at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
“But with each air alarm, you feel stressed; it’s very difficult to concentrate and work because the Russians [shoot] missiles at civilian houses, education institutions, hospitals and others,” says Khoma. “It’s very difficult to feel safe…especially if you’re conducting research in the laboratory and understand, at any moment, you have to leave the lab due to danger.”
Her supervisor, who was a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Purdue 10 years ago, suggested Khoma take advantage of the school’s Ukrainian Scholars Initiative. The program, which launched in the spring of 2022, provides refuge in the U.S. so the scholars can continue their academic pursuits on Purdue’s campus during the ongoing Russian invasion. Nine Ukrainian scholars are now part of the Purdue program, which Indianapolis-based Heritage Group recently extended through the Spring 2024 semester with a $270,000 gift.
Khoma, her husband, and now eight year-old son arrived in West Lafayette last August. She’s hopeful she’ll complete her PhD at Purdue, where she’s continuing her research in the McAdam Lab, led by Purdue Assistant Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology Scott McAdam.
“At first, it was very difficult to change your life, but when you understand that you need to change…to keep your family safe, you can do it,” says Khoma. “This opportunity means a lot for me, and it’s a great honor to be a part of such a great scientific community. I believe this is a great opportunity for the exchange of knowledge…and I hope it will be mutually beneficial.”
The McAdam Lab, which studies the evolution of plant water use and drought tolerance, is an uncanny match to Khoma’s research interests. Khoma, previously in Ukraine and now at Purdue, has been investigating how factors like drought affect fast-growing poplar trees and willow trees.
“[The research] is very relevant. Given that global climate change leads to frequent drought, it’s very important to rate the response of plants to the effects of abiotic stresses in order to get consistently high productivity,” says Khoma. “I’ll be conducting physiological experiments to investigate the regulation of drought tolerance in trees, so we can [create] plants with resistance to drought.”
Khoma explains how studying a plant’s xylem can help scientists understand how to make plants more drought resistant.
Khoma says, on behalf of all the Ukrainian scholars, it’s difficult to find the words to adequately express her gratitude to Purdue, Heritage Group, the Lafayette community and a local church that helped them adjust to their new Hoosier home. She says even her son is “very excited and happy” and enjoys his local elementary school, where he’s in the third grade.
While the safety, comfort and opportunity at Purdue has been profound for the Khomas, Yuliia’s heart aches for her home country. On New Year’s Eve, Khoma says a Russian rocket landed about a quarter mile away from their Kiev apartment building.
“At all times, my mind is in Ukraine. I read news about Ukraine and all the time, I’m very worried about the people of Ukraine,” says Khoma. “The hardest part is I’m so missing Ukraine and my parents.”
And while Indiana has become the Khomas’ “second home,” her family looks forward to returning to Ukraine when the war is over.
“We believe in the Ukrainian victory. We are grateful to the USA and all countries for their support, and we continue to work for a better future in Ukraine,” says Khoma. “The support of Purdue provides opportunity for our scientists to not stop, but to continue their research to further apply this experience in Ukraine. It’s beautiful.”
Khoma says it’s difficult to find the words to adequately express her gratitude to Purdue and many others in the local community who have helped her family “love the USA.”