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

Vasily Lyubchenko is a famous American chemist with Ukrainian roots, and in addition he is an actor of the Russian Drama Theater. He told the publication 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.

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

For those in Houston who know Vasily from participating in the productions of the Russian Drama Theater, it is probably hard to imagine that this unusually light and companionable person with a great sense of humor and musical talent is a very serious scientist-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 at the magistracy in Kiev. In 1992, when things in Kiev, like everywhere, were bad, and many of his friends began to go to graduate school at American universities, Vasily also had a chance.

“One of my friends, Felix Scheinerman, entered Carnegie Mellon University for graduate school. This university is 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, I was sent an invitation from this university, ”says Lyubchenko.

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Basil said that he learned English, passed the entrance exams, and he was accepted for training - 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 dollars in my pocket. My exams were paid for by funds, for a flight from New York to Pittsburgh and a taxi, I was given $ 200, after all there were only six left - this is how my immigrant story began, ”Vasily said.

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

Photo: University of Houston (

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 - to Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) to Professor Peter Volines.

“Peter's last name was actually“ Volynets ”- his grandmother and grandfather were from Belarus. We worked with him on a very complex project that was progressing extremely slowly. Once Peter went to Washington "on sabbatical," and I decided to learn to play the piano, "the guy recalls.

Vasily admitted that he always loved music and dreamed of playing the piano. He liked the "feeling that the orchestra was in his hands." At the music school, he played the accordion, and while studying at the institute, he played the old piano, which had to be postponed due to relocation to the USA. And only having felt a certain freedom of action, he decided to return to the piano.

“I went to the music department and started demanding the keys to the rehearsal room. “Not so fast, young man,” I was told. “You should at least get into the elective,” says Lyubchenko.

At the “170 Music” course, all students of non-musical faculties who wish to study music were provided with an assistant teacher - for half an hour a week and a “treasured” key.

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“I started with“ Intermezzo ”by Johannes Brahms, but in the first year I decided to learn the Third Sonata by Sergei Prokofiev. Soon I wanted more, and I wanted to study with a professor, not an assistant. Had to play audition again. I learned one of the early preludes by Alexander Scriabin and the slow movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Seventh Sonata. There were two old men in the commission - the first head of the department and the second, as I later learned, world-class specialist in Beethoven, Kenneth Drake. After I played, he said: “And you have a dark Russian soul” - and invited me to his class. Subsequently, introducing me to his musician friends, Drake said: “This is Vasily, he is playing Opus 109” (Beethoven's Sonata No.30, Op.109). I worked with him at first for half an hour a week, and then in the evenings at his house, where I rode a bicycle in any weather for two years, ”the guy recalls.

But scientific activity required more and more time, so music lessons had to be postponed again. “Peter Volines, meanwhile, moved to San Diego and took his student with him. “Although I“ physically ”moved there, I was not finally transferred from Urbana, so I defended myself and received my degree there. My work was devoted to the explanation of 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 studies at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There I also passed an audition for the Faculty of Music, received the keys to the rehearsal and successfully continued to play the piano, ”Lyubchenko said.

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

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

Vasily Lyubchenko is one of those who is engaged in science and teaches students and graduate students - chemists and biologists physical chemistry, which he calls the "science of cooking." Over the years, he wrote about 40 scientific articles and monographs, fragments of which he uses in his lectures.

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

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

Vasily told the story of this article: “It all started in 2006, when my colleague, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Peter 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 - smaller than a micron in size (this is just slightly smaller than the size that can be seen with the best optical microscope). These droplets are literally 100 times larger than a protein molecule. "

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The way Vasily explains their discovery together with Peter 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 tango ”. Molecules, temporarily forming a complex with another molecule, behave exactly like dancers at a milonga (tango party) - when you dance 3-4 compositions with one partner, and then you sit down and look through the eyes of another. This is not a joke or a trivial comparison. We cannot compare these “relationships” with marriage, when two unite for a long time or forever, and even multiply. Here the particles “danced” and dispersed. The "dance" of molecules continues on the order of a millisecond. It is these temporary compounds that allow droplets to form. But these droplets cannot exist for long. Some fall apart, while new ones are formed. As a result, a certain amount of droplets is always present. The “transitory" 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 publication of the article, University of Houston external affairs specialists made it more popular by printing on the Internet, which attracted several million readers. Why are people so interested? It turns out that from these droplets of a denser liquid, other things can grow, for example, a protein crystal or fibers that grow from hemoglobin proteins in the case of a disease called sickle cell anemia.

“Sickle-shaped anemia” was the first disease recognized as genetic in the 30-s of the XX century. People who are prone to "sickle-shaped anemia" have historically lived in humid and hot climates, where malaria is prevalent - 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 stiff, distorting the shape of the cell. If a person inherited a certain gene defect from both his father and mother, he will have a protein in his body that “loves” 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 such a mutation.

The results obtained by Peter Vekilov and Vasily Lyubchenko have clinical consequences. “The most important thing is that now the mechanism of fiber formation from protein is completely known. In our article, we added the missing link in the study of this disease, finding out the underlying causes of the origin of fibers from protein droplets. It is now clear that in order to prevent the fibers from forming, 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, nevertheless, it can be made based on our information, ”comments Vasily.

For a person who is densely engaged in professional work, especially science, it needs some activity for the soul. For Vasily Lyubchenko, in addition to playing the piano, this is participation in theatrical productions and Argentine tango.

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“I played my first theatrical role in the 9th grade, at a skit, after the end of the Republican Olympiad in Physics. We had only guys in the team, and according to the script, one of the characters was a secretary, she was assigned to play for 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. I also performed several roles in the children's theater - in the fairy tale "Twelve Months" I played the Professor, twice was Santa Claus at matinees in the Russian Center - and this despite the complete absence of "texture". The last role - the Man scattered from Basseinaya Street - is really my role, because I am very similar to this character, ”says Lyubchenko.

“And I always loved tango music. Who does not remember the dance of the Wolf and the Hare on ice under "La Cumparcita" in the animated film "Well, wait a minute!" I loved this cartoon for this music. Also, one of the plays that I played at the music school for the accordion exam was the famous “El Choclo” (popularly known as the “Brasserie 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 do different things form one thing in the dance. As well as in chemistry, in fact. It's great!" , - Vasily shares.

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Miscellanea Our people history of success Vasily Lyubchenko University of Houston
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