Building laboratory capacity in Ukraine by analytical chemistry training – Pavel Aleynov at VERIFIN

VERIFIN’s international training activities are strongly focused on efforts to enhance the capabilities of laboratories in developing countries in chemical warfare agent (CWA) analysis.

One of the goals is to increase the number of designated laboratories of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.

In 2020, bilateral proficiency test training was initiated with VERIFIN and the Medved Research Centre for Preventive Toxicology, Food and Chemical Safety (Ministry of Health, Ukraine). The overall aim of the training is to increase the capabilities of the Medved laboratory to analyze environmental and biomedical samples and report the results per the OPCW reporting criteria.

“The Fellowship Programme is designed to implement Article XI of the Chemical Weapons Convention and will take place over the course of three to six months. Article XI promotes the fullest possible exchange of scientific and technical information between Member States for the development and application of chemistry for industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, and other peaceful purposes.”

The Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (VERIFIN) hosts two OPCW research fellows annually. In the past, VERIFIN has hosted scientists from countries such as Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Panama, Serbia, and Uganda.

One of the scientists participating in the training programme since the beginning is Mr. Pavel Aleynov, who we have been happy to welcome as an OPCW research fellow at VERIFIN since early January 2022.

This article was originally published at Kemiauutiset/Chemistynews 2023 in May 2023. 

Mr Pavel Aleynov:

My name is Pavel Aleynov. I am a 40-year-old chemical engineer from Kiev, Ukraine. I did my studies at the National Technical University of Ukraine “Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute” (NTUU-KPI). The University, founded in 1898, is one of the oldest in the country. Dmitri Mendeleev was one of the founding fathers. My mother, who had me when she was quite young, was a chemist at the University in Kiev and I was practically raised there, running around laboratories through my childhood. My grandmother and uncle are also chemists, so it was not a big surprise that I ended up studying chemistry as well.

Chemistry was definitely the right choice for me and I really love my work (my wife maybe not so much!). Developing new methods and discovering new ways of doing different analyses never gets boring. I currently work as a chemist at the Ukrainian National Institute for Toxicology and Chemistry (Chemistry Department of the Ministry of Health). Prior to the war, the main task of the institute was the registration of pesticides. For example, we conducted field trials and supported the toxicology department by chemical analyses.

When the Russian Federation started aggression towards our country in 2014, the topic of CWAs and toxic industrial chemicals (TICs) started to get more attention. We participated in the OPCW proficiency test and had a poor outcome; we did not know what we were doing at the time. Following this, a new national center focused on CWA and TIC analysis was founded and we received a new instrument: a liquid chromatography high-resolution mass spectrometer (LC-Orbitrap). Around this time, we became involved with VERIFIN and started training activities. Our training, which was partly arranged remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, focused initially on environmental sample analysis. The training included a trial proficiency test organized by VERIFIN and our capabilities were increasing notably. However, the war started in February 2022, before we were able to begin our biomedical sample analysis training.

This war has changed everything at work. Before the war, our institute struggled with funding and the government was not interested in our work. Lately, our government has started to invest more money in our center and our expertise has become crucial. We have received new equipment and we are negotiating on what we still need. Since our laboratory is part of the ministry of health, it is sometimes difficult to explain the importance of the sophisticated analytical instrumentation for people who have no background in science.

We will focus on analysis of biomedical samples during my fellowship at VERIFIN, in particular sample preparation and method development for GC-Orbitrap. The need for analyzing biomedical blood and urine samples is currently very urgent in my country and we need the expertise to operate the new equipment. During Russian captivity, many of our soldiers may have been exposed to chemicals that interfere with their mental and physical capabilities and our government is very interested to identify what kinds of chemicals these are.

In addition, I want to thoroughly understand the entire process of CWA analysis, from sample collection to data reporting with OPCW criteria. Maybe one day my laboratory, Medved, will be a designated laboratory of the OPCW. At Medved, we have previously been working only with pesticides and TICs (dioxins, PCBs), so I need to gain experience and bring it back home to teach my colleagues. Currently we have two new young persons who have studied at the University, but they have no practical experience yet. I can bring the experience from VERIFIN back to them. My main interest is gas chromatography, but if we can find the time, I would also like to learn about the LC-Orbitrap. We do not have enough dedicated personnel, so also transferring that experience to my colleagues would be very useful when I get back. Sample preparation is also very important and is in my opinion at least 90% of the success! If sample preparation is not successful, the instruments, no matter how expensive, cannot fix this.

Generally, the situation in analytical chemistry is very difficult in Ukraine. Most of the instruments at the Universities and public sector research units are old and students gain very little practical analytical work experience during their studies. Most students leave the University to work in the pharmaceutical industry because of the better salaries. However, the work in industry follows the same routine and becomes boring after a while, at least for me. I enjoy getting to know new equipment, like here at VERIFIN, where I try to emerge victorious in the struggle between man and machine with the GC-Orbitrap. If I want to understand the instrument, I must ask the right questions first and then find the answers. It is very exciting.

In addition to work, I really have no free time. My son is 14 years old. He is the Ukrainian champion in Taekwondo. I hope to see him compete in the World Championships in Italy in the spring. I have not seen my family in over half a year. My little princess is 8 years old, this little devil knows how much I love her and really knows how to use it. I think all women do this! On a more serious note, I really hope everything will be fine in the future and my children will get a good education, probably outside Ukraine.

I find Finland a very nice country, but sometimes the weather is brutal with strong winds and rain. I would also like to visit Tallinn, maybe Stockholm. The nature here is very similar to Kiev, which is situated in the forested part of Ukraine. Finland is a very nice but also expensive country. People are friendly and nice. There are similarities and differences between Helsinki and Kiev. Saunas we have in common. I like saunas, but not dry, hot saunas. In Ukraine, Banjas are moist and not that hot. City buildings in our countries are different. Balconies are very common and important in Ukrainian buildings. In Ukraine, you must have a balcony! My place has two!

The war is something that is constantly on my mind. It really has changed everything. I have a lot of friends in Russia and my grandma is from Saint Petersburg. I also have a lot of Belarusian friends. It is very hard to keep in touch, they understand the reality of the situation, but talking about it is a quick way to prison. They cannot say what they think and feel about it. I have friends, including my son’s coach, who are soldiers and currently situated in a very distressed area, Bakhmut. My son’s coach is a drone operator, helping the artillery. We just hope he will get back alive. So many have died. I hope for the war to end, but nobody knows when that will happen. It is the history of our planet. We hope that for Ukraine the end of the war will be a fresh start, unite people, and start some processes from the beginning. Maybe it will give a chance for our country to develop into something new and promote the change that we need. We will see.

Finally, I want to say that I am very glad to be here in Helsinki. Thank you for choosing me for the OPCW fellowship program! I plan to take advantage of the opportunity and education and take it back to my country.

(This interview was made in the spring of 2022. Mr. Aleynov was in Finland for 6 months and is now back in Ukraine.)