Scientist Michal Bittner: Fulbright stay in Texas was one big ride!

One year. That's how long scientist Michal Bittner and his family spent on a Fulbright stay at Baylor University in Texas, USA. He went to the USA to perfect his research on wastewater recycling and also sat in the classroom as a student to experience firsthand the American teaching style. And even in America, he remained a Boy Scout. Read an interview with Michal about his experience in the south of the USA.

24 Oct 2022 Marie Hošťálková

Michal, welcome back from your year-long Fulbright in Texas, USA. What were your personal and scientific expectations before attending Baylor University in Waco? Were they fulfilled?

When I decided to apply for the Fulbright scholarship, I didn't have high expectations - I didn't think that I would be selected. And then suddenly there it was - the whole family - my wife, two sons, and I were going to the USA. My main wish was to try life in another country. And, of course, I wanted to see how science is done in America and to experience firsthand the American teaching style. To get this experience, I attended classes with other students. I took Professor Bryan W. Brooks' Ecological Risk Assessment class in the Fall semester and Professor Joe C. Yelderman's Water Management class in the Spring semester. And both were wonderful.

Is it mandatory to take courses as part of the Fulbright scholarship?

I didn't have to take any classes. But my supervisor, Professor Brooks, offered me to take the Ecological Risk Assessment course, and then I went to Professor Yelderman on my own, and he agreed. Being in touch with the Baylor University teachers was invaluable. I wanted to see their teaching style, compare it with my methods, and get inspired. In addition, the content of both courses fit with my research topic - wastewater recycling.

And how did the professors at Baylor University react when you asked if you could attend their classes?

The professors were very accommodating. I asked if my presence in class would bother them and perhaps even disturb them since both courses were for a limited number of students. But they immediately said they would be happy to have me there.

Plus, I chose to complete the Fulbright at Baylor University to learn more from Professor Bryan Brooks about water recycling. He has a lot of experience with water recycling in the USA. Professor Brooks took me to various places where water recycling has been working for a long time and introduced me to many interesting people. Also, the largest international conference in the USA on water use, the WateReuse Symposium, took place in San Antonio, Texas. I learned a lot of exciting things and met many inspiring people.


And what was it like to sit in the lecture hall as a student again?

I must admit it was very refreshing. Laughter. It was good to meet the students there. I was very well received, without any prejudice. And like any student, I asked questions from time to time; we discussed the study material together. At the end of the semester, I also picked out a project, as was in the subject requirements, to pass the class like the other students, and I even got a final grade. The students and professors were a bit surprised I was doing this since I was at the Fulbright stay as an honored guest. Still, I am happy with the student experience.

What about your supervisor, Professor Brooks?

Professor Brooks is highly regarded in the field and is a nice and modest person. I'm pleased to have worked with him. His research topic is pharmaceuticals in water and the technology used to purify water from pharmaceuticals. And even though he deals with wastewater recycling only marginally, he has a lot of contacts, and directed me to the right people dealing with water management, legislation, and water recycling in the US. My time in Texas was about collecting the pieces of a giant puzzle. With Professor Brooks, I visited the world's most effective wastewater recycling facility (the Groundwater Replenishment System in California). I even got to taste the recycled wastewater. It was an excellent experience. Plus, there are many cool applications for recycled water in Texas. I am very grateful to Professor Jana Klánová and Professor Luděk Bláha for sending me to Bryan Brooks, I mean, for recommending him to me. It was worth it.

What new things did you learn about wastewater recycling in the USA? And can you give some examples?

I learned a lot. I've been impressed by how specific plants work where water recycling has been going on for a long time. It's not science fiction anymore; it's a real thing. We only start recycling wastewater when we don't have anything to drink. From western Texas to California, it is a dry part of America with semi-desert and desert, so recycled wastewater is an essential water source.

I also got to learn more about legislation. In the Czech Republic, we still lack legislation for water recycling. The European Union is similar to the USA in that respect; there is no legislation at the federal level on wastewater recycling and subsequent use. Nonetheless, at the individual states level in the US and member state level in the European Union, there are already laws on wastewater recycling. Recycled wastewater is used for irrigation, agriculture, or drinking water, but it always depends on the individual state. In California, for example, the laws governing the use of recycled wastewater are very stringent.


What about legislation on wastewater recycling in the Czech Republic? Does it exist?

We haven't had any in the Czech Republic, but it is currently being drafted on the state level. Our climate differs from southern European countries, so we have relatively sufficient high-quality water. However, countries like Greece and Spain are already recycling their wastewater because they are dry countries and lack water. In 2020, the European Union introduced regulations on water recycling for agricultural use. It was a significant incentive for the Czech Republic and others to start recycling wastewater. Wastewater is no longer waste but a potential source of water.

How do you plan to apply the knowledge and experience you gained in Texas?

I try to be more interactive in the courses I teach. For example, in the Water Management course I took in the USA, students worked on multi-level solutions in selected projects. I want to apply it to my classes as well. And I want my students to enjoy my teaching and, as a teacher, be demonstrative and practical in classes. Also, I share information about the legislative treatment of water recycling in the USA with colleagues and students at conferences or seminars. Also, people are interested in the new method for evaluating measured parameters using the "Environmental Exposure Distribution" method, which I learned from Professor Brooks and is well suited for our research. And I am often asked to explain specific recycling facilities. People are interested in learning more about water waste recycling, its costs, and future usage.

The goal of the Fulbright Fellowship Program is also to increase intercultural understanding (which is doubly true for my Fulbright-Masaryk Fellowship); thus, we also share the gained knowledge with fellow citizens, for example, through "travel" lectures. For instance, on 3rd November, I will talk about life in Texas in Spolkový dům Křtiny and the national parks of the southern states of the USA, so you are all invited!

What was a typical day like at Baylor University?

I attended lectures in the two courses mentioned above and went on exciting excursions "as a student". I had a small windowless office on campus where the air conditioning blew down my neck. Laugh. And when I started freezing after two or three hours, I went home to work. I lived only five minutes from the Baylor Science Building, where it was “only” twenty-five degrees. Laugh. And I continued from there. I reviewed the various water recycling materials and legislation, evaluated the results, and consulted with Professor Brooks. I also taught two courses for our students at Masaryk University. Fortunately, they were very helpful in scheduling me there, and the students had my classes in the late afternoon. I taught them early in the morning because of the seven-hour time difference. And I also dealt with work or research matters with Professor Luděk Bláha, supervised three theses, and prepared papers for conferences. And, of course, my family and I traveled and lived everyday family life. We go to the Boy Scouts here in Moravia, so I found the Boy Scouts in Waco.


And did you teach at Baylor University?

At Baylor University, I only gave one public lecture on our work on RECETOX (In vitro assessment of hormone-like compounds in the environment), and then a couple of seminar presentations in the Water Management course on the topic of my student project "Future water supply for Texas population growth". And this topic eventually proved so load-bearing that I used it in a talk on "Water management in drying climate: safe wastewater recycling for its potable and agricultural reuse" that I gave at the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Fort Collins, Colorado. This three-day seminar was also a fantastic experience; there were 84 Fulbrighters from over 50 countries, and all lovely people motivated to make the world a better place. And that the organizers chose my particular topic for this prestigious seminar demonstrates the growing urgency that a safe supply of quality water represents.

And what do you appreciate the most in retrospect from the whole experience abroad?

It's a lot. It's not easy to answer. The whole year was an excellent experience for my entire family and me. We traveled from California to Florida to the south of the United States. And in Texas, especially in Waco, we met many amazing people from different parts of the world (Kazakhstan, India, Iran, and Oromia) and, of course, from Waco, Texas. All of us, and I mean our whole family, are more open to new opportunities today. I appreciate that we were able to experience this together as a family. And the positive impact that the year in the USA has had on my sons has definitely exceeded our expectations. They've improved their English so much. My older son is even better at English than me now. Laugh. Even though starting a new school in a new language and with new classmates was not easy, they handled it fantastically.

You mentioned that you're a Boy Scout. What about your Boy Scout meetings in the USA?

Before we went to Waco, we contacted the scout leaders there. We are active in scouting in Moravia and wanted to get involved in scouting activities with our sons in the USA. I wrote to the leader of one scout troop through Messenger, and we were lucky because he was very communicative and helpful. He was waiting for us when we arrived in Waco, and we got into scouting activities immediately. At the first meeting, there was even a Czech flag in the clubhouse. It was very nice. It was similar for both sons. And thanks to scouting, we learned many aspects of American life. We celebrated American holidays together, went to camping events, and generally lived in a perfect community with which we are still in touch.

What did your life at university look like?

I think we were fortunate. Baylor University has a beautiful campus, and there's always something going on. American student life is full of activities, to the point that students don't know what to choose. It was the same for us because we couldn't miss anything. Laugh. But maybe the thing we miss the most from the campus is the cafeterias.

You worked, and your kids went to school. What did your wife do in the USA?

My wife worked in a lab and had to quit her job before she left for the US. But she ended up working for her former and current employer from the USA as a self-employed person, evaluating analyses remotely. And she also volunteered in the university lab, which was very interesting and rewarding. She was also teaching our sons. To ensure the boys didn't miss a year in the Czech school, they did distance learning and passed the differential exams when they returned to continue their studies the following year.

What about traveling?

We tried to make the most of it - it was another of my wife's agendas, by the way (since she is an avid traveler and a great organizer). When we had a long weekend or time off, we traveled. And after the Fulbright was over, we stayed in the US a month longer and went on a road trip to California and back for a lovely 26 days. It was a great experience (but I would think twice about visiting Death Valley in mid-July next time...)!

And my last question. How was the Fulbright Scholars meeting at the US Ambassador's residence in Prague upon your return to the Czech Republic?

I was surprised at how many showed up. It was interesting to meet Fulbright Scholars who had come back and had a similar experience like I did. I even met a few scholarship recipients who I had bumped into in the USA. It always surprises me that although they're brilliant at what they do, whether it's science or whatever else, how ordinary and friendly people they are.

Thank you for your time and such a lovely and honest conversation. We're glad to have you back.

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