Denys continues his work in Kiev: 'Cancer doesn’t care if there’s war.'

A special interview with Ukranian ATBC-alumnus Denys Kozakov. On how the Master Molecular Life Sciences perfectly prepared him for the start of his career, but nothing could’ve prepared him for what happened just one year after he returned to Kiev. “I couldn’t believe it at first.”

9f59736a-0cff-11ee-bde6-02565807075b Denys Kozakov heeft de master molecular life sciences gevolgd en is nu terug in Oekraine

About five years ago, a HAN-stand at an education conference in Ukraine drew the attention of Molecular Biology student Denys Kozakov (26). “They promoted some kind of business education”, he says. “But still I was interested, so I contacted HAN. Partly thanks to great communication from the school, I decided to enroll for the degree in Molecular Life Sciences.”

When asked about the master’s programme, Denys has nothing but praise to give. “I really like the approach that’s taken at HAN. Instead of cramming you with information, you’re taught the skills to conduct your own research and experiments. And after that you’re given a task to practice those skills. This approach prepares you to take on pretty much any job in our field.”

Excited about sequencing

Looking at the direction Denys chose, that indeed seems to be the case. During his internship at the Donder’s Institute for Cognition and Behaviour, he got excited about data sequencing. “I learned what it’s all about and the interesting things you can do with it.”

After three years in the Netherlands, Denys returned to Kiev. He found an interesting job at the high-tech CSD Medical Laboratory in Kiev, where they decided to set up a department for Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). “We work for oncology departments, PCR tests, everything. We can provide patients with some of the best tests in the world.”


My friend called me at 5 in the morning, saying that the war had started

Big storm of events

And then, just one year after he excitedly started his job, Denys received a call from a friend in the middle of the night. ‘Denys’, she said, ‘the war has started’.

“I couldn’t believe it at first”, says Denys. “I was annoyed she called me at 5 am and thought ‘come on, you’re kidding’. But then she quickly added ‘no Denys, I’m serious. Pack your things and contact your family.' What followed felt like one big storm of events.”

Denys got in touch with his family, and like many fellow citizens they fled for a village just outside Kiev. From the ease with which he speaks about it, you can tell that he’s talked about these events many times already. Some things are still hard to believe though, even for Denys himself.

“Being shelled is not a great feeling, I can tell you that. Rockets very often don’t hit what they’re supposed to. The first couple times it’s just very scary. At a certain point you get used to it, but in some sense that’s even worse.”

Waiting list of volunteers

As soon as it became clear that his family was in relative safety, Denys started thinking of ways he could help. “I’ve been exempted from military conscription because of my studies, so I’ve never held a weapon before. And seeing that not even everyone wíth military experience was able to get in, it felt pointless for me to try and join the military. Although I must say: it still feels surreal to see so many others go and fight.”

He decided to help in other ways and registered for volunteering. “Soon after, I received a call. They told me it would be a while before there would be something for me to do. There was already an enormous waiting list for volunteers.”

It felt like an accomplisment that we could get some work done in Lviv

Dangerous place

The best thing Denys could do at that point was get back to work. A decision that brought its own challenges with it. “Kiev was a very dangerous place in the first months, so we looked for other ways to continue our work. We found a place in Lviv that we could work from, so I went there with one other colleague.”

With the help of many others, they managed to set up a transportation route from Kiev to Lviv. This way they could get the necessary equipment, and samples for genetic testing. “Obviously, we couldn’t get as much work done as we could’ve done in Kiev, but we managed. And that by itself felt like quite an accomplishment.”

Head of department

“I’m glad that by continuing our work, I’m able to do some good for the Ukranian people as well. Because cancer doesn’t care whether there’s a war going on. People still need treatment, and NGS is probably the best option for both identifying biomarkers for targeted therapies and screening for hereditary cancer predisposition syndrome.”

Denys is now head of his department back in Kiev. “But that sounds bigger than it is”, he says. “NGS technology is still relatively new, so there aren’t that many people working on it. We’re currently only a team of three. And that’s also due to the war, of course... But yes, well, I am the manager now.”

He starts laughing. “In that sense: war is a great way to kickstart your career.”

I am lucky to have all my friends and family still alive


Every time Denys tells about his experiences over the past years and the impact the war has had on him, he laughs a bit. As if it’s still hard for him to believe the situation he finds himself in. He is impressed by both the heaviness of the events, as by how people - himself included - manage to deal with them simply because they have to.

“You can’t let yourself get overwhelmed, cause then you’re done for. A piece of advice I hear from many people around me, is: take care of yourself first, and from there you can help others as well.”

For a short moment, tears start to well up in his eyes. Although throughout the interview he gives the impression that he’s fully adapted to the situation, it’s moments like these that show the pain that lies underneath. “I am very lucky to have all of my family and friends still alive. Because I know that so many people have already lost someone.”

'Happy to be here'

When asked whether he regrets returning to Kiev only a year before the invasion, his reply is certain. “I’m happy to be here. I have several friends who are still abroad, and it may sound weird, but it is way harder for them to deal with it. To see all this happen in their home country while being abroad, not being able to do anything, is horrible. They could come back of course, but well… That’s obviously a very hard decision to make.”

“At least for me and the people around me, the situation has been clear from the start. We have to try and accept the situation we’re in, stand up for ourselves and continue on living. What helps, is the realization that there are so many things worth living for. Going out for a beer with friends is a completely different experience knowing that every time could be your last. At the same time it increases the sense of togetherness with the people close to you, it makes you realize the importance of our independence. I feel those things now more than ever.”

We wish Denys all the best and hope that he, his family and friends will stay safe until the war ends. 

Photo: Denys Kozakov

Denys studied Master Molecular Life Sciences at HAN. Want to know more about this study: