Ruslan Vastianov: My task is progressive development of the university and preparation for the election of the rector

In mid-April, the Minister of Health of Ukraine Maksym Stepanov signed an order appointing the acting rector of Odessa National Medical University, the head of the Department of General and Clinical Physiology, Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor Ruslan Vastyanov. We talked to the new head of the university about the end of the academic year in quarantine, about diplomas and preparation for the election of the rector of ONMedU.

When does the academic year at Odessa Medical University end and can senior students expect to receive diplomas if they pass the state exams?

Quarantine has made serious adjustments to the educational process, but we are working full time. There are clear guidelines from the Ministries of Health and Education that we follow. In a sense, we had anticipated this situation and have been actively developing distance learning in recent years. Many study materials from all disciplines are available online, so students study remotely. The session at all faculties, as well as final exams will last until June 30. Exams will be taken online.

And what about diplomas?

Our graduates will receive diplomas, you can be sure of that. There will be no questions of legitimacy for them. They are official and recognized in all countries of the world. As for the documents issued last year, you may remember when the Ministry of Health refused to approve them – the problem is solved. All our graduates are guaranteed diplomas and will be able to get a job in their specialty.

Do you assume staff reductions as a result of quarantine and the transition to distance learning?

In the current situation, it is difficult to guarantee anything. But I can assure you that for me personally, as well as for the Academic Council, this is not even an extreme measure, and the situation is absolutely unacceptable. The position of the head of the Academic Council of the University, Academician Valerii Mykolaiovych Zaporozhyan, which I fully support, is no staff reductions, no salary cuts. Odessa Medical University would have never become successful and well-known if we had not taken care of our people. Therefore, this question is fundamental. We are talking about this to the team, and now I will repeat again: I urge colleagues to stay calm and focus on work. The administration will take care of the rest.

Your appointment as the acting the rector came as a surprise to many people. How was it received by the University staff?

I don’t think it was a surprise for the team. When the term of the rector’s contract of Valerii Zaporozhan expired, three candidates for the position of the acting rector were nominated at the conference of the labor collective. Among them there was my surname. I think this is a sign that my colleagues treat me with trust. The acting rector heads the university until the election of the rector. And, I emphasize, with preservation of a regular mode of all types of work – normal educational process, scientific and medical activity. Therefore, my main task now is to establish the optimal regime of multifaceted activities of the university and prepare it for the elections.

Have you been working at the university for almost 30 years?

I entered Odessa Medical University in 1984. From the moment of entering postgraduate studies at the Department of Physiology, in 1992, there is a countdown of work experience. My whole life and work is connected with the university. There was some migration at departments, but they are all exclusively physiological. While still a student, I got into a scientific circle at the Department of Pathological Physiology, my research supervisor was Professor O.A. Shandra, who later headed the Department of Physiology. And today I head the Department of Pathophysiology. To sum up, 27 years of work have been related to physiology.

For many teachers and scientists, administrative work is a punishment. Are you already used to the managerial role?

No job related to our university can be a punishment for me. But, I confess, the administrative part is an unloved child. All my life I dreamed of devoting myself to science and went to it for many years. Our university trains highly qualified medical staff who can work professionally in all fields of medicine. Being a postgraduate student, I began to teach physiology. I’m not bragging, but as a responsible person, I have mastered this rather difficult side of our work. We were not taught to be teachers, we were taught to be doctors. And I am convinced from my own experience that pedagogical orientation and medical, as they say in Odessa, are two big differences. Those professors who successfully combine these two areas are the intellectual backbone of our teaching staff, the best of the best. And I am proud to be a part of this category as well as almost all associate professors, professors and heads of departments.

You are called Valerii Zaporozhan’s man. Do you agree with that?

Both me and Valerii Mykolaiovych have devoted all life to Odessa Medical University. We are connected by strong professional relations, common values, common views on many things. We are like-minded. If someone calls it differently, it is their right. Valerii  Mykolaiovych worked as the rector for 25 years. He is the scientific leader of the university, the golden head. He made an invaluable contribution to the improvement of the methodological, scientific, teaching work. I had an opportunity to observe his work from the position of a senior student, and from the position of a graduate student, and from the position of a vice-rector. In front of my eyes, the university has been formed since 1994. Valerii Mykolaiovych ‘s contribution to this process is enormous. Now it is easy to throw stones at him, but I would like to recall the 90s of the last century, when all the universities of Ukraine barely survived. Our rector was the first in the country to offer teaching in foreign languages. We switched to English and French. The second one was later abandoned, but we still teach in English. We have written manuals and textbooks in English. For example, I am the author of English-language national textbooks on physiology and pathophysiology. Thus, foreign students began to join us, and together with them the university received money for development. It was the idea of ​​ Valerii Mykolaiovych, which gave us the opportunity to stand on our feet.

He was also the first in the country to initiate the return of university clinics that had been taken away during the Soviet era. Our leading theorists and professors, working at the intersection of theoretical and clinical disciplines, began to practice in clinics, the educational process was integrated with the medical – and this led us to the leaders of competency training of students. So, we have English language teaching, a clinical base equipped with the best western models, the most powerful electronic library, a publishing center, simulation classes and a modern molecular diagnostics laboratory with a wide range of genetic research. The driver of these innovations was the rector Valerii Mykolaiovych Zaporozhan. I believe that these vectors of development must be preserved.

Is this how you see the priorities in your work?

Absolutely true. Globally, to continue what has been started and move forward. Among the short-term tasks – the educational process, increasing the number of foreign students, preparation for the election of the rector.

Have the difficulties that arose at the university due to the long conflict with the Ministry of Health already been overcome?

The main thing: the work of the university is unlocked, and we have achieved what we wanted – a constructive working relationship with the governing body. But what our team has gone through will not disappear without a trace. Work is an unfinished business. During these little more than a year and a half, the university has suffered enormous economic, financial and reputational damage. Contrary to all moral and ethical norms, in violation of current legislation, letters were sent to foreign embassies that we could not train qualified doctors. Now our main efforts are focused on this. We are communicating with embassies; we are trying to restore their trust. The long history of the university and the positive feedback of our foreign graduates, many of whom occupy leading positions in medicine at home, accelerate this process. This year, if the epidemiological situation is favorable, we expect a large influx of foreign students.

So the 120th anniversary was not the last in the history of Odessa National Medical University?

One of the oldest medical universities in Ukraine with a rich history will operate and develop. The Rector’s Office, the Academic Council, thousands of teachers and students will not allow the opposite.

You have headed the university during a difficult period. After overcoming one crisis, it immediately faced a new one, this time related to the coronavirus pandemic. Tell us, where do you get inspiration and strength for work?

I was lucky. I have been a happy man for 20 years. A happy father of a daughter and a son. Now the work has taken up almost all the time, but I manage to rest, 4-5 hours of sleep is enough time. According to the laws of Sechenov and Academician Pavlov, work and work activities must be multidirectional, because nerve centers are prone to fatigue. Distraction helps the body to recover. I adore literature, including poetry – Ukrainian, Old Russian, Italian. I know several languages: fluent English, good Italian. I have been studying the history of Odessa for a long time. For example, I know the names of all the streets from the tsarist times, the history of houses, I know how they were built and located, I know the history of our university. I am a sports fan, I am keen on football, volleyball and handball very well. If possible, I go to nature. It helps me to distract from the busy workdays.