Prozkoumat! Experience “Eye-opening”!

If I had to describe my Prozkoumat experience in a single word it would be eye-opening.  After 10 weeks, I cannot recall what expectations I had for my stay in the Czech Republic at the University of South Bohemia,  but I am certain that they were all exceeded. The main reason for this conclusion would have to be the immersion into a new daily schedule where no matter if I was working in lab or walking through downtown České Budějovice  afterwards, everything was different from a regular day in Tucson. Personally, a study or research abroad program should let participants experience both “study” and “abroad,” and Prozkoumat allowed just that!

IMG_8113        I work in an insect-parasitizing nematode lab at the University of Arizona, so switching model organism, the sheep ked (Melophagus ovinus), would have been a large enough change. However, I also replaced the wet-lab analyses with bioinformatics. Instead of using microscopes and extractions to study lipids in nematodes, I used computer programs to study the symbiotic interactions within the blood-sucking insect. More specifically, I overlaid transcription values on genomic data, in order to determine how the genes, especially iron-related given the high concentration of the element in blood, were utilized within the association. The final goal of this project was to compare the relationship of the sheep ked and associated bacteria with that of the related and more well-studied tsetse fly, or vector of African Sleeping Sickness, in order to have more information on a similar hematophagous insect and bacteria symbiosis.

Having never worked with computers so rigorously definitely took some practice, but my mentor, Filip Husník was patient and always helpful. Varying from most other Prozkoumaters though, I was left to work fairly independently for about 5 weeks after he left for a conference. This provided its own learning experience as I had to learn how to troubleshoot specific computer issues on my own. Fortunately, my other mentor, Jan Štefka, was able to answer my more general lab questions. I was accustomed to easily being able to go to my mentor, Patricia Stock, with any question at UA, but at the Institute I had to think more like a scientist and solve some issues on my own. With Štefka’s support and Husník’s quick email responses, however, I was able to finish most of the bioinformatic work before the final presentation.

Although we were sent to České Budějovice for research, this was a weekday endeavor. The weekends were reserved for learning experiences of a different, more cultural variety. The ten of us made sure to use our Saturdays and Sundays to their full extent, visiting places within the Czech Republic. We toured cities including  Prague, the capital, Český Krumlov, a UNESCO site, and other smaller towns such as Tábor, Nové Hrady and Lednice. We also took advantage of the Czech Republic’s location in the center of Europe to visit cities across the borders like Berlin, Vienna, Bratislava and Munich. While we always enjoyed these longer distance trips in larger cities, we were always relieved to return to Č. Budějovice where downtown was within walking distance and the currency was back in our favor (it was roughly 25 Czech korunas to the American dollar). No matter what we did during the weekend there was never a dull moment!

IMG_8432           Our trips across Czech cities, Č. Budějovice included, revealed that Czechs were much friendlier than we were initially led to believe during our preparatory course in the Spring. This was emphasized by many Czech visitors, but if there was any difference between American and Czech hospitality, it was the volume. In most aspects Americans just tended to be louder and more outgoing, not necessarily any friendlier than Czechs. We were also a bit mistaken about the English fluency of the average person. Czech and English are vastly different and there was little hope of us learning such a complicated language in 10 weeks. Luckily, however, most waiters and cashiers were patient with our limited vocabulary and we were all proficient at pantomiming/pointing. We took these changes, along with extra walking and public transportation, in stride. Personally, I miss the efficient bus system since the Sun Tran leaves something to be desired.

This trip was made all the more special by the people I was with and fortunate to meet. I don’t think I could express my gratitude enough but I have to thank Carol Bender and Libor Grubhoffer for organizing this amazing program, along with my mentors Filip Husník and Jan Štefka for introducing me to their labs and making me feel welcome. I also have to thank the other Prozkoumaters for being supportive friends and pantomimers, and of course the NIH MHIRT grant for funding this experience and resulting memories.