20. May 2024

She has a PhD in biomolecular chemistry, she led a junior grant of the Czech Science Foundation (GACR), but life eventually brought her to science management. For 12 years she has been working as Deputy Director and Head of Administration at CEITEC. She believes that CEITEC is leading by example and showing what collaboration between scientists and administration should look like.

You are Deputy Director for Administration at CEITEC. Originally, you were also a scientist, focusing on natural sciences, specifically on research into lectins in the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which often complicates the health of patients with cystic fibrosis. What was your journey to your current position?

I graduated in biomolecular chemistry at Masaryk University. Then I spent six years in science from 2006 to 2012, when I took the position of Deputy Director at CEITEC. I did my PhD, I spent a few months as a post-doctoral fellow in France, I had my own project, I was an investigator of a junior GACR grant. But I also experienced that before I got this project, I was not successful one year, I had to redraft my application, and only the next year I obtained the junior grant. The last year of completing this three-year project was full of thinking about whether and how to continue in science. I applied for the position of Deputy Director and Head of Administration and was successful in the tender.

During your scientific career, you also became a mother.

Yes, I defended my dissertation thesis with one child, and I had another one two years later. I went back to science part-time during my maternity leave. I had a great supervisor, Michaela Wimmerová, who allowed me to combine maternity leave with part-time science. My husband was also able to adapt his work schedule so that we could alternate and I didn't drop out of science. In fact, at that time I may have been one of very few women who managed to combine science and motherhood. I went back to work about six or nine months after giving birth. Then I applied for a junior grant after my second maternity leave. Still, I realize how difficult this period was and I am very glad that today there are more support programs for parents with young children.

So for you, the fact that you could not combine parenthood and scientific career did not lead to your leaving science? Or did that also play a role?

It did play a role. I was facing the decision whether to go to France for another long-term PhD. My husband and I discussed what it would mean for us. We have family in Brno and we wanted to be close to my husband's mother. We considered all the pros and cons of leaving. An important aspect was my husband's employment abroad. The final decision was that we would not be able to combine motherhood and my postdoc abroad. I managed to combine motherhood with science mainly thanks to an enlightened supervisor who was open to giving me the opportunity to participate in projects that I could organize as I needed. I could go to work at weekends, for example, which was fine, but I didn't feel ambitious to become independent. I knew I wasn't going to be a scientist who would start her own group.

What other possibilities were you considering?

When my younger daughter was three years old, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I did and didn't want to do. I was aware that I had good organizational skills, which is why I decided to move somewhere close to science, but closer to management. I realized that my strength lies more in transferring experience to students, introducing new processes or starting a new lab. I had an opportunity to try this out when we were moving to the newly built premises of the MU campus in Bohunice. At that time, in addition to the actual scientific work, I was also partly working as a laboratory manager or technician, and I was completely in charge of running the laboratory, which gave the manager a freer hand for scientific activities, which I also enjoyed, but I did not want to live in uncertainty about whether I would get a grant and therefore whether there would be sufficient funding for research.

So it was also the funding of science that contributed to your decision to stop doing science?

Yes, the instability of funding was probably the main problem. In my time, even my PhD studies didn't count towards retirement, the PhD scholarship was so low that I couldn't live on it independently, and I couldn't get another job because you can only do lab work in a lab.

Do you think that the conditions for scientists are better today?

Partly, yes. There is definitely a shift in the amount of scholarships, and there are more opportunities and possibilities for PhD students to get involved in grant applications and obtain funding for their salary and research. But at the same time, I think there is much more pressure today for results and for speed, and the pressure to secure dedicated funding has also increased significantly.

Being close both to science and administration

Do you miss science?

I don't miss it, because it's around me all the time. I can still walk into the lab and pick up a pipette (laughs). I'm in touch with the scientists and I'm happy when I can contribute to making sure they have as much time as possible for science. And the circle may be getting closed a little bit because now my older daughter has started coming to the lab to work on a project under her high school vocational activities. So we'll see where her path takes her.

How close are you as head of administration to the actual scientific work?

Still a lot. Because I'm part of the management of the institute, I'm always in touch with what's going on at the institute, what the trends are, what the institute's strategy is in science, where we want to go, etc. And it's so good and I'm glad for that.

What is the advantage of having a person with scientific background in an administrative position?

I think it's really useful because I'm able to bring science closer to the colleagues who are, for example, from a corporate background, such as accountants, HR people or often even project managers. I see it as a great benefit to be able to give them an insight into what's going on in science, how everything is organised, what scientists need.

I can also imagine what a PhD student might need, what a scientist does or might need, and how important it is to try to help scientists as much as possible precisely with the large amount of administration that they have to deal with. I am also continuing to educate myself and expand my management skills, for example I have become a certified coach or I have learned about the business environment as a part of my MBA.

Have you ever considered it a handicap that you don't have a degree in law or economics?

I certainly don't consider it a handicap. I've learned to trust the people who work with me. I am in a position where I am in charge of running the whole administrative “machine”, including the grants department, the finance department, the operations department, the HR department, as well as the science and innovation support department and event management. I think that a manager at my level does not have to be an expert in all the details of each agenda and understand everything. I have no ambition at all to talk the head of the finance department into whether a fund should be transferred somewhere, etc. I am convinced that you have to give confidence and competence to the people you supervise, because they are the experts, they are in charge, and when they work as a team, it is a guarantee that the whole thing works as well.

At the same time, I have learned a lot of new things in different areas over the years. And that's what I consider to be my strength, that I manage to connect people and information so that everyone feels that they are working in a team, that the work of one builds on and influences the work of another, and that's the strength. I want the information to flow to everyone who needs it and for everyone to be able to make good decisions based on it, to make the whole administrative machine work like a clockwork. That means that the cogs of all the departments and the people in them are working together, fitting together nicely and building on each other.

Does it bother you that scientists sometimes look down on administration and consider it to be unnecessary bureaucracy?

I look at it differently. The administrative demands placed on scientists are really high and it seems to me that it is getting worse rather than better. So I do not blame scientists who are often fed up with all the things that are required of them that are not science at all, and feel frustrated that they are left with less and less time for the actual scientific work. No wonder then that they are sometimes annoyed.

Since the very beginning, I have been trying to find ways to connect scientists and administration, to perceive each other's needs and to respect each other. After all, everyone is an expert in something, a scientist understands most about their science and the areas they are researching, and a financial manager or HR manager understands how to do financial reports or how to motivate employees. And I think that's what it's all about, learning to see each other's needs and respecting each other in what each of us does best.

It's great when a scientist can leave the bureaucratic agenda to the administration and can appreciate them for it, thanking them for helping the scientist to have more time for science.

In the past, there may have been a lack of understanding that people in administration can be replaced. However, what is important is that there will again be a person coming in to help them and provide the same quality of professional service. This is changing, though, and I'm very happy about that because I can see that it can really work together.

What causes the turnover of people in the administration?

It's a combination of factors. There is clearly a lot of competition on the labour market at the moment, because people in scientific administration usually have opportunities to find employment elsewhere, for example in the corporate sector. A big factor is often the public sector pay, which is frequently not at all comparable to that in the corporate sector. However, the dynamics of the environment brings CEITEC as an institution very close to the corporate environment, and employees are thus subject to similar demands for flexibility, speed and openness as in corporations..

Also, CEITEC is a workplace with more than 40% of employees who are foreigners from different cultures. Therefore, colleagues in the administration must always speak English at the required level. Our environment is also very multicultural and it is necessary to dedicate much more space for foreigners to ask questions, adapt and help them more, because we cannot expect them to know and understand the environment as well as our Czech colleagues.

When selecting suitable candidates for administrative positions, we always try to take into account, in addition to professional competences, what the candidate is like, what qualities they have, how they will fit into the team for which they are being selected. We are looking for, we want and we need the types of people who are proactive, who are not afraid to improve something, move something, computerize something, are not afraid of change and come up with new suggestions and ideas. All this puts much more demands on the administration than is usual in an academic environment.

And, of course, it also matters how quickly some things happen in the academic world. It's one thing to push for change in a company and another thing to push for change on campus. And sometimes that perspective and experience also play a role in whether an employee stays or decides to leave. It has happened to us several times that a departing employee has told us in an exit interview that it is very difficult for them to accept how slowly some things can be changed, even though they recognize that very often this is not possible due to objective reasons such as legislation. We do get feedback from the staff who leave and through that feedback we try to change some things so that we can retain our colleagues. We have a turnover rate of around 15% in administrative positions, which is normal in the Czech Republic for these positions.

Are you working systematically at CEITEC to change the perception of the role of administration?

Yes. I am optimistic because I believe that we are changing not only us as individuals, but the entire system. About 13 years ago, when CEITEC started, the idea of making a scientific institution like CEITEC closer to a corporate environment, where the professional administration would really be a service to the customers, i.e. our scientists, was new. I believed in that idea and I still believe in it because it makes a lot of sense to me and I can see that it works. I think that CEITEC is a kind of a flagship not only in excellent science, but also in the fact that it has managed to bring a partly corporate culture into the academic environment, e.g. teamwork and support, personnel development, evaluation and much more. The bottom line is that we all see ourselves as people who care about the same thing, have the same goal, and have a mutual understanding of each other's needs. This is what must unite us and we need to keep working on it. And the changes for the better are definitely visible. We even managed to be the first scientific institution to win the Company of the Year: Equal Opportunities award in 2020, of which we are rightly proud.

For example, one of the small things that I notice and which contributes a lot to building a pleasant internal culture within the administration is that a few years ago we decided to adopt a similar approach as in many companies: we don't use titles when addressing each other and we actually talk to each other on first name terms. It's great that you don't have to worry about who you're supposed to address by their surname or remembering what title they have. It creates a closer, more personal relationship between us. But changing the system isn't quick, and it didn't happen right away with us either. If you want to change the system, you have to be patient.

From a start-up to a big company

How many employees are there at CEITEC and are the administrative positions under the scientific teams or are they centrally unified?

In total, CEITEC has about 500 employees, of which about 15% are administrative staff. But at the beginning, the central administration was smaller. This was due to the fact that initially assistants, administrators or project managers were part of the scientific teams. Later on, the whole administration was unified and scientists didn't have to worry anymore about where to find funding for a person to help them with the administration. Gradually, the small administration, a kind of "start-up", became something a bit bigger and it became harder to do what we did at the beginning. Like celebrating birthdays with everyone, and also we were all kind of doing everything together, it was all about the interactions between people. As we grew in size, we had to go through management changes, set up rules, processes, create a clearer structure of departments, responsibilities and competencies and work more on building teamwork. We had to get used to the transition, to the fact that we all have our share of the work, there are some continuities and everybody just can't do everything. And this very subtle work with people took many years, it was a whole system of training and mentoring, and it had to start from the team leaders so that they could transfer that to their people.

Nowadays, scientific groups do not normally have positions such as economist or project manager in their teams. When a new head of a scientific workplace joins us, he or she gets all the support we have. They don't have to worry about whether and where they will get funding for administrative support. We provide professional support whether or not he or she has grant funding. We tell them: come to us, just do science, and we will give you the complete portfolio of people you need here. And the more resources you have, the more capacity we'll give you in terms of HR manager, administrator, project manager or economist and other staff. I like to use the light bulb analogy, just plug it into a socket and the light bulb can glow, and the scientist can do science.

Do you attempt to bring the team together in any way? Do you organize teambuilding events or take administrative staff to the labs?

Yes. I care about building a good team of managers who are really managers and who understand that people need to be taken care of. Let's face it, most often what keeps us at work is the team we have around us and the leader we have. We do have teambuilding events within the administrative departments, but we're really a big team now, so we all meet once a year and during the year each department has their own events and meetings that help build relationships within the teams. Once a year we also try to organise a tour of the labs so that our colleagues can maybe get a better idea of what being a scientist is all about and what the scientific environment actually looks like and what is done there. Every now and then I get the idea in my head that maybe it could work the other way around, that scientists could have a closer look at what their colleagues' work is about in administration and what challenges they might be facing, maybe something like short internships for those who would be interested. But these are just ideas for now.

Do your administrative employees have the opportunity to work from home?

Yes, they do. And of course, the demand is becoming more and more frequent. The possibilities of working from home have been greatly advanced by computerisation during the Covid period. People can work from home at least one day a week, but we also try to make sure that there is always someone in the office. Time is speeding up and it's taking a toll on our physical and mental health. So it's good that our colleagues are asking for the opportunity to balance their work and family life.

Do you bring up any innovations in the administrative work?

Definitely, we are testing the possibilities of AI involvement for example. I think that in the future it can help us to streamline different areas of our work, such as PR or event management, but also help us with the preparation of reports and analyses. Personally, I also have a goal to explore tools that will take minutes of meetings, because I don't like this repetitive work at all and if AI can help me with this, I would be happy. Times are really fast and challenging and we need to continue to computerise and streamline the things we do routinely.

A couple of years ago, there was a debate whether all the big infrastructures such as CEITEC, BIOCEV, ELI, IT4Innovations or ICRC would survive. Do you think that CEITEC has now secured its position?

I think it certainly has. We're a place where really great science is done. Of course, there is good science being done elsewhere, but we are really unique in our management system and the way we operate in general. I'm proud of the brand we've managed to build, that we've managed to attract foreign staff and that we can be an inspiration to others. So we are certainly not fighting for survival, but on the other hand, our position in the system of financing public universities is not an easy one..

And how successful is CEITEC in attracting foreign researchers?

I definitely see a shift for the better. When we open a position for a research group leader, we are getting more very good candidates to choose from. It shows that the CEITEC brand has a name abroad. But there is certainly still room to move forward and improve.

We are also working systematically to make foreigners feel comfortable here.

And now the classical HR question: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

At the moment I'm really enjoying what I'm doing. I'm a person who puts a lot of myself into my work and I have to be careful about that because you have to protect your inner self a little bit. No matter whether I'm here or anywhere else that life takes me, I'm convinced that I still want to be who I am. Optimistic, cheerful, smiling Martina. And most of all, I want to be around people I enjoy working with as much as I do now.

Author: Vladislava Vojtíšková (Vědavýzkum.cz)

Martina Pokorná is Deputy Director for Administration at the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) of Masaryk University. She graduated in biomolecular chemistry at Masaryk University in Brno, where she received her Ph. D. and in 2007 she received the Rector's Award for excellent scientific results and representation of Masaryk University. After her postdoctoral stay at CNRS in France, she returned to the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University in 2005. In 2012 she changed her career path and took up a managerial position. In her current role at CEITEC Masaryk University, she is responsible for the comprehensive management of the operational and development activities of the institute. She holds an MBA degree and IPMA Level B project manager certification. Her goal is to minimize the bureaucratic burden on scientists.

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