"The first science communicators for me were already high school teachers,” says researcher and laureate of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic award, Barbora Rudzanová.

Barbora Rudzanová is a doctoral student in the field of Environment and Health, a researcher at the RECETOX center for toxic substances research, and recently also the holder of the Jiřina Michlová Prize from the Learned Society of the Czech Republic for the year 2024. In the interview, she explains why she is dedicated to the impact of chemical substances on human health, what makes her work at RECETOX unique, and what she believes the popularization of science brings. 

27 May 2024 Sabina Vojtěchová Barbora Rudzanová

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Your research topic is “The Impact of Chemical Exposure on the Human Immune System”. Why this particular topic?

My interest in it appeared already during my bachelor’s studies, when I was studying immunity and its mechanisms. The immune system fascinates me, it’s an endless interplay of all possible cells and molecules, there’s always something to discover. After my bachelor’s degree, I started to be more interested in the influences and factors that are in the environment around us and at the same time affect our health, and into which we also count chemical substances. When I had the opportunity here at RECETOX to study their impact on our immune system, I went for it.

Did a personal role model play a role in this choice of yours? Were you inspired by someone or something?

During the bachelor’s studies, where I studied biochemistry, I found a subject taught here at RECETOX out of my own interest. It was devoted to the basics of general ecotoxicology and was taught by Professor Bláha. I was attracted by the style in which it was lectured and its content. That was probably the moment when the topic drew me in and I started to think more about what and how influences us around.

Very recently, you were awarded for a study in which you and a team of other scientists dealt with a specific group of substances, namely perfluorinated compounds. Do you focus only on this group or is your research scope wider?

I am indeed primarily dealing with these substances, which are also called PFAS or eternal chemicals. When studying the mechanism of action, which I am dealing with, it is good to focus on one specific substance or group of substances, because each of them has a slightly different mechanism. In addition to that, we are now also working on a new approach to evaluating mixtures of substances. In everyday life, we are not exposed to just one chemical, but always a combination. The effects on human health can then accumulate. Describing the issue of mixtures is still a bit of a nut to crack for us scientists, so we are now trying to create a model that could help with predicting their effects.

What role do you think RECETOX plays in the quality of scientific outputs you are now able to create?

Without RECETOX, the publication simply would not have been created. It is the only academic workplace in the Czech Republic where the impact of chemical substances on human health and their mechanism is studied. In addition, I used the population study CELSPAC for my work, i.e. a group of people who voluntarily agree to provide their data for scientific purposes. As far as the Czech Republic is concerned, CELSPAC is also a bit of a rarity, because these are currently participants in the order of hundreds, which is quite a high number considering how big the Czech Republic is.

Would you recommend RECETOX to future students? And if so, why?

Yes, I really like RECETOX. It seems to me that we are still a small enough workplace for there to be a rather family atmosphere. I feel good here not only because of the work that I enjoy, but also because people here are nice to each other. I would definitely recommend anyone who is considering studying or researching in the field to apply to RECETOX or come and see us, for example, on Open Doors Day.

Let’s go back briefly to your success and the winning study. Why do you think it was your work that was awarded such a prestigious prize?

After finding out that the prize is awarded to a maximum of two students across disciplines from the whole Czech Republic, I honestly didn’t believe in myself much. But when I thought about it after the announcement of the results, I think the evaluators were attracted to the work by the topic of PFAS substances, which is very current now. This is a huge group of chemicals that we encounter on a daily basis and which have been found to be non-degradable and negatively affect human health. These substances have been used since the 1940s and so it’s quite a big problem. The EU has also noticed it and has been actively addressing it for the last year and a comprehensive regulation of these substances is being planned. In the study, we managed to propose and describe the mechanism of their action on one type of immune cells. It could therefore help in the future in assessing the risks of PFAS and serve in setting subsequent regulations.

Part of the winning study was also a popularization text. You yourself like to devote yourself to popularization. Why do you think it’s important?

Personally, I think that even though there are excellent popularizers of science, there are still not enough of them at present. We scientists do science because we enjoy it, it makes sense to us to explore and get to the bottom of various things and then share the results among ourselves and discuss them. But it’s a very demanding job and ordinary people out there still don’t understand much what we actually do. It would be great to explain it to them more, so that they could at least a little penetrate into our fascinating world of science and also get excited by it. I find it a pity that popularization is not something automatic that a scientist would do. I understand that it’s not for everyone, but I think that everyone who is at least a little close to it and it makes sense to them should try to talk about science in an understandable way and get involved in the popularization and communication of science.

Do you think there is enough space for popularization in science?

Unfortunately, it is not a priority, publishing is. Communication, in my opinion, would deserve much more space and greater emphasis from the authorities. Therefore, I was pleased that a popularization text was part of the competition work for the Jiřina Michlová Prize, which highlighted the importance of popularization. I think that’s a good impulse for scientists. In general, however, it is rather the case that if a scientist wants to devote himself to popularization, he has to find time for it himself. It would be great, for example, if courses in science communication were part of doctoral study programs.

Do you have someone among popularizers who inspires you?

Anyone who speaks with passion and enthusiasm always catches my attention. The first science communicators for me were already high school teachers, on whom it was visible that they lived their topic, and that it made them happy. I admire everyone like that and it’s kind of a role model for me.


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