I went to Ukraine during an impending war on accident
To visit a Biohacker
A few weeks ago I went to Ukraine during an impending war, on accident.
I'ma be honest, I never really had much desire to travel to Ukraine until the past few years. I imagine it's not at the top of most people's list of European travel destinations. But fate likes to fuck with me and a few years ago I happened upon this Ukrainian Biohacker who was doing so much with so little. Her passion was pretty infectious and when someone inspires me, which is pretty hard to do, I want to do my best to make sure that they have resources to make amazing things. Thus, Dariia Dantseva singlehandedly convinced me that Ukraine was an important place in the world.
I’ve known Dariia for a few years. At first through the internet, seeing her tweet about genetically modifying bacteria and doing PCR and other molecular biology all on her own. Then in 2019 we met in person when she traveled to the US for Biohack The Planet Conference where she got a hangover from drinking with me that she still complains about to this day. As she finished her University degree her skills in genetic engineering developed beyond what I thought was reasonable. I watched as her ability to learn skills outpaced mine and we started collaborating on projects together, including the DIY covid vaccine. In the summer of 2021, Dariia traveled to the US to work/intern at The ODIN. It was a pretty memorable summer. We worked on building and testing a micro-injection rig to genetically modify embryos. Growing chicken meat in flasks. Getting drunk on 6th street in Austin, yeah I’m basic, don’t judge me. Through all of it I heard many stories about the academic scientific system in Ukraine and the lack of equipment and resources to do even the simplest experiments. It was disheartening and perhaps impressive to see Dariia strive to build an Open Lab in Dnipro, Ukraine. I never really imagined I would ever have a reason to travel there and see it in person. But there I was in 2022 freezing my ass off filming a documentary in the middle of a Ukranian winter.
My life is pretty absurd. I get it. In 2021 I decided to try and make a documentary about Biohackers. A bit hubristic. Maybe slightly insane. I have been filmed for so many documentaries I felt like if I tried to direct one I would have a unique insight and vision. I do. But I definitely invested alot of time on the front-end learning how to operate a camera and sound equipment and found an amazing producer. For a first try I think we will be able to create something that we are proud of. A character driven story about the real life of Biohackers. Despite what all the haters will say about my ego I’m not even the main character. Dariia is. My life is interesting for sure but I lucked out in being able to goto graduate school and build a solid foundation for my work with the help of the system. I can’t even pretend I taught myself everything or learned it all from scratch and had to overcome obstacles to do so. But that’s Dariia.
A Ukrainian Biohacker is impressive because the Biohacking world is very US-centric. It has much slower uptake elsewhere. I have various opinions why. Sure, there is an economic component to Biohacking. One can’t deny that even the most inexpensive of experiments and kits cost money and that can be limiting but that’s probably not why China doesn’t have a large Biohacking culture. I think there is a big cultural aspect – why we spend time and money and resources on certain things and not other things. I see cultural adoption as one of my main goals of Biohacking. Making genetic engineering cool, interesting, fun and entertaining. Part of our everyday lives. Despite being resource limited, I think Ukraine has a better chance than some countries of embracing Biohacking. They hunger for innovation. Their culture is ready for it. The timing couldn’t be better.
The evening before my flight the US announced it was pulling the families of diplomats from Ukraine for fear of a Russian invasion. That was kind of fucked up. Tickets were purchased, film crews were paid, plans and schedules were in place. I will admit that I was kind of scared. I didn’t think I would die or anything. Just the idea of being stuck in Ukraine and not being able to leave while war was going on was anxiety inducing. Everyone was telling me not to go. As my Italian Grandma is always yelling at me che faccia tosta. Once I’m that committed it's hard for me to change my mind. Filming in Ukraine is also a very important part of this documentary. We filmed with Dariia while she was in Austin, TX but she lives in and loves Ukraine. She wants to change the culture to make it one of science. We needed to film in Ukraine. I needed to go. Everything turned out alright and so I don’t regret my decision. Survivor bias. I guess sometimes you just gotta try and roll a hard six.
Ukraine was nothing like I expected. Honestly, I don’t know what I expected. I have never been in an Eastern European country before. Shit was cold. I was constantly cold in Ukraine. Living in Chicago the winter’s were brutal. Temperatures definitely go down to below 0F every winter. But those old radiators would turn apartments into saunas. I can be a bit of a baby when it comes to cold and we did shoot alot of footage outside. But like, it was fucking cold inside and outside. The coldness was deeper than the temperature though. It’s not that the people aren’t warm hearted, they definitely are, but there is this sense of gloom that seems to hang over everything. I was shocked to learn that the annual household income per capita in Ukraine was around $2,200 USD and that it is the poorest country in Europe (the US annual household income per capita is $33,000). Despite all that bullshit there is so much beauty there. The architecture, the food, the graffiti, the tattoos (I got a tattoo while in Ukraine). Things worth protecting.
War. It hung over everything. We were yelled at by Babushkas who said they were going to report us for being Putin spies for flying drones around. When we went to locations to film we had people following us and taking pictures. People were anxious. The consequences of war aren't just the loss of physical life. The mental strain to constantly wondering what will happen is alot. What if all you worked for is destroyed tomorrow? Your life goes on though. You can't stop working. It's a hard life.
Ukraine needs help. Not just salvation from war. I met so many beautiful people trying to build things and help their country. Extract it from all the suffering that happened because of soviet russia. Right now it seems like people in the US only care about Ukraine as rage-bait for klout points on Twitter. And I imagine for most people it's hard to see Ukranians as people because every country in the world has now politicized their lives.
But me. There I was in Dnipro, a 6 hour train ride from Kyiv. Cold as shit. Hanging out in a Biohacker Lab tucked behind a graffiti covered concrete wall. Keeping beer cold in snow outside the front door. Getting drunk and talking late into the night about all the amazing things happening through Dariia and Biohacking. I wish you could have been there.
Then maybe you could see that Biohacking is more than just a movement trying to overcome the systemic failures of science. It gives people hope despite war, poverty and the freezing fucking cold.
Then maybe you could see that Ukraine is more than just some poor country russia is threatening to invade. It is full of beautiful people trying to create beautiful things in very adverse circumstances.
I'ma go back to Ukraine one day. Definitely during the summer this time.
Support Dariia and her Lab in Ukraine