Alexander Sich, a professor of physics and pre-engineering at Ohio’s Franciscan University of Steubenville, who has lived and worked in Ukraine, will return to the eastern European nation next month as the recipient of a Fulbright Teaching and Research Fellowship.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, Sich, who speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, will be teaching classes and doing research on the philosophy of nature at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, the first Catholic university in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Sich spoke with Register correspondent Judy Roberts about his work and his hopes for Ukraine.
How did you become interested in Ukraine?
My parents are Ukrainian. My father is from Ukraine and had a pretty bad experience during World War II. He was incarcerated by the Nazis and was slated for execution, but his group of prisoners caught typhoid, and the Nazis fled — abandoning them in a cellar jail to die. He escaped and made his way toward Germany, was caught and served time in a Nazi labor camp, but was finally freed by the Americans.
My mother is a Ukrainian from Croatia. Her father was a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest murdered by the communists in then-Yugoslavia. She and my grandmother immigrated here, and my parents met in New Jersey.
After receiving my first degree in nuclear engineering from Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute], I went on to graduate studies at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], which was only two miles from Harvard University. One summer, I attended a Soviet nationalities mini-session course. The person running it happened to be the administrator for Harvard’s Soviet Union program. He invited me to apply for a master’s in Soviet studies.
So I finished my doctoral qualifying exams at MIT and withdrew for two years to attend Harvard. When I was close to completing the Harvard degree, I thought I would return to MIT, complete the Ph.D. and “grow up” to be a nuclear engineer … and move on.
But two things changed the course of my life. Chernobyl [a 1986 nuclear disaster] occurred when I was at MIT, and Rotary International initiated its first exchange program with the former Soviet Union, looking to place students in the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
After graduating from Harvard, my wife and I took 10 American kids to Ukraine on this exchange program. That was my “in,” because, at that point, since I was very interested in Chernobyl, I was able to start snooping around for research, which was unheard of, especially for a foreign graduate student.
I started making friends and was eventually invited to visit the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone by the head of the scientific group analyzing the remains of the destroyed reactor. I was invited to conduct research there and, as it turns out, at that point was the first and only Westerner asked to do so.
I spent a year and a half living inside the 30-kilometer zone. They provided me with a cottage in the town of Chernobyl so that I could work directly with scientists, and I was given virtually unimpeded access to data as the Soviet Union was collapsing around me. So, when I returned to MIT, I was loaded with information the West did not have. I wrote my dissertation, published a few articles and was hired first by the European Bank, then the U.S. Department of Energy, to represent the International Nuclear Safety Program in Kiev for three years.
Following this, I worked for three and a half years on an international project to build an environmentally safe confinement over the destroyed [Chernobyl Unit-4] reactor. After that, I returned to Kiev for five years to work for the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine as a senior specialist to support U.S. nonproliferation policy by coordinating former Soviet weapons of mass destruction scientists in converting their military-science expertise to civilian uses.
Besides your doctorate in nuclear engineering and master’s in Soviet studies, you have a master’s degree in Thomistic philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. How did this come about?
The philosophy degree is closely connected to why I came to Franciscan. When I was living and working in Kiev, I had a very close friend at the U.S. Embassy who was an atheist, but he wasn’t “in your face” about it. He was a very well-educated guy and a very nice, quiet and humble man. But, perhaps for the first time in my life, he started posing questions that really challenged me. That spurred my interest in learning more, and I went in the direction of philosophy — eventually obtaining the master’s from Holy Apostles.
Along the way, and as a scientist, I became so interested in the philosophy of nature that it reoriented, if you will, my life. It was very interesting and challenging to be doing international nuclear safety and weapons, but after a while, the philosophy, in terms of its Catholic context, kind of took over my life. I started looking for teaching positions and ended up at Franciscan.