A year in Texas on a Fulbright scholarship

Dr. Michal Bittner is moving to Baylor University in Texas for one year. What are his plans and expectations?

18 Aug 2021

A year in Texas on a Fulbright scholarship  

Fulbright is ranked among the most prestigious scholarship programs for studying, teaching, and conducting research at American universities and research institutions. Every year the Fulbright program supports Czech students and researchers. This year Dr. Michal Bittner from RECETOX will spend ten months at Baylor University in Texas.

At the time of the interview, Michal, who is leaving for the USA at the end of August, was making final travel arrangements for the ten-month stay. The following interview covers why Michal decided to apply for the Fulbright Fellowship, what the preparation entailed, and how the current restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are complicating his trip.

Michal, first of all, congratulations on this outstanding achievement. Why did you decide to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship, and specifically the Fulbright-Masaryk Scholarship?

I chose the Fulbright Scholarship mainly because it supports traveling with family - and is based in the US, where the best research is done and where I could also learn proper English at the same time. With Fulbright, I can go to Texas with my wife Alexandra and my sons Vasek and Jindra, who will attend public elementary school, while I study and conduct research at Baylor University in Waco.

I decided to apply to the Fulbright-Masaryk scholarship category, which, unlike the traditional Fulbright scholarship, is suitable for scientists who are also socially active (Tomas G. Masaryk - scientist and politician). Since I spend my "free time" as the vice-mayor of Březina, as head of the young scouts (Vlčata), and as an official in the Czech Beekeepers Association in nearby Křtiny, this option was obvious.  

Has the current pandemic interfered with your decision in any way? Did it influence your decision to apply for the scholarship this year?

Not really. The “family council’s“ decision to apply for a one-year scholarship in the US was made in August 2020 (the deadline was October 31, 2020), when I presumed that the coronavirus would be over and the next school year(s) would be normal. When deciding, it was more important to us what grade our sons would eventually attend in Texas, and 4th and 7th grades seemed ideal. Plus, I didn’t really think I could get the scholarship, so I wasn’t thinking much of it…

So, you're going to Texas with your whole family. Was that an easy decision? How did your immediate family react when you told them you were moving to Texas for a year?

The initial decision was very easy, because I didn’t think I would succeed. The first mixed feelings of joy and worry came at the end of February 2021, when I was invited to the interview round. Those feelings intensified after receiving the acceptance letter, after which we began frantically dealing with all sorts of documents necessary for our trip, arranging accommodation, schools for the boys, etc. Despite all our efforts, and only a week before our planned departure we still don't have the travel visas... Nevertheless, we are all looking forward to it - both to America and the subsiding travel fever.

You chose Baylor University in Texas, specifically the Department of Environmental Sciences, for the fellowship. Why did you choose Baylor over other, more well-known universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, or Berkeley?

If Professor Bryan W. Brooks had been at Harvard, I would have chosen Harvard ;-) The choice of Professor Brooks was made with the advice of my supervisors, Professors Jana Klánová and Luděk Bláha, who both highly recommended him. Prof. Brooks is a world-renowned expert in the field of aquatic toxicology, water quality, and its sustainable use in rapidly urbanizing areas in times of climate change. Also, the Department of Environmental Sciences, which he works at, is ranked among the top 30 Environmental Sciences departments in the US. RECETOX has a long-standing collaboration with Prof. Brooks, a member of RECETOX’s International Scientific Advisory Board. Finally, he is a very likable and friendly person, which is also very important to me.

What are your goals and expectations from your stay, both professionally and personally?

The main goal is to fulfill the grant proposal’s objectives. In simple terms, it involves comparing Texas and Czech (i.e., American and European) approaches to recycling municipal wastewater for further use (in agriculture, households, etc.) in terms of legislation, technologies used, costs of water treatment, health and environmental risks of new types of pollutants (e.g., pharmaceuticals, which are not yet much addressed by legislation), etc. I hope to gain substantial experience and knowledge, which I will be able to use at MU to teach Sustainable Development, Environmental Protection Technologies and Tools, or Life Cycle Analysis, as well as research in Professor Luděk Bláha's Environmental Technologies team.

On a personal level, it’s an excellent opportunity to discover a new place and a different culture. And I am thrilled that I will share these experiences with my whole family - the boys will learn the language (we will see which one...), and thanks to my wife's enthusiasm for travel and excellent organizational skills, we will surely experience many beauties not only in Texas.

At RECETOX, you teach courses focused on sustainability and life cycle analysis. Will you be involved in teaching at Baylor University as well?

I might teach at Baylor, but only in a limited seminar format. But first, I'd like to participate in technical lectures at Baylor to the extent possible, and if I see that I have something to say, I'll say it. But to “stay in shape,” I will teach my regular courses online at MU, where, for example, I currently have over 170 students registered in the Sustainable Development course, which I would certainly be very disappointed to cancel ;-)

Did Baylor assist you with logistics, such as finding accommodations, a school for the kids, and other organizational details?

Not much. In general, I can say that the schools (even Elementary and Middle schools I'm arranging for the boys) don't communicate much electronically, maybe it's because of the holidays. Nevertheless, Professor Brooks is willing to help me with accommodations and necessary paperwork, though I don't think that's entirely his job description. It confirms that my decision to go to Baylor was the right one. The Fulbright Commission, specifically Dr. Katerina Kloubová, has been very helpful with the travel arrangements, helping me with everything and answering my countless emails and phone calls with admirable patience.

Although you are just at the beginning of your journey, is there anything you would recommend to those considering applying?

Don't think about it and give it a try. As long as someone has an interesting topic, the support of management and family, and an invitation from an American partner, there is no reason for hesitation. It is also a good idea to get advice from an experienced Fulbrightist when writing the proposal - in my case, Dr. Ondřej Adamovský from RECETOX helped me a lot with finalizing the project. Thank you very much, Ondrej!

 

Thank you for the interview, we wish you the best of luck, and we look forward to hearing about your experiences and impressions when you return.


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