As I prepared to travel to the Czech Republic for ten weeks, I knew I would learn a lot about research and science, but I never expected the experience would teach me so much about myself. Ten excited students, including me, were a part of the Prozkoumat! group, and there is no doubt that we “explored” and discovered so much our host environment, European travel, science away from our home laboratories, and how people from all backgrounds still relate in almost every way.
My journey is a unique one, even before I started the literal journey by hopping on the airplane: I am a Biomedical Engineering major with research experience in Charles Wolgemuth’s biophysics laboratory at the University of Arizona. My experience in Wolgemuth’s lab with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease, helped prepare me for the world of parasitology research. I traveled to work in Petr Kopacek’s laboratory at the Institute of Parasitology, part of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.
This summer, I worked primarily with the tick Ixodes ricinus, which is closely related to the North American Ixodes scapularis. This was an adventure itself because I learned how to dissect a tick during my first day at work! The main project I helped start was that of determining which genes in the tick genome are essential for hemoglobin metabolism. Hemoglobin is made up of iron and transports oxygen through the blood in vertebrates. Ticks are blood-sucking arachnids, and they face challenges digesting the immense amount of hemoglobin they take in with their blood meal.
The hope of Kopacek’s lab is to determine ways to combat ticks and tick-borne diseases. One hypothesis in how that can be accomplished is by inhibiting the tick’s ability to digest hemoglobin. While working on this project, I learned how to synthesize double stranded RNA, perform PCR, isolate DNA, perform Western blots, and also how to inject ticks with double stranded RNA to observe any changes they have after injection.
Fortunately, I also had an opportunity to work with what I am familiar, Borrelia burgdorferi. Performing some small side experiments with this bacteria was strangely comforting. At the Institute of Parasitology, I did experiments with the bacteria and how it grew in tick hemolymph; at the University of Arizona, I observe how the bacteria move in different environments. It was exciting observing this organism from a different scientific lense in Kopacek’s lab as opposed to my Wolgemuth “home laboratory.”
One of the most incredible experiences I had with my group (both the American and Czech counterparts), was attending a research retreat in a cabin in the Czech woods. Not only was the location beautiful, but we had the opportunity to present our summer research to each other and all the other mentors. This was slightly nerve-wracking as I was the second student to present that day, but it was a great opportunity to present my findings and receive feedback on my presentation skills. Plus, we were able to share s’mores with our Czech friends! In case you wondered: no, they did not enjoy the delicious American treat.
On that note, I did make some wonderful Czech friends. They welcomed me into the lab and helped me understand Czech culture from the inside. For instance: if you really want to fit in, wear a backpack everywhere you go. Moreover, the people in the lab were so generous and kind by giving me some amazing gifts before I left; this included lots of chocolate and a sweater!
My personal journey outside the lab consisted of many weekend trips to nearby European cities, both in and out of the Czech Republic. I am impressed with my group and how much we accomplished – going to Berlin, Vienna, and Munich all on our own. We were lucky enough to have Carol Bender in the Czech Republic with us, and she was essential in coordinating once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like visiting the United States Embassy in Prague. We enjoyed food in Slovakia, the history of Tabor, the friendliness in Nove Hrady, and the novelty of Cesky Krumlov, though we were always glad to return to our home in Ceske Budejovice.
I thought I was going to Europe to enjoy an abroad experience that I paid for by working in a research lab; little did I know I would gain so much more: valuable lab experience, lifelong friends, and a greater understanding of who I am in this big world.
Being on your own in Europe, you find the strength you never knew you possessed to live and excel through the unfamiliarity. For that I cannot thank UBRP’s Prozkoumat! program enough, the Honors College for an internship scholarship to help with preparation costs, and the NIH grant 5 T37 MD001427 for making my summer truly incredible.