Kateryna Terletska

PhD in Physical and Mathematical Sciences, promoter of Mathematics, winner of the L'Oreal Award for Women in Science. Kateryna studies the internal waves of the ocean.

"During the war, the state cannot exist without science": about the importance of mathematical modelling and the scientific community being united during the war

Story by the mathematician Kateryna Terletska.

I work on the mathematical modelling of ocean processes. It requires considering many aspects: the water density, which depends on temperature and depth; factors affecting currents; fluid movement processes.

More specifically, my area of ​​interest is centred around stratified currents or, more precisely, internal waves. It is a stunning phenomenon, which is interesting to observe from an aesthetic point of view. Science museums often demonstrate how internal waves work with the example of a rectangular pool of two immiscible liquids. If you tilt it a little, fluids with different densities – internal waves — arise at the boundary between two zones. Depending on the ocean structure, different types of waves interact with each other. This entire “zoo” of waves and their interactions is actually what I’m studying.

Such studies are essential for understanding the state of the ocean. The civilized world is worried about climate change — we need to be able to make predictions about the future. And for this, among other things, one should understand how the ocean functions.

Currently, I am studying how internal waves behave under arctic and antarctic glaciers: what happens when waves approach the ice edge, how they stir the water, and how this affects the condition of the glacier. The topic is very relevant in the context of the melting of Arctic ice.

“I went from being able to solve mathematical problems and exercises to understanding science”: about interest in mathematical modelling and internal waves

As a child, I liked mathematics but did not see myself as a scientist. Now I am inspired by the possibility of applying the mathematical apparatus to describe the phenomena we observe and to the real world, which is imperfect and requires certain assumptions and simplified models. However, such a passion did not come from my childhood – at that time, the practical application of mathematics was a mystery to me.

I went from being able to solve mathematical problems and exercises to understanding science and creating specific models and experiments. It’s like becoming a magician with a secret key that can open and explain real facts and processes. The models can relate not only to the ocean but also to the pandemic evolution, specific social and economic processes, etc. Mathematical modelling consists of understanding these processes, mathematics, certain skills, and even intuition.

At the scientific school, I got interested in internal waves. It was not my personal choice of the research topic. It just happened so. I did many things formally – they did not interest me. But the internal waves inspired me. 

“When you are abroad, you begin interacting with the scientists who invited you and slightly adjust the vector of your work”: how the full-scale war affected the work

I was in Kyiv for the first two weeks and didn’t want to go anywhere. Every day I chatted with scientists from around the world — I was telling them what was happening. They didn’t understand that we often called them from the basements while rockets were flying at us.

With time, it got louder: after several deafening explosions nearby, my son, who has autism spectrum disorder, stopped talking. That’s why we decided to go to Austria. I received grants to continue my research here, and I am very grateful to the Austrian foundations for that.

When you are abroad, you begin interacting with the scientists who invited you and slightly adjust the vector of your work. It is necessary to look for common points of contact with Austrian researchers. Yes, the further course of research is changing, but I am not abandoning internal waves. I am simply refocusing on studying the types of interactions that are relevant here.

The international scientific community reacts to the war in very different ways. At the start of the full-scale invasion, it was absolutely obvious to me that the army had to be funded. I was amazed that almost everyone, except for my American colleagues, refused to donate money for weapons – saying that it was not humane.

Often, there was no condemnation of Russian aggression on the scientific organizations’ websites and social media pages — just information about the “Ukrainian tragedy” or the “Ukrainian conflict”. I asked them why, tried to explain that we are being killed here, and provided them with lists of killed scientists. They told me it was our internal conflict and asked me to wait a bit — they were sure that in a month or two, we would sign a peace agreement, and the war would end. Even now, at conferences, you can still hear that Ukraine and russia need to establish communication and find a common language.

That is why I have now reduced my communication with many organizations and scientists to zero. We have a different view of war. It is easier with American and Canadian colleagues — they are unanimous in their support for Ukraine. And in Europe, there are very different opinions on this matter — although the majority supports the temporarily displaced persons materially and financially, the attitude towards a full-scale invasion is somewhat moderate. Therefore, the connection with the international scientific community has strengthened in certain places, while in others, on the contrary, it has weakened: I do not want to continue communication with some organizations now.

About the importance of science in general and mathematical modelling in particular

Now we see that science is our future because the state cannot exist without science during the war. Once the war ends, education and science should be our priority because they are needed for a strong defence and further development of our strong country.

For instance, mathematical modelling will be relevant for forecasting possible radioactive pollution and other consequences of anthropogenic disasters, overcoming the impact and consequences of military actions on ecosystems. Mathematics is necessary for strengthening the defence industry, supporting information systems and decision making.

So now we must preserve science and restore it immediately after the war. There is no doubt about our future victory. The only question is what price we must pay for it and when it will happen.

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