Computer science students from Ukraine find a summer home at U of T

October 18, 2022 by Matt Hintsa - Department of Computer Science

When Yuliia Kholodetska’s classes at Lviv Polytechnic National University were interrupted on February 24, 2022, it was not the first time that had happened during her time as an undergraduate. But the reason for the interruption was far different from a global pandemic. Russia had invaded, throwing daily life into disarray across Ukraine.

Roman Burakov, a student at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was awoken in Croatia by an early morning call from a friend in Kyiv who reported that missiles were striking across Ukraine.

“It was quite a shock,” he recalled. “It’s really impossible to imagine that you’re here, it’s good. But somewhere in Ukraine, your relatives are under attack.”

In Toronto, faculty members, postdocs and graduate students stepped into action strategizing about how the University of Toronto and the Department of Computer Science could play a role in helping students in Ukraine whose studies were interrupted by the invasion.

Professor Michael Brudno envisioned a program built on the structure of the Department of Computer Science’s long-running Undergraduate Summer Research Program. The program’s application and matching systems could be repurposed relatively easily, and faculty members were eager to contribute to the effort by supervising students and contributing their own research funds, while the Department and Vector Institute agreed to provide additional financial backing. But with fewer than three months remaining before the start of the summer term, developing such a program sounded impossible.

Roman Burakov standing in the Bahen Centre Lobby
Roman Burakov. Photo: Matt Hintsa.

A team effort ensued, involving collaborators across U of T. The Centre for International Experience advised on immigration-related considerations, Innis College coordinated housing, and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the Department of Computer Science interviewed more than 80 student applicants over the course of two weeks, selected from over 200 applications.

Kholodetska had heard about the program through her professors, and Burakov learned about it through a former coworker based in Canada.

“In three months, we were able to pull this off,” recounted Brudno. “It was really a huge amount of work for lots of people across the university to actually make it happen.”

Students admitted to the program started to arrive in May, and in total, 21 undergraduate and five graduate students participated in the program.

Burakov joined a wearable robotics group headed by Alex Mihailidis, professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, cross-appointed to the Department of Computer Science. In that group, Burakov worked closely with postdoctoral fellow Brokoslaw Laschowski, a Ukrainian-Canadian scientist who was also involved in the effort to develop the summer program.

"Imagine you have someone who lost their leg and needs a prosthesis. Our goal is to make prostheses simulate a healthy leg,” explained Burakov.

Yuliia Kholodetska standing in the Bahen Centre Lobby
Yuliia Kholodetska. Photo: Matt Hintsa.

Kholodetska joined the lab of Professor Marsha Chechik, working on a software engineering project related to bonded satisfiability checking.

In addition to conducting research with a faculty member, students in the program also received instruction in professional English speaking and writing, as well as a range of social events. On a camping trip to Algonquin Provincial Park, students got an introduction to canoeing and exploring the Canadian wilderness.

“One of the bigger goals was to give the students a normal summer — or at least as normal as possible, given the situation,” said Brudno. Kholodetska concurred. “We can feel how it is to be a student — to go to university, to attend lecture, because COVID and war have destroyed this ability for us,” she explained.

Headshot of Michael Brudno
Professor Michael Brudno. Photo: Rita Leistner.

Despite having landed in a safer place to continue their studies, Burakov and Kholodetska explained that the safety of their families and friends still looms large.

Kholodetska receives a push alert on her phone whenever an air raid siren is activated where her loved ones reside. She and Burakov both message their families daily.

“At one point, I hadn’t heard from my mom for three weeks straight” due to telecommunications outages in Ukraine, recounted Burakov.

Looking toward the future, Brudno explained that there’s interest in using the model of this year’s program to serve the needs of students in other parts of the world who experience similar interruptions to their studies.

“While our program was spurred by the acute crisis in Ukraine, we are re-working the program to be accessible to students displaced by conflict anywhere in the world,” he explains. “This is not just a moral imperative, but also benefits our community — we get introduced to talented students and researchers, and we can build strong new collaborations with top universities around the world.”

While the summer may be over, most of the students who came through the program are staying in Toronto, including both Kholodetska and Burakov. Ten students have been admitted into the department’s graduate program, and many others are continuing as exchange students, taking classes at U of T and continuing their research.

“The program turned out very productive both for my partner and me,” reported Burakov. “Despite the short time frame, my colleague Alex (also from the program) and I achieved great results from our research, which resulted in the paper submission to the most prestigious robotics conference — ICRA 2023.”