Find the best people, create
good conditions for them
and then get out of their way
prof. RNDr. Jana Klánová, Ph.D.
Director of the RECETOX centre
Jana Klánová graduated from the Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science with a degree in Mathematics and Chemistry, and received her Doctorate in Environmental Chemistry. She has undertaken research in the fields of materials, molecular biology and environmental sciences in both the public and private sectors. Jana has been working at the RECETOX centre Since 2001, and has run the centre since 2013. RECETOX focuses on the study of relationships between the environment and health, and especially the impact of chemicals on the development of chronic diseases. The centre is involved in a number of international projects, participates in building monitoring capacities in Africa and Latin America and strives for better availability and usability of research data.
What were your career plans as a child and in high school?
The first career choice I remember was to become an astronaut. My teacher talked about spaceflight in the first grade and asked who would like to be an astronaut – I was the only one who said yes. Unfortunately, it has not happened yet. When I look back to my next choice, I feel like I put it off because I was interested in everything – I was taking part in mathematics and history competitions, I competed in recitations and I was acting in theatre, all at the same time.
Why did you decide to study teaching in mathematics and chemistry?
At high school, I was drawn more to the natural sciences, partly as the teachers of social sciences could not show me that they can be just as logical and adventurous. However, I couldn't choose between chemistry, which fascinated me, and mathematics, which opened the door to nascent computer science. In the 1980s, however, the curriculum was much more rigid than now, and the only way to combine the study of two specialisations was through teaching. Many high school students probably had the same problem. It is a good thing that the faculty now offers several interdisciplinary study programs.
According to surveys, teaching graduates are able to work well in a variety of jobs as the study of teaching develops the ability to communicate, argue and explain a problem well, and teaches them to work with people. What did the study of teaching give you in this respect?
I think that it is the interdisciplinary combination that provides the advantage. Particularly at the beginning of one’s studies, it is necessary to understand the basics of two, often completely different, scientific approaches. This is not easy for many students as they often have one preference; I can also see this in our current study programs. Nevertheless, the subjects of environment and health are essentially interdisciplinary. Both need a good foundation in chemistry and biology as we work with chemicals and technologies as well as with living systems. At the same time, current experimental techniques generate huge volumes of data, the processing and analysis of which require not only statistics but, increasingly, informatics, image analysis and artificial intelligence. We are facing tasks that a biologist, chemist, doctor or mathematician could not handle on their own. For the last two years, therefore, we have been offering interdisciplinary study programs at all levels, mixing chemistry, biology and medical-based subjects with mathematics, statistics, computer science and modelling in different proportions. It's not at all easy to find students with such a wide scope; nevertheless, I think that such expertise will be essential in the future.
How were you employed after graduating from teaching?
For the first year, I completed a study stay and studied mathematics at Masaryk University (MU). I then moved to the Faculty of Electrical Engineering at the Brno University of Technology for three years, where I specialised in microscopic analysis of structural defects in silicon wafers and image analysis.
You lived and worked in the United States for a time with your husband and small children. What did you do there?
I took care of the children. We left as soon as there was an opportunity after the fall of the Iron Curtain. We already had two small children then so my husband was studying and I was on parental leave; however, I took up my teaching profession again while there. At the campus school, I taught English to children from all over the world, and taught Czech in private courses to children and adults. It was an opportunity to travel, to get to know a different culture and language and to get to know oneself. The most important thing I learned was that I could live anywhere and that it was never too late to learn something new. I came back determined to start studying again.
In what way was it beneficial for you personally to have professional duties in addition to maternal activities?
Every mother will probably confirm that, in order to maintain mental balance, you need to have some time for yourself, your work and friends. I had the extra bonus of a new, inspiring environment. Michigan has one of the largest Czech-Slovak communities in the United States and it still cares about its roots. In my courses, I met families with children who wanted to relocate to the Czech Republic after the restitution and soldiers heading for missions in the Balkans, but my main contacts were with the descendants of Czech and Slovak families who had come to the States at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. These people still retained a strong relationship with the “old homeland” and, to some extent, preserved its culture. Some still spoke the language that they heard spoken at home as children, while others were less lucky and struggled with it from the beginning; in either case, it was worth it because it was part of the search for their own identity.
After returning from the USA in 1998, you returned to research work at the MU Faculty of Science.
Yes, I have been lucky in receiving interesting job offers and for having leaders who have provided me with opportunities and plenty of space for my own ideas. I learned about the possibility of working in the newly established Laboratory of Molecular Plant Physiology (now part of CEITEC) while in Michigan, and I joined them immediately upon my return. I spent three years there, which gave me not only research experience in the field of molecular biology but also experience working in a multicultural team on an ambitious project led by a person with international experience. This was not common at MU at that time. I have continued to benefit from this, even after moving to my present workplace.
While there, you were involved in the first European framework programme projects obtained by the university. How did this new project experience help you further develop your managerial skills?
At the time of my arrival, RECETOX (then still the Centre for Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology) was a small workplace with a minimum of grant funds. As early as 2002, however, we had won two European projects in which we took the role of coordinator. It was an interesting experience as, at that time, MU was not particularly ready for the implementation of European projects, let alone to coordinate them. In addition, we led a project focused on analysing the environmental impacts of the Balkan wars just after they had ended. You can imagine how prepared the other partners were for that. If I have ever been overwhelmed by administration, it was then; on the other hand, European projects have become our most important source of funding since then. Our cooperation with the United Nations Environment Program and the World Health Organisation dates from the same period. In layman’s terms, we make sure that global conventions for protecting human health from the effects of chemicals are based on solid data. This means engaging in global networks and coordinating projects in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
You received your Doctorate and habilitation in environmental chemistry, and since 2010 you have been the Executive Director of the OP RDI CETOCOEN project, which has helped build new capacities for the RECETOX centre at the Bohunice campus.
The CETOCOEN project was crucial for today’s RECETOX, not only for the building of a new pavilion and providing instrumental equipment for modern research but also by developing four interconnected research programs focused on environmental chemistry and photochemistry, ecotoxicology and protein engineering with environmental applications. At the same time, we developed long-term collaborations with the Departments of Chemistry and Experimental Biology at the Faculty of Science MU, foreign students, post-doctorates and Professors, each of which has brought in new expertise.
At the end of the project you were appointed Professor and, in 2013, you became the new Director of the centre after an international competition. What was new for you in this position?
Actually, very little. As Executive Director of the RDI project, I had already been responsible for the scientific and organisational development of the centre since 2010. However, in the long-run, it's sometimes easier to build things than keep them going. What does not develop is declining. Hence, I did not see my biggest challenge as surviving the five-year sustainability period of the project and keeping the centre “on the market” but to use this relatively financially stable period to create new opportunities for the time to come. We changed the scientific concept, complemented long-term environmental contamination studies with studies of the health of the Czech population, established new teams, invested in the development of epidemiology, modelling, bioinformatics and international partnerships, and applied for different types of projects. It has paid off.
What do you see the mission of the RECETOX centre as in relation to society?
Research for a healthy future, that is our motto. We take care of chemical safety, protecting the environment and society at large from the effects of toxic substances. We monitor their application and occurrence in nature and in human tissue, we study the mechanisms of both their effect and development in chronic conditions, and we contribute to the diagnosis and prevention of disease.
Under your leadership, the RECETOX Centre handles many large European and Operational Programme projects. Why do you think RECETOX has been so successful?
Because it holds together. I think that, rather than internal competition between the teams of one department, or between departments or faculties, the university needs a common vision with synergistic development and cooperation, in order to be internally stronger and more competitive in the world. Today’s science is interdisciplinary and requires the interplay of large teams. If RECETOX differs in any way from other institutes, it is through a shared vision and a general willingness to cooperate.
Recently (in October 2020), you received the MU Rector’s Award for extraordinary results in a grant competition. What was this for specifically?
In its 8th Framework Programme (Horizon 2020), the European Commission introduced new projects aimed at spreading scientific excellence in countries that have so far been less successful in the pan-European grant competition and at better integrating these countries into the European Research Area (ERA). There are three types of projects. In the Teaming programme, 13 centres were selected from three hundred applicants in a two-stage competition to become an island of positive change in their respective countries. The combination of European and national funding totalling € 30 million over seven years, together with the establishment of long-term partnerships with the best European universities, with a guarantee of institutional support for the parent institution and a degree of decision-making independence, will have a positive effect on each centre’s transformation, growth in quality and competitiveness. The ERA Chair similarly fulfils its objectives by allowing selected institutions to establish a new research programme led by a recognised international expert, while the Twinning program strengthens scientific and educational networks between European universities with a common research goal. Last year, RECETOX won all three of these projects at once, a unique achievement in Europe. For the next seven years, therefore, we have the opportunity to work with the best European universities, such as University College London (UCL) or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.
Many scientists do not “rush” to work in management, mainly because it takes away time for personal scientific work. What does the work of the Director of RECETOX give you and in what way does it fulfil you? On the other hand, what does it take away from you?
What exactly do you mean by working in management? Let’s face it, every scientist is a manager; however, in a university environment, the word often has an unnecessarily negative connotation because it gets confused with administration. Personally, I do not perceive the role of Director of the institute as administrative, I would rather use the Czech term ‘vedení’, i.e. leadership. At the beginning of every young scientist’s career, they must first learn to lead themselves effectively, by defining their research questions, organising their work effectively and providing results. They then need to learn how to raise funds for their research, both as regards running the project and paying students. They must learn to lead, to divide work among the team, to motivate the team and, at the same time, educate them, until they gain independence and responsibility. The role of the Director is no different. A good Director provides the direction of the institute, creates the best possible conditions for its development and looks for the best possible people in all positions – and then gives them creative freedom and independence in decision-making. It’s just another step in the same direction, not a step aside. What I enjoy about it is the room for creativity and the opportunity to realise ambitious visions – if you can find the courage to do so. I once heard a conductor say that, while he enjoyed playing an instrument, it couldn’t be compared to the feeling of producing the sound of an entire orchestra. Of course, this brings greater responsibility, and requires time and the need for communication on multiple levels.
Do you perceive any gender-related problems in science in the Czech environment?
I am reminded of a scene from the movie ‘Hidden Figures’. I highly recommend this captivating story of three African-American women who were given the opportunity to work at NASA while cybernetics was in its infancy. These three brilliant women were entrusted with calculations key to the success of John Glenn’s space mission, but none of their colleagues noticed that the toilets in this prestigious workplace were ‘white’s only’. As a result, the scientists had to play for time and take a cross-country run to a more distant facility during each break. With a bit of exaggeration, this is a good description of the position of women in science. While the company is well aware that it cannot squander their potential, and allows them to compete in the same discipline, the (mostly male) environment is not fully prepared for them. This is not necessarily due to any intention or ill will; rather, people tend not to think that old patterns of behaviour can be discriminatory. In this way, gender problems are often interconnected with generational problems. I believe that, with a gradual generational change, people less burdened with conservative thinking will enter leadership positions and the situation will improve. Not least as the issue of reconciling careers and personal lives is important for all young people today, regardless of gender.
There are still relatively few women in Czech science. Do you think more women in research or leadership positions could help science?
This is simple maths; if we lose most of the women along the way, we will lose half the talent that could move science forward. It is not about quotas; our goal should not be to have 50% of women, men, Czechs, foreigners from somewhere.… the goal should be to give talent a chance and not to lose people unnecessarily due to disadvantages. To give those who have the skills and want to work in research the opportunity to do so with a level playing field. Women, like men, must be able to decide on their path at every stage of their career; and if they choose science, they should not feel unwelcome or be made to suffer or feel underestimated. But all this begins with upbringing in the family. We need confident and tolerant young people, whether women or men.
Do you think it is important that parents maintain contact with their job while on parental leave, perhaps by working part-time? If so, why?
I would leave it to them. We are all different, we have different priorities, families and conditions. We should offer young parents a range of opportunities, respect their decisions and support them in their choices.
As RECETOX Director, what do you think is your primary task in relation to employees?
Find the best people for each challenge, create good conditions for them and then get out of their way.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin F. Roche