Fields Medal Winner Maryna Viazovska Shares Her Personal Experiences with the War in Ukraine

A picture of Maryna Viazovska at the EPFL Rolex Center
© EPFL 2022 / Fred Merz (Lundi13)

Kyiv-born and raised EPFL professor Maryna Viazovska was awarded a prestigious Fields Medal, often considered equivalent to a Nobel Prize in Mathematics, for her breakthrough work on the sphere packing problem.

In her official interviews with the International Mathematical Union, which awards the Fields Medal, professor Viazovska shares her personal experiences with the 2022 Russian invasion of her home country Ukraine, and calls for the international community to act.

In this piece, we share some outtakes from these two interviews.

War-Life Balance

The full-scale war in Ukraine broke out on February 24, 2022. Professor Viazovska shares her account of these days.

For me, mathematics and strong emotions are incompatible. When the war started, at first I couldn’t do anything at all. Now I have the sense that something must be done. I read the news about a professor from Uzhgorod University, who gives lectures by Zoom directly from the trenches. This story has inspired me a lot.

She describes how teaching at EPFL helped her go through the early days of the full-scale war.

During those first days i realized how much I love teaching because on the very first day I had my first class [of the semester] here in the EPFL. Of course, when I’m in front of class I have to forget about everything else because I have to be very focused. This made me to forget about this fear and pain inside myself.

Support for Refugees

Professor Viazovska says her parents are in Kyiv, while her two sisters Tanya and Natasha, and Tanya’s children, had left Ukraine and found the refuge at professor Viazovska’s place in Switzerland.

Tanya has to separate with her husband and I know it is extremely difficult for her. My niece and my nephew miss their dad a lot. They understand what is happening now in Ukraine and it is a lot to process for them.

She also describes how complicated is the situation for Ukrainian refugees who seek education, and the war’s effects on Ukrainian academy.

Kyiv did not suffer as much as cities in the East, but 25% of students left Kyiv University. A huge number of children from Ukraine have now left for Europe, and they have to adapt to a completely different education system in a different language. And if school education is free almost everywhere, the situation with university students is more difficult it is hard for them to find a place in a European university. It is especially hard for those who have just graduated from school, or who are in their first year of university. In Switzerland, for example, graduates of a Ukrainian school have to study for one or two more years  this is both hard and complicated. The Swiss education system is doing a huge job to help Ukrainian children. However, it is impossible to replace what is lost and we will suffer the consequences of this war for generations.

She thanks all those who help Ukrainian refugees and calls for continued support:

I would like to thank everyone who helps refugees. Especially now, when the initial rally of support may be gradually fading away. It is clear that no one has expected things to grow to such a scale. And since Russia is continuing its military aggression, one should not expect the situation to improve in the near future.

Popular Invasion

Professor Viazovska also highlights the issue that the support for the Russian invasion might be popular among well-educated Russians, according to her personal experience.

There is a war going on right now, the war to destroy my home country, my nation. This is done by the country of which you [speaking to her Russian interviewers] are citizens. People from your country are either doing this or supporting these actions, while assuring the world that there is nothing horrible about this.

I know people in Moscow, educated and wellread people, who at the same time support everything that is going on at the moment, everything that Russia does. Some of these people even go to church. Unfortunately, neither education nor profession can prevent people from turning into cannibals…

In Memoriam of Yulia Zdanovska

A photo of Yulia Zdanovska
Yulia Zdanovska during her time as a teacher for Teach for Ukraine program. Photo credit: Teach for Ukraine.

Professor Viazovska shares that she recently dedicated a lecture to Yulia Zdanovska, a young mathematician, computer scientist, and educator from Kharkiv who was killed by Russian shelling on March 3, 2022.

When young people die you think, ‘Okay, what’s the point of my work as a teacher if young talented people are just wasted in this terrible war?’ When someone like her dies it’s like the future dies right now. Ukrainians are paying the highest price for our beliefs and for our freedom.