Toxicologist working at RECETOX, Brno, gets scientific award from the King of Sweden: Interview with Dr. Sebastian Lungu-Mitea

Dr. Sebastian Lungu-Mitea became a new member of Dr. Klára Hilscher's research group in November 2021. Although he conducted his PhD in Uppsala, Sweden, he found the work of the RECETOX bioanalytical toxicology group so interesting that he decided to move to the South Moravian metropolis. Sebastian preferred Brno to Uppsala - even though he received an award for his scientific work directly from the hands of the Swedish King.

20 Jan 2022 Marie Hošťálková

Where are you from?

I come from Frankfurt, Germany, where I spent most of my adolescence, but I was born in Timisoara (Temesvár), Romania. My mother is Romanian, whereas my father is German. Now I ended up in the Czech Republic, and I am enjoying living in Brno. With its architecture, Brno reminds me of my Romanian hometown. The Brno city center and Temesvar downtown are very comparable. I often went to Romania to visit my grandparents when I was a kid. Nevertheless, I haven't been there a while. So, given the proximity (more or less), I plan to go soon. The location of Brno is more than convenient for traveling.

Does it mean you're bilingual? And which language do you speak mostly?

Yes, I am native in German and Romanian. However, my German is better given that I went to grammar school in Germany. Besides that, I am fluent in English and Swedish because I conducted my PhD studies in Uppsala, Sweden. My Italian is barely enough to order a pizza.

Hometown Frankfurt, Germany

And did you choose to settle down in Brno – at least for a while?

During my undergraduate and masters’ studies, which I conducted in Heidelberg (a charming old town, by the way), I majored in ecotoxicology. My PhD thesis was focused on molecular toxicology. Thereby, I got to know RECETOX from the international conferences I joined. Besides always meeting friendly RECETOX employees abroad, some of RECETOX’s projects caught my attention. Therefore, I was previously familiar with the work of the Bioanalytical Toxicology group and its head Dr. Klára Hilscherová. 

After finishing my PhD, I came across the vacancy at RECETOX, thought it would fit well, applied for it, and here I am. Thereby the vacancy was specifically interesting to me. I am working here on the so-called “ERGO” project (EndocRine Guideline Optimisation), which is part of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the major and most prestigious scientific funding framework of the European Union. Within ERGO we are working together with 15 partner research institutions from 8 countries, aiming at an augmented hazard assessment of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and thereby improved protection of humans and the environment.

Did you know anything about the city of Brno?

It was a strange coincidence, but my flatmate in Sweden was from Brno. She even helped me to find an apartment here. However, I didn't know any details about the city. Of course, I knew where it was located, and I learned a bit of its history (in a larger context). As pointed out before, I was primarily interested in the research projects of the Bioanalytical Toxicology group. I expected the city a certain way, and it worked out well. I started working at RECETOX in October, and I've been happy in Brno so far. Plus, the location is fantastic – I'm close to Frankfurt and Temesvar as well, with approximately six driving hours either way. It is a significant advantage, especially after living in Sweden, where everything was far off.

What is the area of your scientific expertise?

I consider myself an in vitro toxicologist. Previously, I designed in vitro methods based on zebrafish cell lines. The idea was to use the latter in a species-specific manner within a bioanalytical toxicology context. At RECETOX, I am working with Dr. Klara Hilscherová on the EU project ERGO, within the Horizon 2020 framework. We want to retrofit in vitro test systems with biotransformation capacities and use them in the high-throughput screening of thyroid disrupting compounds. In general, I would say bioanalytics are somewhat trending at the moment and will probably see extensive legislative endorsement in the future. The scientific community and stakeholders have realized the value of combining chemical analysis with bioanalysis, given that both types complement each other.

Swedish landscape

A little bird told me that you received a prestigious grant directly from Swedish king Gustav.

Indeed, I got a stipend from the Swedish king Carl XVIth Gustaf. The king set up a foundation on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. He supports young scientists who are focused on environmental sciences. The stipend was announced to me officially this summer, and at the start of December, there was a ceremony where you got to meet the king in the Royal Library in Stockholm. During the ceremony, he handed out the diplomas. However, we were briefed not to touch the king under any circumstances, so there was no handshake due to Corona. Anyhow, it was an exceptional occasion. Something you won't experience every day.

How many scientists got the stipend?

It's ten scientists per year, primarily early postdocs. One professor gets a grant for a sabbatical every year. On this occasion, it was some bird guy from Havard, he was also giving a talk, but unfortunately, I cannot recall his name. I can hardly relate to bird people (ornithologists). They always like to get up very early in the morning. Laugh. Regarding the stipend, you cannot apply for yourself. Instead, you need to be nominated. One of my former supervisors, now a professor emeritus, nominated me.

Is the stipend only for Swedish scientists?

Yes, it is. I was nominated for my scientific work when I lived there.

Does the stipend have an impact on your scientific work?

Regarding second-hand information I got, it seems to be prestigious in Sweden. Nevertheless, it is a personal stipend and not a research grant. Thus, it cannot be of great help in a practical scientific context. Anyhow, any budget is welcome, and I could use it in a research-related way (or buy fancy new skiing equipment, jokingly). Honestly, it is nice to receive it; I didn't expect it at all, and it is an excellent appreciation of my work.

When we get back to Brno, what do you enjoy here and what do you not like so much about the city?

I expected the city, especially the housing costs, to be lower, but I guess that is currently an international issue. Besides, the Czech bureaucracy can be tricky for somebody who doesn't speak Czech. But overall, I like the city a lot – I enjoy its beautiful historical center with restaurants and bars. Plus, I like the cultural occasions around the city, especially during the summer months. In early fall, I came to Brno for the first time to look for apartments, and I loved the late summer vibe. In the end, I managed to find a flat in Žabovřesky, so I can quickly get to the city center by tram, and it's very convenient for me to get by bike or car to Bohunice Campus.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Laugh. Moving to Brno was challenging. I lived in Sweden when I got the job at RECETOX, so I had to drive down all my stuff to Germany and the Czech Republic. Luckily, my dad has a camper, so I could fit in quite a lot. It was full of three days of car driving and moving. Additionally, the Czech language can be challenging, given that I don't speak it, but I got along so far. Many people speak English, and with the older generation, I try German. And I have already picked up a few Czech words. Friends and colleagues have taught me already some swearwords, so I am ready for daily traffic.

You said that you liked the location of Brno. Are you planning any other trips except for your visit to Romania?

I appreciate the location of Brno. It's close everywhere. I want to go skiing in the Tatra mountains in Slovakia, where I have never been before. People recommend going to the Alps instead of the Tatra mountains. However, I've been skiing in the Alps many times. Instead, I consider the Tatra mountains more remote and natural. Probably, they are also ideal for ski touring. You can imagine, I am pretty enthusiastic about skiing.

Do you have a place in Brno where you like spending time?

The Ossuary at St James's church was quite impressive so far. I enjoy the historical center and like to go sightseeing with visitors. Due to the rich cultural and culinary establishment, there is always something to do in town. In Brno, there are many exciting places. As well, I like the biking trail I take along the Svratka to get to campus. You live in the city, and at the same time, you're close to nature everywhere in Brno.

And can you recommend one Brno restaurant you like?

There are many great restaurants in the city center, but I spend a lot of time in the Bohunice campus and eating at Sklizeno is always a good idea!

Sebastian, thank you for such a pleasant interview. I hope you will accomplish all your travel plans. I wish you all the best in your career and also in Brno.

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