Student Aneta Vrzalová: I learn to see the world in context

Although many people imagined Aneta Vrzalová as a medical student, she preferred to study Environment and Health at the RECETOX research center, Faculty of Science, MUNI. In her undergraduate studies, she has already been actively involved in the FireExpo research project - investigating how the firefighter profession affects their physical health. She enjoys being part of the "real" science that impacts people's lives. And even after three years of undergraduate studies, she doesn't regret studying science instead of medicine.

15 Feb 2023 Marie Hošťálková

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Why did you choose to study the bachelor's program Environment and Health of all the natural sciences at Masaryk University?

I studied at Elgart Gymnasium, and I enjoyed science subjects. While browsing the Internet for undergraduate university courses, I came across Environment and Health at the RECETOX Research Centre at the Faculty of Science, MUNI. My parents initially wanted me to go more into medicine, but I knew I didn't want to go that path. And now, in my third year of university studies, I am confident I made the right choice.

What attracted you to study the Environment and Health program so much that you applied for it?

I had several reasons, both intellectual and personal. I chose it because even though I graduated in biology and chemistry, I wasn't 100% sure what to study next. And I was looking for a major that would overlap in different areas such as biology, human health, chemistry, and environmental sciences. With this major, I can look for a job as a lab technician or researcher in pharmaceuticals and health care, a technologist in the food and chemical industries, or even a government worker, whether in the Ministry of the Environment or even in the European Union. There are many possibilities.

And another reason was purely personal. I grew up next to a forest. I remember that the woods used to be green and full of life, and today it is much drier, which adds wrinkles to all of us. People must be aware of it. There are environmental problems, and human activity is primarily to blame for them, which is why the Environment and Health major in Science makes sense.

After three years of study, what are the most significant environmental threats?

That's getting harder and harder to say. Everything is connected to drought, population growth, loss of forest land, grasslands, and food shortages. It's not that simple. From my point of view, the problem is drought, which is also a problem in the Czech Republic. But our whole environment is a jigsaw puzzle - one slight deviation from normal causes a chain reaction, and more and more issues arise.

Do you teach in your courses how to change this?

We learn to think about the actual impacts of human activities, how they affect each of us, and how to prevent even more significant environmental problems in the future. It's about bringing together information from different disciplines. No cookbook on how to save the world doesn't exist. Laugh.

What would you recommend to high school students considering studying Environmental Health?

Look at the course syllabus to know that this major is very much about chemistry. We go into depth in each subject. Also, some of us (students) were surprised by the amount of chemistry later in the course.

Now that you're a RECETOX student - what's it actually like?

RECETOX has a big advantage, and that is that it is small. Laugh. Teachers know their students by name, and we are not just a number. You don't get that kind of individual attention in big lecture halls. But that doesn't mean we don't have those lectures. Laugh.

But are there any limits to the small size of the RECETOX collective?

Our classrooms are located on the other side of the Bohunice University Campus. Laugh. But in terms of people and science, it's a big plus. I appreciate it a lot. Plus, we all know each other as students, and it's always good to study with friends and partners rather than strangers.

Have you experienced any twists during your studies?

Not really... But I experienced several "aha" moments where particular objects no longer stand alone but fit into a bigger picture. Those were my repeated "twists." Suddenly, the connections are there, and one gets it, and it's so clear!

What about the "real" science? When do you get out of classrooms and into labs?

The student gets into labs in the first semester as part of the practical seminars, and beyond that, it also depends on one's initiative.

And where did you find out who is working on what research? After all, in the first year at uni, everything is unknown to a student.

In the first semester, we had a seminar in which the RECETOX scientists explained their research to students. The individual research group leaders talked about what they do and their research projects' goals. I was intrigued by Associate Professor Pavel Čupr's talk on the human exposome, so I wrote to him to see if he needed any help with his research. And so I also started to participate in fundamental research in my first year. The first thing I did was to prepare data from the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute for an article; after all, working with data is a "skill" every scientist needs, and I got involved in laboratory work.

What kind of research are you involved in?

The research project is called FireExpo and is focused on firefighters. The researchers are investigating how the profession of firefighting (men aged 18 to 35) affects their physical health. I'm working with blood samples to determine if the DNA in the blood is damaged and how much. We compare the blood of firefighters-in-training, professional firefighters, and sports college students. All groups are exposed to higher physical stress, but the athletes are not in contact with flame retardants (such as those found in firefighting foams) and combustion products. These are often carcinogenic substances.

Do you use your knowledge and experience in the lab also in your studies?

Not only that. In my bachelor's thesis, I am investigating the relationship between the effect of acting on firefighters and their white blood cell counts and DNA damage. That's our FireExpo. Also, I am contributing to a paper that RECETOX scientists will publish about the study. And I'm very excited about that. My main help is Dr. Katarína Řiháčková, thanks to whom I got abroad. I spent a week at a conference in Barcelona, Spain, where I presented my work at FIREexpo.

What about Erasmus?

I'm planning my Erasmus; however, I would love to go during my master's degree.

Will you study the subject Environment and Health in your master's studies?

I have no reason to change. Laugh. I have great classmates and teachers, and I'm part of a research group.

And what would you say to students considering RECETOX for their undergraduate studies?

They should go for it. During their studies, they will get access to modern laboratories. Plus, they can be part of actual research, which is priceless. And most importantly, the scientists at RECETOX are happy for anyone who wants to be actively involved in scientific work. That's the kind of environment you want to join.

Anetka, thank you for the interview. And we wish you every success in your future.





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