5. Feb. 2021
29-years old Jiri Sedmik recently completed his doctoral studies in the research group of the Irish scientist Mary O'Connell at CEITEC Masaryk University. Jiri Sedmik investigated the role of RNA modification/editing in the brain and studied mutations in a specific gene called ADAR2 that cause epilepsy, mental retardation, and microcephaly. Mary O'Connell Research Group, where he just completed his PhD degree, studies protein called ADARs and is known worldwide for its unique expertise in this field. How does he evaluate the last four years of his life, that kick-started his scientific career? Why did he choose this particular research group? And how did studying at the CEITEC PhD School enriched his life? Find out in our interview with the fresh doctor Jiri Sedmik, whom we herewith cordially congratulate and wish him good luck while he continues to push the boundaries of human knowledge!
Why did you decide to do your PhD at CEITEC?
I am originally from Brno and I have a master's degree in pharmacy from the University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Brno. Towards the end of my studies, I started thinking about what I could do after the completion of the master´s degree and I tried to find out what do I really enjoy the most. A lot of my classmates decided to work in a pharmacy after graduation, but I knew this wouldn't fulfil me. Others wanted to work at the State Institute for Drug Control, and few decided to get a job in the field of clinical pharmacy in a hospital. While studying pharmacy, I had the opportunity to work in a laboratory and I realized that I really enjoy it. That's why I was looking for opportunities to continue working in a lab. I looked at research groups around the Czech Republic, and although I had experience in a microbiological laboratory, I decided to also look for positions in general biological laboratories focused on basic research. I heard very positive things about, back than the relatively new, CEITEC PhD School from my teachers at the University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences, who were involved in the CEITEC consortium, so I went to the website, read the open topics and signed up. From the beginning, I was fascinated by the beautiful modern environment at CEITEC and also by the fact that the institute had a such high number of international research groups.
And why did you choose particularly the research group of Professor Mary O'Connell?
I originally applied for a position in a research group of Michal Smida, but he told me that he already had several very good candidates, and made it clear to me, that it would be very competitive. I sent my resume anyway and got into the second round and was invited for an interview. Someone called me just before the interview and asked if I would be interested to apply also for Mary´s group. I quickly read all available information about her research and decided to give it a try. I was a little worried about working and studying under a PhD supervisor who didn't know any Czech, but on the other hand, it was clear to me, that as a scientist I wouldn´t survive without excellent English. I realized that doing a PhD in Mary's group could be a challenge, but on the same time also a huge opportunity. I saw Mary in person for the first time on the day I went for the interview. I was very happy that I managed to convince the panel to accept me. The panel asked rather general questions and they wanted to know whether the student had the basic prerequisites for working in a laboratory and sufficient motivation. So luckily it didn't matter that I knew just a little about ADARs and Mary´s research at the time. In the end, I went through a few more interviews and had several options. But I decided to join the group of Mary O'Connell at CEITEC and I definitely don't regret it. Only later, did I realize the many other benefits of doing a PhD degree under a foreign English-speaking supervisor with so many experiences from prestigious institutes abroad.
And how did it go with the English in the end?
Although I spoke quite good English at the beginning of my doctoral studies, my English has still improved a lot in the past four years. On the one hand, of course, it was because Mary and her husband Liam, who also works in the group, are both from Ireland, therefore I had daily contact with native English speakers while I was working and studying. Another good thing was, that the research group was extremely multicultural, my colleague Dragana for example is from Serbia, Ketty and Marilena are from Italy, Dasha and Jakub are from Poland, Jackie is from Australia, and Sampath, Anzer and Nagraj are from India. Occasionally, interns would come for the summer, one intern came from Canada and another one was an American of Czech origin who was studying in Great Britain. English was our common language every day in the laboratory, but also outside the laboratory, when we went out. And of course, there is a constant reading of scientific articles that will force every young scientist to learn English well. English is also extremely important skill for writing a good scientific article. One advantage was that we had an English Grammar course at CEITEC, so I learned a lot of grammar for writing. The last final check in any written material was then done by Liam or Mary, which was great, because I knew that my final scientific article would be of high quality not only from a scientific point of view, but also from a linguistic point of view. All this gave me the courage to write my own scientific articles in English.
Where did you finally manage to publish your research during your doctoral studies?
My very first article was co-authored. I helped with some experiments and I became one of the co-authors of the publication. But then I wrote two articles on my own research, where I was the first author. One of them was published in the prestigious American Journal of Human Genetics and subsequently our research also appeared in the Czech media. Great support in promoting our results was provided by the PR department of CEITEC, which is another thing, which I appreciated a lot during my studies.
What else did you learn?
When I applied, I didn't really realize how important the research on ADAR is in today’s science. ADAR has recently been linked to cancer, and if it could be inhibited, it could be used to treat some types of cancer. That is why Mary has recently received a lot of requests for review articles, which summarize current knowledge about a given problem. There is a great interest in the scientific community nowadays to learn more information about ADAR. Mary lets me work with her on these articles, and it's a great opportunity for me to think in detail about the whole topic and to read anything that is available and organize all the information. I sometimes read about something I have never heard of, such as a new technique, and it opens my eyes and gives me new perspective, or I get the idea that this could be tried, or suddenly a completely new idea for a research project is born. Such experience deepens my knowledge about the subject and at the same time develops my creativity. I am glad that Mary trusts me, and that she gave me the chance to work on such tasks.
You mentioned that you only later realized many other benefits of studying in a multicultural group under a foreign scientist. Can you please be more specific?
Mary is an amazing boss, who is used to very high standards from the prestigious institutions abroad where she worked, and she tried to provide exactly these standards to all of us in the group, because it was something she was used to, something that was absolutely normal for her. For example, she sent us to conferences from the very beginning of our career, because she knew that it was extremely important to overcome the nervousness and to establish valuable foreign contacts, which are extremely important in science. When she first sent me to a conference, I was terribly scared, I thought I still didn't know enough, and what would I do there? Mary often pushed us to leave our own comfort zone, but she always gave us enough support, and it was exactly this approach that helped us to constantly move forward. I am very grateful for that, because it was her who has taught me to be more confident.
When you compare doctoral studies at CEITEC with the experiences of your friends who study elsewhere. How would you say that the CEITEC PhD School differs from other doctoral programs in the Czech Republic?
In my opinion, CEITEC is absolutely exceptional, especially because it looks at science comprehensively and because it gives people support from the very beginning of their scientific career. It cultivates good habits and teaches young researchers from the beginning that things such as scientific networking, science communication, international collaboration, and continuous career development are an integral part of a scientific career. When I go for a conference, or if I will go to work abroad, I don't have to worry that I can´t do something that other scientists abroad can do. CEITEC works according to the model of established foreign institutions, and I like that. And there is always something going on here. Before the coronavirus crisis, I could just leave the laboratory in any given week and take part in some very interesting scientific lectures, a meeting with an interesting science personality, or attend workshop or soft skills training. Every Friday, we have a CEITEC Tea Time, where one can meet people from other laboratories. We also have a functioning PhD student organization that regularly organizes events for doctoral students and postdocs from the entire CEITEC consortium. Once a year we have a PhD Retreat with other partner institutes, where we have the opportunity to present our research and to meet new interesting people.
Another advantage is that most of the doctoral students in our group also have a part-time job in the lab or additional funding, and no one was forced to earn extra money outside the laboratory during their doctoral studies in order to survive on their doctoral salary.
And best of all is, that CEITEC is truly international. This is great not only because one can learn here good English. It was very enriching for me that I met here people from other cultures. It gave me the opportunity for self-reflection, and I now have many new great friends from many foreign countries. Thanks to the high mobility of scientists at CEITEC, almost all my new friends will now go to another country, and thus we all will have very valuable contacts in other countries and other institutes. This is very important in science and it is not yet so common in other doctoral programs in the Czech Republic. At CEITEC, however, diversity and mobility are very common. And that´s why I don't regret, that I chose Mary´s group and CEITEC.
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And what are your plans for the future?
I did not originally plan a career in academia, because I did not fancy the the idea of becoming a research group leader, which is something that most junior scientists in the academic environment want to achieve. But because I am not sure that I would be happy working for a biotechnology company, I decided to do a postdoctoral fellowship. From March, I will join the research group of Dáša Bohačiaková from the Department of Histology and Embryology at the Medical Faculty of Masaryk University. I will work with neuronal cells and cerebral organoids, which is a new and very promising research model for the study of Alzheimer's disease. So far, I have worked only marginally in this area, and I am very much looking forward to expanding my knowledge and to learning something new. And who knows, I might eventually find out that I enjoy research at the university and teaching students the most.
Thank you for the interview and we wish Jiri Sedmik good luck on his science career journey!