Erasmus+ grant opens doors

What is it like to participate in the Erasmus+ grant programme as a Master’s student from Ukraine? Yevhenii Radchenko did an eight-month internship at Leiden University in 2018. Soon after, he returned as a PhD candidate. ‘You have little to lose, but a lot to gain.’

‘Make sure you have a good raincoat!’ That is the first tip Yevhenii Radchenko (24) gives to students who want to come to the Netherlands as an exchange student, just like him. In September 2018, he travelled from Ukraine to Leiden University, where he did an eight-month internship at the research group of Mario van der Stelt, Professor of Molecular Physiology. ‘I designed and synthesised complex molecules at that time,’ says Radchenko. ‘Then I studied whether they affected biological systems such as living cells.’

Radchenko’s internship was part of Erasmus+, an extensive grant programme of the European Union. Thanks to a new Erasmus+ grant, awarded to the Leiden Institute of Chemistry (LIC), Van der Stelt will be able to accommodate eight students from the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev over the next two years.

From internship to PhD

During his exchange, Radchenko worked with Alexander Paschenko, who was a PhD candidate at the LIC at the time. ‘I knew Alexander through my home university, the National Technical University of Ukraine in Kiev. Once he returned, he told me all about his positive experiences in Leiden, which aroused my interest, because I wanted to gain experience at another university. I also knew that the level of chemistry in Leiden is higher than in Ukraine and that the way it is applied is different, more focused on biology.’

At the beginning of 2018, the University of Radchenko held a competition to decide who could take part in the programme. ‘When I was admitted, I contacted Mario, who then invited me to his group.’ Van der Stelt: ‘Because chemistry education in Ukraine is different from in the Netherlands, Yevhenii brought a unique set of organic chemistry skills. That turned out to be a great addition in our lab. Some of his created compounds are now being tested in models for neuroinflammation at the University of Washington in the United States, and a paper is even forthcoming. Ultimately, we hope that this will lead to new drug candidates for diseases such as multiple sclerosis.’

Yevhenii Radchenko receives his diploma from Vice Rector Hester Bijl

Radchenko returned to Ukraine after the programme, but not for long. ‘When I finished my master’s, I was accepted at the LIC as a PhD candidate. In my current research, I synthesise compounds to study the tuberculosis bacterium.’

Win-win

When Radchenko lived in Leiden as an exchange student, Van der Stelt was only involved in the Erasmus+ programme from the sidelines. This made him so enthusiastic that he is now coordinator of the new Ukrainian round, this time between Leiden and the capital Kiev. Van der Stelt: ‘In collaboration with the chemical company Enamine, which carries out commissioned research and is the largest chemical contract research organisation in Eastern Europe, we have developed four projects. In addition to my group and the department of Professor Hermen Overkleeft of the LIC, two other institutes are involved: the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research (LACDR), with Professor Gerard van Westen, and the Leiden Institute for Biology (IBL), with Professor Nathaniel Martin. The programme focuses on drug development, chemical biology and artificial intelligence (AI). We use AI to design molecules that may have an impact on biological systems. The students synthesise and test these, as Yevhenii told. But the programme does not stop there. Lecturers from Leiden University are also going to Ukraine to give guest lectures on all kinds of topics related to the search for new medicines.’

Van der Stelt believes that one of the great aspects of the programme is the strengthened ties between Ukraine and the Netherlands. ‘This is mainly thanks to the students. Yevhenii is living proof that as a participant you can walk a successful path. We are also in close contact with Enamine and the Ukrainian universities. This enables us to exchange ideas and we complement each other excellently because of the cultural diversity.’

At home in the Netherlands

Doing research is central to the programme, but there is, of course, much more to be done. ‘I took several courses in Leiden, especially for my personal development,’ says Radchenko. OWL (Orientation Week Leiden) also organises various activities. All exchange students who like it come together to get acquainted.’ But you also have to arrange a lot of things yourself, Radchenko emphasises, especially before the internship starts. ‘After your admission, you will have about six months to prepare yourself. That sounds like a long time and everything is well organised, but it still takes a lot of time to put all the paperwork in order. You also have to find accommodation. My advice is to start these things immediately after you have been admitted.’

Once in the Netherlands, it’s not all about work, there is also time to enjoy yourself. Radchenko suspects that most Ukrainians will feel at home there. ‘It’s great to take in the Dutch lifestyle. Dutch people are often cheerful. On the streets, you are greeted with a smile and people like to help you. They also know how to enjoy the weekend, I like that work-life balance.’

‘The Erasmus+ programme is one of the best ways to develop yourself as a master’s student, both professionally and personally,’ concludes Radchenko. ‘There is a lot of support throughout the entire period. You have little to lose, but a lot to gain. And once you get used to the weather, there’s not much that can go wrong.’

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