For popularisation reasons, finished research is often presented as a relatively simple process. But in the background of success there is a lot of work, determination and occasional disappointment.
Mgr. Jakub Švenda, PhD.
Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University
Jakub Švenda studied chemistry and biology at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University. He obtained his PhD in Organic Chemistry from Harvard University, Cambridge, USA, after which he worked at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Germany. Since Autumn 2012, he has been heading the Laboratory of Organic Synthesis and Medicinal Chemistry at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University.
Which field did you choose for your university studies?
In high school I was interested in biology and medicine and I was lucky enough to get a good teacher. I later enrolled on a teacher training course in Chemistry-Biology, along with geology, at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University (MU). In the end, I decided this was too broad a range of interests and so I concentrated on the teaching of chemistry and biology. I studied in college for a year before I came across organic chemistry in my sophomore year, and this subject fascinated me. I found the way my teacher, Dr. Petr Beňovský (formerly a teacher at MU and currently head of research at a pharmaceutical company), interpreted the subject really attractive. I had found my subject.
Describe the Laboratory of Organic Synthesis and Medicinal Chemistry, which you currently run?
We are trying to develop effective methods for the preparation of “small” organic molecules (substances with a molecular weight of less than 900 Daltons, which form the constituents of many current drugs) with interesting biological activity. It is our ambition to support MU by connecting classical organic chemistry, formerly a relatively isolated field, with biological disciplines. We communicate with biologists from both the Czech Republic (Faculty of Medicine MU, Czech Academy of Sciences) and abroad (e.g. the Max Planck Institute, Germany), who test the molecules prepared by us in their cellular systems. Both the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical research commonly use molecular biology and genetics techniques, along with small organic molecules, to influence important biological processes. We believe that some of our projects will prove important for clinical research.
How do you think a chemistry student becomes a successful expert?
Projects in our laboratory often start with biologically and structurally interesting organic molecules, for which it is then necessary to design a synthesis, i.e. a procedure for its assembly from smaller fragments. Students then try to implement this synthetic plan in the laboratory. Inevitably, unsuccessful experiments are part of this process and it is necessary to build up some internal resistance to disappointment. In the end, however, this process makes students into successful graduates and quality experimentalists. Anyone who has not gone down this path, maybe because they are lucky or are working on a project that has already been implemented by someone else, may be in for a surprise in the future. The whole process of developing small molecule syntheses is very exciting, however, and determined students who persist in their research will very often find a solution to the problem. Of course, there are also situations where it is important to say “We have tried everything possible, and we have to come up with an alternative strategy”.
Do you teach your students how to cope with research failure?
The ability to cope with failure is an individual matter. Successful students typically cope with problems relatively easily; I would even say that it helps them progress. It is important to go through this experience and to learn how to react in such situations, then the person remembers and carries that feeling with them. I see my role largely as supporting students during this process, a skill that I am still learning, e.g. how to communicate effectively with students and how to bring out their maximum potential so that they can then apply for a position at a good institution after graduating.
Do you see your teaching experience as a benefit now you work with your own research group? Definitely yes. I graduated in teaching, went through high school teaching, and ended up as a specialist chemist in a laboratory. Lecturing in college is still a relatively recent experience for me. It is not easy to develop into a good teacher but it is a skill I consider very important. In addition to the basic preconditions, this requires continuous and intensive preparation. It was inspiring for me to see how much time the people at Harvard spent preparing for lectures. It’s not only about knowledge, it’s also about the ability to perceive the problem from the students’ point of view, the ability to not overwhelm them with facts and to equip them with sufficiently flexible thinking. There is definitely no lack of information today; the question is, which what to choose and how to work with it.
What was it like, building a new working group?
I am relatively satisfied with the current size of the research group, but it has not been easy to build. As far as possible, I try to give every student interested in working in a chemical laboratory an opportunity, and some of these students are really very talented. However, experimental research is very expensive. At the beginning, I managed to get a European grant from the Marie Curie Foundation that helps integrate researchers into a selected institution. The financial support, which was very flexible, was absolutely necessary to retro-fit the laboratory at MU and purchase the chemicals needed for experimental research. In good institutions, it is relatively common for senior researchers to help new groups get off the ground, and I was lucky that one of my colleagues, Dr. Kamil Paruch, helped me significantly in this process.
What is the next step for the molecules that your laboratory develops?
In my laboratory, we focus exclusively on organic synthesis. However, we try to ensure that projects do not end with the preparation of a given molecule; instead, we see it as the start of subsequent chemical-biological cooperation. The biological context is different and depends on the properties of the particular molecule we are preparing.
What do you think our faculty can offer foreign students?
I think we have relatively high-quality infrastructure and, in our case, chemical laboratories that match those at a European level. However, the level of science and the good name of the institution are also key to attracting good students. Our laboratory strives to offer quality education in the fields of organic synthesis and medicinal chemistry, and I think some of our projects are very interesting. We are also working to ensure that there are courses of a sufficient range and quality and that it is possible to attend most lectures in English. We have many international students here already and we are now working on developing a Doctoral program.
What did your studies at top foreign universities give you?
Thanks to Alfred Bader, who established a scholarship for Doctoral programmes in chemistry at top universities (e.g. Columbia University, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and the Imperial College of London), I was able to study at one of the most respected chemical institutions in the world. There, I found myself in a well-established and well-functioning environment, which was very motivating. Ordinary Doctoral studies in the USA last five years (sometimes longer) and the selection of a supervisor plays an important role in shaping the student. I worked under Professor Andrew Myers, a top scientist in the field of organic synthesis and a really great mentor. I spent a lot of time in the laboratory with my colleagues, which created an almost family atmosphere. It was a great experience for me and I would like every student to experience something similar. I try my best to pass on my experience to my students and I am proud of their achievements. I'm glad that one of my students is now also studying chemistry at Harvard.
How does your research fulfil you personally?
I enjoy it. Organic chemistry is a logical process and many things can be deduced. We prepare new molecules and change their properties, which is fascinating. We often have to solve problems for which it is not possible to prepare fully in advance. Of course, when a difficult experiment is successful, it feels great. Even though we are always pushed by time and funding, it is important to make room for surprises in basic research and to be open to chance. It is really exciting when you observe something unexpected. It often turns out that similar observations have been described before, but not always. Then, when you focus on the experiment in more detail to find out how the whole process works, really interesting things can come out.
How do you relax?
My work fulfils me, but I also like to read about things that are perhaps only remotely related to chemical-biological research. In addition to spending time with my family, I relax with music. By playing the trumpet, I employ a completely different part of my brain.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin F. Roche