Eliška, why did you choose RECETOX for your Ph.D. studies?
Ever since I was a little girl, I have been interested in environmental topics and the impact of substances around us on the environment and human health. RECETOX had the best program in the Czech Republic in this field, so it was my first choice. I did my bachelor’s at RECETOX and master's in France at the University of Bordeaux. During my internships in France, I met my future Ph.D. supervisors. Since funding for Ph.D. studies in France is very competitive, I applied for a cotutelle (a double-supervised Ph.D.) administered by the French Embassy in Prague. It funds Czech - French scientific cooperation. As a Czech partner laboratory, we naturally approached RECETOX. Part of the cotutelle selection process involved writing and presenting my research project proposal together with my French supervisors Patrice Gonzalez, Bénédicte Morin, and Czech supervisor Luděk Bláha.
What was your doctoral research topic?
We focused on the impact of currently used pesticides and their mixtures on the development of non-target aquatic organisms. The concentration of pesticides in water should not exceed a specific limit. Still, long-term exposure to even low concentrations of these substances could affect the development of organisms. Embryos or larvae do not have well-developed organs and an immune system as adults to protect themselves effectively. In addition, development is a series of diverse events susceptible to environmental factors, such as temperature or contamination by some substances like pesticides. These degrade in the water into metabolites that can be sometimes more toxic than the parent compound itself. Together, these substances interact in the water and form a toxic cocktail with hardly predictable effects that may harm aquatic organisms. During my study at RECETOX, I chose the zebrafish as a model organism. In France, we decided to use the pacific oyster. I conducted field experiments and measured the development of oyster larvae over several days in different parts of Arcachon Bay with varying loads of pesticide. For example, we measured near the mouth of the river, which brought pesticide runoff from nearby vineyards and fields, and conversely near the mouth of the bay into the ocean, where the water was less loaded with chemicals. In recent years, farmers in Arcachon Bay have been less successful in raising young oysters, and pesticides are suspected as one possible cause.
What challenges did you face during your Ph.D. studies?
I have always found it challenging to communicate my research to a non-expert audience and popularize science. Unfortunately, although this is very important, it is not formally taught, and everyone must find their own way to do it. At the end of my studies, I participated in the MT180 competition organized by the French Institute in Prague. You must present your topic to a lay audience in French in just 3 minutes and use one slide. The presentation must be fast, straightforward, clear, convincing, and ideally entertaining. It was an unusual experience for me. Scientists should popularize their activities more often, ideally already during their studies as we see the consequences of poor or infrequent communication of scientific knowledge in our daily lives. A typical example is climate change, although poor communication is, of course, not the only factor here.
Did studying at two institutions simultaneously present any particular challenges?
The biggest challenge was moving every six months between the Czech Republic and France because of the cotutelle. It was also challenging to facilitate the communication between the two universities and find compromises for their different demands, such as the final defense. Despite this, I would do it again in a heartbeat!
In December 2021, you received the Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Doctoral Studies -an outstanding achievement! What does this award mean to you?
I am really happy about the prize. Usually, I am motivated to work by the desire to help improve the environment or human health with my results, and I feel a strong social responsibility. Thanks to the award, I know that I am doing good, meaningful work, which motivates me even more. I'm happy that all those days of experimentation were rewarded - when you have an embryo that develops in 48 hours, there's not much time to sleep. I'm sure most Ph.D. students will recognize themselves here. :-D I would like to advise all students that it pays off to be proactive and grab every chance the world offers to travel and see how science is done outside the Czech Republic.
You completed your Ph.D. in December 2020. Since May 2021, you have been a postdoc at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Düsseldorf, Germany. Why there? What was your motivation?
I knew that I wanted to continue working in environmental toxicology abroad. The main criterion was that the job would be useful to society. The research, its impact, and the team were essential aspects of my decision. I must admit the location itself didn't matter to me. When I saw the job offer in Düsseldorf, it was clear - the development of the human brain is fascinating, and trying to figure out which chemicals affect its development was a dream for me. I'm very grateful to be part of Professor Ellen Fritsche's team, she is one of the few top scientists in developmental neurotoxicology and has been in the field practically since its very beginning.
What are you currently focusing on?
My current research topic is the cognitive function defects caused by disrupted development of the human brain. A typical example is fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) caused by prenatal exposure to ethanol and developmental dyslexia or autism spectrum disorder, whose etiology is still not very clear. I am trying to figure out which and how chemicals in everyday life influence the neurodevelopmental processes of the developing brain that may subsequently lead to cognitive function impairment. These can be manifested by lower IQ and capacity to solve problems, attention deficits, etc. I work on this topic within the Horizon 2020 ONTOX project, whose goal is to provide a functional and sustainable solution for advancing human risk assessment of chemicals. One of the pillars of ONTOX is artificial intelligence used for creating models that integrate mechanistic, toxicologic, epidemiologic, and kinetic data with physicochemical parameters. The models will predict the effects of everyday chemicals like pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food, or biocides on human health. For proof-of-concept purposes, we will focus first on the developing brain, liver, and kidneys.
ONTOX renounces animal testing. It emphasizes novel, innovative methods, so-called new approach methodologies (NAMs) that combine in vitro and in silico approaches. I am happy that European research is turning its back on animal testing, which is unethical, and often doesn’t even make scientific sense – humans are simply not 80-kilo mice. Furthermore, ONTOX collaborates with RISK-HUNT3R, and PrecisionTOX, from the same call, representing Europe’s effort towards widespread adoption and use of new alternative non-animal methods for assessing the risks of chemicals on human health.
Did you have to go through a selection process? How difficult was it?
Yes, it was a two-round selection process; the first round involved an online interview with classic questions on scientific knowledge and solutions to workplace interpersonal problems. The second round was also held online because of the pandemic. I received a scientific article in the morning and had 4 hours to read it, make a one-page abstract, create a presentation and discuss it critically live.
Do you have any Czech colleagues? Have you been in touch with scientists based in the Czech Republic?
I have only German-speaking colleagues in my team, which motivates me to learn German. :-) The working communication is of course in English. I have also stayed in touch with associate professor Klára Hilscherová from RECETOX. We've been working on a new inter-laboratory collaboration on the influence of the thyroid system on the brain's neurodevelopment. This year, we will welcome one of her students to Düsseldorf for a Ph.D. internship.
What about your life in Germany? Do you have time to enjoy the beauty of the city? What would you recommend visiting in the city?
I must admit that for now, I'm more drawn to trips to the beautiful Netherlands and Francophone Belgium, as Düsseldorf is a short distance from the borders of both countries. However, Düsseldorf is also worth a visit, as it's a very modern cosmopolitan city where it's easy to speak English, as between a fifth and a fourth of the city's inhabitants are foreigners. Düsseldorf is a green city full of parks where flocks of green parrots, the lesser alexanders, fly overhead. My favorite part of the city is Little Tokyo, home to the largest Japanese community in Germany, where you'll find plenty of authentic restaurants, shops, ramen bars, bookstores, and much more.
Is there a scientist whose work you follow or who is a scientific role model for you?
One of my role models is Kateřina Falk, a Czech scientist living in Germany. I also follow physicist Brian Cox and his entertaining BBC podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage. Plus, I can recommend the science podcasts Radiolab and Science Vs. I admire the work of Czech and Slovak scientists and students popularizing science not only on Instagram like Lucia Ciglar (kreslim_vedu), but her infographics are beautiful! And of course, in my field of developmental neurotoxicology, I follow all the important personalities, starting with Ellen Fritsche. She is also one of my role models professionally and as a person.
What are your future scientific plans?
My current project will run until 2026, and then I plan to move back to Brno. After all, I have been out of the Czech Republic on and off since 2015. I want to lead my own research group in the future. It would be great to stay in the field of developmental neurotoxicology. However, I am happy to work on a project in toxicology that is useful for society, whether it is related to human health or the environment.
Eliška, thank you so much for the interview, your photos, and your exceptional enthusiasm for science. It was a great pleasure... I wish you all the best in your career in Germany.