PhD in biology, cell biologist, researcher of Crimean flora. Co-founder of the Druid Drone project.
The multifaceted nature of plant biology: parasitic plants, drones, restoration of Ukrainian soils and work in Crimea
Story of biologist Yuliya Krasylenko
I dreamed of becoming a “field biologist”, so my current research combines plant cell biology and plant science. Currently, I focus on parasitic plants, in particular mistletoe and the peculiarities of their interaction with host plants at different levels — from the molecular to the population level.
How Yuliya ended up becoming a biologist
The atmosphere at home significantly contributed to my passion for biology because my grandmother was a chemist, and my grandfather was a radio physicist. They both were teaching at the Vinnytsia Polytechnic Institute. My other grandmother was a biologist and taught courses in genetics and parasitology in a medical school. My relatives did not have much free time, and there was no nanny, so they would take me to their work when I was little. I was mesmerized by test tubes, observed microcircuit nets, and admired herbarium sheets and students’ drawings.
At that time, I was still stubborn and dreamed of becoming a doctor, like my mother. No one opposed this, and I entered the medical college in Kyiv. There, I realized that I like not only to help people but also to dig deeper: to analyse the aetiology (origin) and pathogenesis (mechanisms of development) of various diseases or the effects of drugs at the intracellular level. Therefore, my next step was to study at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the Biology Department. After an internship in an intensive care unit and purulent surgery department, it was vital for me to try other things, and I saw myself as a “plant biologist”, which is what I still do. That’s why I became interested in biotechnology and plant genetic engineering.
At a certain point, I got bored describing the scientific results while preparing my dissertation because an article on a related topic had already been published. Therefore, I considered it a waste of time to reproduce the same thing in other words. I remember complaining about the fact that it is impossible to provide just three published articles instead of writing a dissertation. I am active, and I like to see immediate results, so sometimes routine calculations and repetitions of experiments exhaust me. Fortunately, over the years, I have become more resistant to the scientific routine: monotonous measurements or statistical calculations serve as a mental break from our tough news. I just hide in a “cell” in the dark with a confocal microscope.
About the study on parasitic plants and work in the Crimea
I am most proud of the research on parasitic plants. After presenting my thesis in 2012, I acutely felt the need for personal scientific research. I realized that it was the moment to determine my scientific independence from the supervisor’s instructions and the “scientific orders” from the research institute.
I was lucky: during a traditional May trip to the Crimea, while climbing the Ilyas-Kaya mountain, on the branches of a juniper tree, I saw a plant unknown to me, similar to a yellowed horsetail, the juniper mistletoe (Arceuthobium). This was the beginning of a “long road”. That day, I was awake all night, devouring publications that revealed a whole layer of exciting information about the phenomenon of parasitism in plants.
Subsequently, my articles on the Ukrainian mistletoe genus Viscum – Loranthus and Arceuthobium – were also published. For the last study, I recorded twenty-minute videos on a special confocal microscope with very high resolution. This made it possible to see the dynamic process of microtubule assembly and disassembly in real time. I felt like an astronomer, a pioneer of a new galaxy – a tiny and little-known one.
I also like to mention my “parascientific activity” – ethnobotanical studies of the Crimean Peninsula plants. In expeditions to the oldest generation of Crimeans from different parts of Crimea, together with Simferopol doctor Girey Bairov, we wrote down the names of plants in the Crimean Tatar language (phytonyms). There is no scientific publication on this topic yet. However, there is a set of watercolour postcards drawn by the artist Olha Politilo, with my texts on the distribution, origin and use of 34 recognizable plants. These are “business cards” of the Crimean flora.
About getting interested in drones
Unexpectedly for myself, a few years ago, I developed an interest in drones, which are very helpful in exploring nature. Together with my friends, we even developed and patented a prototype of a small unmanned aerial vehicle, “Druid Drone”, in Ukraine and the Czech Republic. It can take precise samples from trees, spray growth regulators, and fly close to the crown thanks to the drone’s peripheral camera on the carbon “long shoulder”.
During the full-scale invasion of russia in Ukraine, this development and knowledge turned out to be very timely. The same goes for the skills of printing spare parts and assemblies with different technical loads on a 3D printer. I think that many of us should now consider learning to pilot a drone. It is becoming a necessary skill – just like driving a car, first-aid basics, using a tactical first aid kit wisely, etc.
Why is it important to support science during the war?
Science has always been vulnerable. A number of its branches require constant and significant financial investments. Many scientists felt the calling to be on the frontline — as soldiers and medics. Some rescue unique natural history museum collections and evacuate them to temporary safe places. Others are abroad: continuing research and raising children in a safe place. The Ukrainian scientific diaspora is now forcibly scattered around the world, and heads of scientific research institutions should facilitate their cooperation with foreign colleagues while maintaining Ukrainian affiliation and preparing publications for Scopus and Web of Science.
After our victory, I want to help restore Ukrainian soils through phytoremediation — planting certain types of plants capable of absorbing heavy metals and other compounds that are dangerous to the environment. I would also like to implement a gentle strategy for controlling the mistletoe spread in Ukraine. Instead of pruning old trees, we could apply growth regulators that do not harm the host plants in a technically competent way every season.
As soon as there is an opportunity to return to Ukrainian Crimea, I want to work at the Karadag biostation, organize tours to the mountains and publish several popular science books about the flora of our peninsula in Ukrainian. It would be great to join the creation of a colour identifier of the Crimean plants for scientists and the general public by adding my photos and phytonyms in Crimean Tatar. Last but not least, I would like to continue generating texts in Ukrainan about science and translating kids’ books, including Gerald Durrell and other authors who can inspire them to choose the profession of a scientist.