If you’d have asked me beginning of last year what I’d be doing this past summer, I never would have told you I’d be spending it doing scientific research in the middle of Europe. At that point in time, I’d never stepped foot in a lab, or out of the United States.
I had literally resigned myself to staying in the United States for my college career until Dr. Sterling gave an announcement about the Prozkoumat! Program in one of his lectures. Fast forward through an application and interview process, semester long class about Czech history and culture and I was somehow smack dab in the middle of Europe with nine other University of Arizona students.
Upon first arriving at the Institute of Parasitology in Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic, I remember feeling completely awestruck by how different everything was from my normal life. Now at the conclusion of the experience, I can say that the time I spent in the Czech Republic took me completely out of my comfort zone and exposed me to completely new experiences.
First of all, I was doing research in a lab full time rather than just a few hours a week. My research, under the generous guidance of Dr. Martin Kvac, was with Cryptosporidium, a diarrheal pathogen known for infecting young cattle and killing immunocompromised humans. Although I had worked with Cryptosporidium from cows in my home lab, the Czech lab required me to work with different species of the parasite native to birds.
I also had to hone new skills; previously I had only done molecular work but the Czech lab required a more… hands on approach. That’s right, for the majority of my summer, I was working with poop. I gathered it from ostriches, pheasants, chickens and cows, isolated oocysts from it, rehydrated it, homogenized it, and isolated DNA from it to run PCR – honestly I’m just hoping I didn’t smell like it.
The rest of the Prozkoumat group may have mocked my lab as “the poop lab” and given me the nickname “Shoop” but it was worth it; I was able to analyze 172 samples which helped lead to the identification of a new species and a novel genotype of cryptosporidium in birds as well as the identification of two populations for later research.
Along with my research I was also able to have an extremely rewarding cultural experience. Although my Czech was abysmal our Czech hosts were very welcoming and helpful. I was able to learn to use the bus system and go to the grocery store without upsetting the cashier, find a delicious Indian restaurant, and even participate in a public discussion about borders and immigration with a professor from the social sciences department from the University of South Bohemia.
Being in the country also gave a new dimension to issues we had touched on in class like racism and isolationism, the effects of communist rule, and lack of science funding. My friend and I were followed in stores, given dirty and suspicious looks, and even scolded because we were mistaken for gypsies due to having slightly darker complexions. Police checked our passports as we exited trains because they were trying to prevent illegal immigration of refugees through the country with the situation in Syria affecting the continent. And although these experiences happened to me in the Czech Republic, I definitely think they were reflective of greater issues throughout the world, especially those in the United States.
Of course, I want to make clear that the majority of my time in the Czech Republic was fantastic! I managed to visit various parts of the country, along with Slovakia, Germany, and Austria. I ate more cheese and meat than I had ever had before. I visited eerie crypts with painted skulls, marveled at castles and museums filled with beautiful art and history, made a snow angel in a glacier, and swam in an Alpine Lake.
All the while, I was able to make friends— both within the Prozkoumat! Group and without. I can now say that I have Austrian and Czech friends. We were able to share our culture through food (they made an awesome form of fluffy pancakes called Kaisershmarrn and I made them fajitas!) and I had a great time discussing politics and philosophies of civic engagement with my European friends.
In conclusion, my time in the Czech Republic was extremely life-changing. Being in an unfamiliar country with strange customs brought my own priorities, the advantages of practicing and studying science in the United States, and ideas about morality into perspective. I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to the organizers of this program and my fellow Prozkoumat-ers for making this experience amazing, and to the NIH MHIRT grant (5 T37 MD001427) for funding this experience.