You lived abroad for a long time, why did you decide to settle down in Brno?
I am originally from Prievidza, Slovakia, and lived for a long time in Norway, where I met my partner. Our daughter was born there. After such an extended time abroad, we started to miss home, so we decided on Brno. I knew the city a little bit because my distant family lived here, and many high school classmates studied in Brno. So, Brno was a natural choice, and it's great. It's been a year since we moved.
Where did you live before Brno? I heard that you're a traveler.
I'm certainly not that much of a traveler. Laugh. I lived in Norway for a few years, studying at the Norwegian University of science and technology in Trondheim. In Norway, the bachelor's degree is done in Norwegian, which I didn't speak at all. The first year was only about learning the language. After this intensive language course, I studied for my bachelor's degree, which lasted three years, and then two years of the master's degree entirely in English.
Did you also study high school abroad?
Yes, partly in the UK and partly in Slovakia. I attended a five-year English grammar school. At high school, we were urged to spend some time abroad. I wanted to go to Australia, but it was very expensive. Another option was to study the last two years of high school in England and graduate with an international final exam. Since I got a scholarship there, I decided to go. I wanted to study at a university abroad, so it was helpful to have an international exam from the UK, even though I missed my classmates and friends from Slovakia.
Was science always the clear choice for you?
I enjoyed biology, so I was considering veterinary medicine. As an undergrad, I studied general biology, and in the third year, I chose molecular biology; that's how I got into environmental science and toxicology. When I was a kid, I knew that I would work in biology and chemistry one day and that I would "do" science. In Norway, we also had the choice of marine biology, I would have found that interesting too, but then you are a bit limited where you want to settle down. Obviously, land-locked countries like Czechia and Slovakia are not “ideal” for marine biologists.
What is your scientific research area?
I have to say that I am at the very beginning of my scientific work. I enjoyed molecular biology, where studies are connected to chemistry and practical lab work. I enjoy working in the lab immensely, and I see myself continuing to do so in the future. At the end of my third year at the university, I wanted to work on a research project where I could see its results. I got in touch with Norwegian professors to see if they needed help with their research. It was a coincidence that I got a call from a professor in toxicology who was collecting samples from sea eagle feathers and blood. I ended up spending the whole summer collecting samples with her team. It was an incredible adventure traveling around Norway looking for sea eagles. And as a bonus, I got to work with a wonderful group of toxicologists, and I became very interested in the field itself. Plus, I used the data from the research for my thesis.
And why the Ph.D. program at RECETOX?
My family and I wanted a change from Norway. My partner was also a foreigner in Norway, and we wanted to be closer to home after eight years. I was looking for Ph.D. programs outside Norway, and Brno came to mind. I came across RECETOX by chance, and I am very grateful for it.
Honestly, I was looking at Svalbard first. I spent a whole semester there during my master's degree and completely fell in love with nature there. The downside is that there are between 100 to 150 applicants for every Ph.D. position. Some applicants have already completed one Ph.D. and have been engaged in research for several years. Plus, my daughter was born, and we just wanted to be closer to home. I liked the fact that RECETOX is involved locally and internationally; there are a lot of research opportunities - and that's true of the Czech Republic in general. I looked at the RECETOX website and came across Dr. Lisa Melymuk, who posted a research position. I contacted a few teachers at RECETOX and connected with Professor Jana Klánová, who also directed me to Dr. Melymuk. I was excited about the project that was offered to me at RECETOX. The research involves chemical and microbiological analysis of dust. It investigates its impact on young children's microbiome for up to six months, combining chemistry and biology with a focus on children.
Was it easy to move with the whole family?
We found an apartment in Bystrc because we love nature. We were also fortunate to find the apartment on the internet, and then we found out where we were going to live using online maps. Laugh.
What’s life as a Ph.D. student like?
I attend regular study courses and work intensively on a project assessing air quality based on dust and air samples in five schools and five kindergartens in Brno. Now, I am processing the resulting data and compiling it for an article. I am looking forward to working on my Ph.D. project, which I enjoyed from the beginning. Unfortunately, due to covid, my research has had a slower start, but it is finally getting off the ground.
What has been the biggest challenge for you so far during your Ph.D. studies?
Moving to Brno was challenging, mainly because we have a small child. But it was nothing extreme. Maybe just the fact that we moved to Brno during covid and lockdowns. The start of my Ph.D. was slower because of the pandemic. On the other hand, I had more time to settle down and think about how to approach my studies, which is a big plus.
What about Brno?
I am delighted. Brno exceeded my expectations. I knew the city a bit, but I didn't know what to expect after so long abroad. I was looking forward to the studies, and I was shocked at how great science and collaboration are at RECETOX. I was a bit worried that since in Norway, teachers treat their students like partners - I didn’t know how it would be in the Czech Republic. This fear was completely unnecessary! I applaud the teachers’ personal approach and that they are always willing to listen. Plus, the science at RECETOX is top.
What do you look forward to the most in your studies?
I look forward to meetings with my colleagues and moving forward in science, which I enjoy immensely. I also enjoy teaching younger students a lot. Last semester, I taught a student’s professional activity (in Czech: SOČ - Středoškolská odborná činnost) to a high school student, and that was fulfilling. I want to write up a topic and hope some students will sign up, and I will be helping them with their research. I would love to be involved in RECETOX to teach younger students so that they want to continue in science.
And what do you like doing in Brno in your free time?
We spend a lot of time in nature, walking around the Přehrada. And I personally like the Eliot horse riding club, which is in Bystrc. I've been riding horses since I was five but hadn’t done much riding after I started traveling. Now I'm taking riding lessons with a trainer and literally getting back in the saddle. I also take my daughter to the club to see the ponies. Being around horses is an excellent mental break for me. And when I think about what has unpleasantly surprised me, honestly, I don't really have anything. Perhaps it's just the snow in the winter that we miss in Brno.
Paula, thank you for such a pleasant interview. I wish you all the best in your career and also in Brno.