Conditions for researchers improved, but some bad practices remain

She enrolled at university shortly after the Velvet Revolution that brought an end to the communist regime in 1989. Then she had to leave and go abroad to be able to conduct top research. The biologist Štěpánka Vaňáčová returned home nine years ago when she was given the opportunity to start her own research group with EU grant funding.

She is now employed at the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) at Masaryk University. In her view, the conditions for researchers in the Czech Republic have been improving, but some bad practices remain including academic inbreeding, male chauvinism, and – most importantly – career insecurity, all of which hinder the development of Czech research.

Štěpánka Vaňáčová is from the generation of scientists who enrolled as undergraduates in 1990, then left to gain more experience abroad before returning to the Czech Republic in recent years. She graduated in biology from Charles University, where she also earned her PhD in parasitology. However, as she recalls, research in the Czech Republic was in its infancy in the 1990s, with labs gradually acquiring equipment and grant schemes slowly being developed. This is why she left to continue her research – first at the University of California, Los Angeles, and later at the University of Basel.

“At the time I left, there were hardly any new positions being opened and I had no idea if there would ever be any. This is why I didn't really think I would come back. My return was prompted by family reasons and by the opportunity to set up my own research group at Masaryk University. This is still rather rare in the Czech Republic. People tend to go back to where they started from and academic inbreeding remains quite prevalent,” says the 45-year-old biologist, criticising the practice of staying at the same university where you earned your degree and never experiencing anything else.

Why are you critical of academic inbreeding and why is it important to change locations when building your research career?

A research institute or university needs an inflow of new people who bring new knowledge, views, and habits. Newcomers with no previous associations with the place can be a source of great dynamics. In spite of this, academic inbreeding is still prevalent throughout the Czech Republic and the system is not open enough to become more dynamic. I think it is a big problem that goes all the way up to our political representation.

How can politicians influence science?

As scientists, we have no certainty beyond the term of our current grant. We work under permanent stress. It would be beneficial to have a long-term plan at the Ministry of Education level – a strategy that would allow universities to plan research funding for the next ten or twenty years. The biggest problem is the lack of permanent positions. For example, our institute received applications from excellent scientists, but when they realised that they would have no long-term prospects or certainty about what happens in, say, five years, they just gave up. In the West, it is common practice that once you have established your credibility and ability to conduct quality research, you have the opportunity to get a permanent position, so that at least you don’t need to worry about financing your own salary.

Are there any other reasons why we do not see more scientists from other countries and people who have experience abroad coming here?

One reason is the long-standing problem with the recognition of diplomas, which takes a long time. For example, I habilitated at the University of Basel and I found out there is no way to have my habilitation officially recognised here. I know that some of my colleagues struggled to have their PhD or professorship from renowned institutions recognised. These are some of the factors that discourage people from coming back. They’re not sure whether they will fit in.

You finally came back after three years in California and another three in Switzerland. How did it go?

A lot of the credit goes to Professor Jaroslav Koča, who gave several people from outside Masaryk University the opportunity to start their own teams at MU. This allowed me to apply for grants under Masaryk University and two of my applications were successful: I won the European Molecular Biology Organization Installation Grant and the UK Wellcome Trust International Senior Research Fellowship. The grants made it possible for me to start big and build my team in its current form right from the beginning. Moreover, the funding was very flexible and there were no constraints as to which project or part of the project the money goes to. That gave me a lot of freedom and it meant that for the first five years, I could just do science and didn’t even need to apply for other grants.

How much of a burden is the research funding grant system?

As researchers, we are continuously looking for sources of funding and we are snowed under with paperwork. This is the biggest weight on our shoulders. It leaves me very little time to actually sit down and work on a paper – to do the fun, fundamental part of my job. I spend more than 60% of my time thinking about funding and dealing with red tape. This involves everything from finding sources of funding for research, through writing grant applications, for which you need to have the preliminary research results already on hand, and checking whether – often nonsensical – grant conditions are being met, to incessant report writing. Local grants for molecular biochemistry are more short-term and smaller, so we need to have more of them. Most of them also aren’t flexible enough and you have to make sure that money intended for specific items is actually spent on those items.

Is this a big complication for your research work?

One of the things I need to watch is that the given amount of money has to be spent in a given year – even though this makes next to no sense in scientific research. In dynamic and competitive fields, you can’t simply project a timeline with the exact number of experiments and all the chemicals needed in any given year.

You worked in parasitology for a long time but now study RNA. When did you switch focus and why?

I studied parasitology as a PhD student at Charles University and I continued in this field as a postdoc at the University of California in Los Angeles. We were examining the genome and the molecular biology of Trichomonas vaginalis, a human genital parasite. The study of the molecular mechanisms of these pathogens led me to gene expression, which is the process of transcribing the information stored in DNA to proteins, and to RNA molecule modifications. I found this area of research interesting and wanted to go deeper, so for my second postdoc position, I went to the University of Basel to Professor Walter Keller, who is one of the best in this field. It was like being in research heaven.

Why?

In a way, I found parasitology research frustrating. I wanted to do a lot of things that I had no tools for and establishing new methodologies would take years. It is actually very hard to get funding to study parasites, possibly with the exception of malaria, and therefore, scientific progress in this field is very slow. On the contrary, the study of RNA in yeast and mammalian cells is quickly advancing and in Basel, I had great material and intellectual support plus a leader who trusted my work and gave me a lot of freedom. A quickly developing field means that you keep learning and have a much better chance of discovering something essential.

Was it difficult to switch to a lab in a slightly different field?

Not at all, I had already published some quality research and had experience in several prestigious labs. I have been very lucky to meet a number of interesting people in my career, whose names probably helped me a lot. One of these is Elisabetta Ullu. I spent several months at her lab at Yale and was a very valuable experience.

Where did you meet her?

At a molecular parasitology course in the US that I attended as a PhD student. We got talking not only about the practical part of the course but about the research facilities in the Czech Republic, which were in their infancy. We were building up the lab in Prague, everything was slow and you couldn’t really do experiments. She invited me to spend some time at her lab to learn new things. In fact, this was my first glimpse of the real scientific world.

So, you are saying that your contacts also helped you in your career. How important is meeting new people?

It is essential. I think that all researchers should work at several locations throughout their careers, ideally in several countries and on different continents. The approach really varies a lot, especially between European and US research. The advantage of the renowned US universities is that they are big and offer many lectures, and students are used to attending the lectures and communicating with the lecturers. There is a lot of networking, so you are exposed to influences from other fields, and a lot of cooperation. In my experience, the tendency in Europe is to work in isolation. People stick to their group and there is less contact with others. This is also true of Masaryk University and it’s not helped by the fact that we don’t actually have time for it due to the administrative burden.

Does all this paperwork leave you any time for scientific work?

Unfortunately, I don’t work in the lab anymore. The experiments that we conduct can’t be scheduled with any precision. You don’t know how long it will take for the cells to grow and there are long incubation times. A standard experiment can run from early in the morning till late in the night and I have my daughter to take care of, among other things. I also need to meet with my students to discuss their projects. I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t have enough time for them, but I need to devote a lot of time to make sure we have the right conditions for their work. Nevertheless, I try to meet each of them at least once a week to talk about their progress and to resolve any issues.

How many students do you supervise? I noticed that you still advertise open positions in your lab.

In the nine years that I’ve been doing this, I found that the optimal number of people in a lab is about ten – master’s and PhD students and a couple of postdocs. Even though we are now at full capacity, you can’t really refuse someone who is talented and motivated. Moreover, the current cohorts of students are smaller, which means we must be proactive in finding people for the lab. In other words, we are not in a position where we would have large numbers of students applying; in fact, we usually have to fight for the best. But so far, I have been lucky with my students, especially when the lab was starting out. It was thanks to them that I was able to start my research. They were Martin Jacko, Petr Holub, Dmytro Ustianenko, Dominika Hroššová, Jana Laláková, Veronika Ostapčuk, and Ivana Horváthová. I was especially lucky with my lab assistant Leona Kledrowetzová, who is like our “lab mum” and thanks to her, everything has been running great for the last eight years.

Many of them now work at prestigious universities abroad. Was that your goal, to send them out into the world?

It’s part of our job. We are educating the next generation and if students are interested, motivated, and talented, they should move on. I never try to keep master’s students in the lab for their PhD studies. I know from experience that it’s better to make the next step and change places. It’s much more motivating for them and they also learn more. I have to say that I’m really proud of them – they are like my other children.

How do you manage to take care of newcomers?

I’m trying to build a hierarchy in the lab, where more experienced, senior PhD students and postdocs pass their knowledge and experience on to the new students. Before someone leaves the lab, they should train their replacements and work with them for at least a while to hand the ongoing project over. From my own experience, I also think that if you want to start an academic career and work in research, you have to be largely independent as a PhD student. I can offer students the necessary facilities, good remuneration, and, at least in my opinion, very attractive projects; they can travel and work together with other experts. All they need is their own motivation, talent, a hard-working attitude, and a bit of luck.

So the students in your lab do not need to worry that they will only receive a small PhD scholarship?

They work on specific projects funded by grants that provide adequate remuneration for them. The current scholarships are not enough to live on, so all new students in my lab automatically become part of the ongoing research and get paid from the funding, so that they don’t need to look for part-time jobs.

Do you agree with the demands of PhD students for higher PhD scholarships?

I definitely agree that the scholarships need to be raised, but that has to go hand in hand with strict and demanding admission procedures for PhD students. We need to set PhD studies up at a quality postgraduate education level.

I know you study RNA, but what do you focus on specifically?

The RNA or ribonucleic acid molecule is often seen only as the intermediary between the genetic information stored in the cell in the form of DNA and the formation of proteins that regulate a whole number of reactions in the body. However, the RNA actually plays an important role in a number of regulatory processes on both the cell and the organism level. There are many different types of molecules; for example, some of them control whether and when different types of tissue start developing in an embryo. There is a theory that the RNA molecule stood at the origins of life and proteins and DNA were only put to use later on. My research group studies which mechanisms in the cell check whether the correct RNA was created and how the cell identifies and removes incorrect RNA. We study this in baker’s yeast and in human tissue cultures.

Why is it important to study the control mechanisms of RNA formation?

Malfunctions in RNA formation and in the mechanisms that control its removal are correlated with the occurrence of a number of human diseases and genetic disorders. Genetic experiments in both yeast and human cells have shown that when we remove the factors responsible for the removal of incorrectly created RNA molecules, the cells die.

You are involved in basic research, but this is mostly applied research, which has been promoted in the Czech Republic in recent years. Why do you think it is necessary to support basic research?

When you study the basic mechanisms of natural phenomena, you often unexpectedly come up with products that are applicable in practice. There is one current example from RNA research. Adrian Krainer, who has been working in the field for over thirty years, studied the basic mechanisms of the formation of mature mRNA, which is the type of RNA that transfers the DNA information needed for protein production. In his research, he made use of spinal muscular atrophy, one of the diseases where problems in the formation of mRNA are known to be among the causes. And over the course of his basic research, he discovered a drug that substantially improves the condition of the patients.

How did you become interested in biology?

Even at primary school, I enjoyed observing nature and I was always fascinated by chemistry and chemical experiments. While at grammar school, I was captivated by the story of Marie Skłodowska Curie, who became my role model. I thought this is how I would like to spend my life: researching and discovering new things. And natural sciences really allow you to discover and describe something that nobody has ever seen before. During my second year as an undergraduate student of biology, I attended a lecture by Jaroslav Flégr, who had just come back from a postdoc stay in Japan. He was talking about what was then a brand new method of polymerase chain reaction. I became really excited about the possibility of multiplying genes in a test tube in a matter of hours. I wanted to do something new, so I contacted him and we started looking into the possibility of using this method when diagnosing trichomoniasis.

You said you were lucky with the people you have met during your career and you mentioned several men, but you still say that male chauvinism is rampant in the Czech Republic.

Unfortunately, that’s true. It seems to me that male chauvinism in the Czech Republic is getting worse rather than better. I am not in favour of gender quotas and I do not know the solution to this situation. You can see this imbalance in the political representation as well and it seems to be a problem in many fields. What I often experienced here is that when they are looking for a new research group leader, male candidates are often preferred. From what I hear, female students are still sometimes treated as “inferior” by the teachers, who assume they are less clever and will have worse results.

Why is that?

To some extent, women do this to themselves. We present ourselves to the world as homemakers, but you should do more things for yourself rather than just sacrifice yourself for others. We live in the 21st century and the division of family care is necessary. We live long lives, and nobody can guarantee that you will spend your entire life with one person. This is why both parents need to build something for themselves, be independent, and lead fulfilling lives.

Interview was originally published at Universitas magazine.

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