Maintain or improve interpersonal relationships. That, in my view, is the basis of any meaningful collective action.
prof. RNDr. Milan Novák, CSc.
Department of Geological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University
Milan Novák studied professional geology at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University (PřF MU) * and, after graduating, went on to work at the mineralogy-petrography department of the Moravian Museum (MZM). From 1999 to 2002 he was Head of the Department of Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry at PřF MU and, from 2003 to 2007 and 2016 to 2017, he was Director of the Department of Geological Sciences, PřF MU. Professionally, his main focus is systematic mineralogy and minerogenetic processes. He has published widely, has organised a number of international scientific conferences and has long been involved in international scientific cooperation.
Photo: M. Novák Archive
Did you have any idea as a child that you would enter a profession related to geology?
As a little boy, I liked to go into the countryside, where I came into contact with plants, animals and rocks, and these somehow enchanted me when I was around 8–10 years old. I started by collecting rocks, at first more by chance; then I got my first book on mineralogical localities in Czechoslovakia and trips to the countryside with my father, who was a great rambler, began to have a clear goal, we would visit mineral localities all over Czechoslovakia. As early as elementary school I wanted to be a geologist, though my parents didn’t like the idea much; they would say things like “do you want to live in a caravan somewhere?” and “what will you eat?” So, I started learning to cook in elementary school; a skill that has stood me in good stead for a lifetime.
How did you come to study at PřF MU? Was it a clear choice?
For my part, yes. It was close to Vyškov, where I live, and moreover, it seemed to me to focus more on science and mineralogy and less on practical aspects, such as mining of raw materials, which was much more the focus of the Technical University (VŠB) in Ostrava where my parents would have preferred me to go.
How did you get into geology, and particularly mineralogy, your speciality?
My focus on mineralogy followed naturally from collecting minerals. When Doc. I. Krystek asked us whether we already knew which geology discipline we were interested in on our first-year geological excursion, only Jirka Kalvoda and I clearly preferred palaeontology and mineralogy. We were not praised for it, on the contrary, yet today we are both professors in these fields at Masaryk University. However, the transition from collecting to science took some time. Once I started working on my dissertation, however, it was decided; after all, research is more interesting than just having a collection of minerals. I like to collect minerals to this day, but only for museum collections or for research.
What has stuck in your memory the most from your studies at the Faculty of Science in the 1970s?
Most probably an excellent group of classmates and most teachers. I especially remember experiences from geological excursions and various ‘less official’ events, which were often not directly connected with geology. It was only then that we lived in reality, not virtually; and most importantly, we were young – we love to remember that.
How did your perception of a career develop?
At first, I just wanted to be a geologist without any particular specialisation, mainly so I could work outdoors. I also liked the idea of collecting minerals as a profession. After graduation, therefore, I joined the Moravian Museum, following an offer from Dr. T. Kruti. Even then, I felt that scientific research would be the right way to go, but at the time I wasn’t thinking of a Doctoral degree at the Department of Mineralogy and Petrography at Masaryk University. Sometime later, however, I took advantage of an offer from Prof. F. Čech at the Department of Mineralogy at the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague, where I later completed my Doctoral studies as an external student. Later, I met Doc. P. Povondrou, and through him Prof. P. Black in Winnipeg (USA). From that point, my scientific focus was decided, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about a position as a university teacher at that time.
After graduation you went to the Moravian Museum, where you worked as a mineralogist (1977–1994) and, later, as Head of the Mineralogy and Petrography Department (1994–1999). What did you learn from this job, both from a professional point-of-view and as regards management experience? What differences did you notice compared with the academic environment?
Working in a museum gave me many things. Above all, the broad scope of the museum, which includes natural and social sciences, gave me a somewhat broader view of scientific disciplines in general, which was useful to me during my time at the Accreditation Commission of the Ministry of Education, for example, where I represented Earth sciences. Our research in the mineralogy-petrography department also had a wide scope, so I now have a wider overview of broader geological problems than just mineralogy and the geochemistry of pegmatites, which is currently my most common study subject. Simply put, I now have a broader view of the subject. Also, greater public openness through exhibitions, lectures and cooperation with amateur mineral collectors. It was also important that I led the department, which taught me to deal with people and lead them, although I got a much harder school in this during the war, where I was a platoon leader. Aside from that, management of a Faculty department is much more complicated, in that the number of employees is about 10 times larger and, most importantly, you have responsibility for students and their teaching. Today, however, it is difficult to compare, though here and there the increase in bureaucracy is huge.
How did you cope with the constraints imposed by socialism? What did November 1989 mean to you?
I think I spent this time like many others. Of course, I was bothered by many things, but because I didn't know what life in a free society was like until November, I didn't find it difficult. I lacked the opportunity to travel, but given that the Moravian Museum was a much more liberal institution at the time than Masaryk University, I was able to work relatively freely; I was even allowed direct written contact with Prof. P. Černý, who had emigrated to Canada, then a completely unthinkable thing at the Department of Mineralogy and Petrography, where Prof. Černý had graduated. After November, everything changed. Prof. Černý arrived in Brno at the end of January 1990 and we immediately started planning joint research programmes, which then lasted until 2018, when he died.
Between 1991 and 1993, you completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, under the guidance of Prof. P. Černý. What was this experience like after years of limited travel?
It was a huge change that is hard to describe for those who have not experienced it. Suddenly, there was a chance to learn something I had never even dreamed of. On the other hand, I had a wife and two children at home and the situation at the time did not allow us to all go there. However, I managed to convince my wife that this was a chance not only for me but also for her and the children. My stay in North America allowed me to visit many mineralogical sites and national parks in Canada, and especially in the USA. I also made some trips with my wife and children, who came to see me for four months. To this day, the children remember the two months they spent in a Canadian school. It was a huge sacrifice for my wife to stay alone with the children for almost two years.
What inspired you the most at the University of Manitoba and what did you take from there for your later work at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University?
There were many things. First of all, the huge workload of most scientists at the institute; it just did not compare with what I knew from this country. The biggest stars of the Institute of Geology at that time were the mineralogist Prof. Petr Černý and especially the mineralogist and crystallographer Prof. Frank Hawthorne, who was a world leader in the field at the time. Working with them was truly inspiring. Especially interesting to me was their focus on the study of processes and not the regionally descriptive approach that dominated in our country at that time. It was also really important that I met a number of top mineralogists in Canada and the USA, some of which I still work with to this day, though often through my former students, now colleagues.
How did it come about that you transferred from MZM to the position of Director of the Department of Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry PřF MU, and later Director of the Department of Geological Sciences? What did you consider your most important tasks in these new positions?
At that time, I had been in the same workplace for over 20 years and I felt that I needed a change. Moreover, at that time, the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Masaryk University was Professor R. Brzobohatý, one of those teachers with whom we had a very good relationship as students, so his offer was actually attractive to me. Because I came from outside and had cooperated widely with foreign scientists, I was relatively independent and was in a better position to promote change, particularly as regards greater foreign cooperation but also the improvement of laboratory equipment. In my opinion, these were the main problems at that time. Furthermore, it was necessary to increase the quality of scientific research, but this was a much more complicated and long-term task, which to some extent continues to this day.
As Director, what did you see as your primary task as regards employees?
To maintain or improve interpersonal relationships. In my opinion, this is the basis of any meaningful collective action today, perhaps somewhat underestimated and replaced by the overuse of digital connections.
What methods did you use to improve interpersonal relationships?
I dealt with all important matters in person, even though it was sometimes unpleasant for both parties, and most importantly, all matters were discussed, both officially at the institute’s meetings and at a number of informal meetings. For example, in 2003 we discussed merging of the different departments into one single department for almost 1 year before a secret ballot was held at the joint meeting. Today, maintaining personal contacts is gradually being reduced by digitisation, which is possible in the case of routine matters but fundamentally bad when it comes to important decisions. At the moment, there is a rational reason for this, coronavirus, but I’m afraid this approach will become more of a rule, and it will soon be reflected in the fact that things do not work as well as they did. Personal action, although burdened with emotional factors, is more effective than the most perfect digital connection, but usually more time-consuming and otherwise demanding.
From 2005 to 2017, you served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Mineral Nomenclature of the Tourmaline Supergroup at the International Mineralogical Association (IMA). What did this mean for you?
Above all, it was a huge honour. Being the Head of the subcommittee that prepares the nomenclature of such important minerals, and in a team of top world scientists, is an appreciation of my activities related to the tourmaline group, i.e. not only a number of publications but also organising international conferences and other activities related to the Commission for New Minerals at IMA, in which I’d represented the Czech Republic for quite a while. But it was also a test of my organisational skills to handle the individual personalities within the subcommittee. Most of these contacts took place via email messages and we only met personally perhaps once a year at scientific conferences. It is these personal meetings that have always significantly accelerated our work (compared to digital communication) and confirmed to me how important personal meetings are, even though they are sometimes more emotionally demanding.
You also teach students how to write professional articles. What do you think is the essence of a good scientific article?
A good scientific article must be based on a good idea and include an overview of current and older literature. Furthermore, the article should have links with other related fields so that the problem can be addressed in a broader context. It is quite common today that the writer concentrates too much on their own specialisation without putting it into context.
When creating a scientific article, how important do you think it is to remain patient and be willing to return to the text repeatedly?
This is an absolute necessity; and by repeatedly I don’t mean twice but at least 10 times or more. From a formal point of view, it is necessary to hone the style as well as the order and continuity of individual chapters and subchapters. At the start, it is necessary to explain why the study was done and where we want it to move the subject forward, and at the end there should be a clear summary with an emphasis on what we found out and how we have moved the subject forward. In terms of content, the writer should constantly develop a story that the reader understands, the information should follow in the right order and leave the reader curious for more information. Another important thing follows from this, writing articles requires continuous work for a relatively long period, often around one year and usually longer. This is where a lack of perseverance can be a problem.
What other “skills” are important in publishing activities? What are the main things you teach students about writing professional articles?
It may sound strange to some but before they start writing for themselves they should read a lot, and that doesn’t happen much today. In doing so, they shouldn’t only read articles close to their topic but also those with a slightly different focus. Then they can start writing articles on simpler topics, before moving on to lower level journals and then gradually writing more complex articles aimed at prestigious journals. Students must understand that learning to write good scientific articles takes a long time.
There is still a relatively small representation of women in Czech science. Do you think more women in research and leadership positions could help science?
Women usually approach problem solving somewhat differently than men, so a combination of female and male factors in most activities will clearly be more advantageous. However, it does not apply to all fields of activity in the same way and, most importantly, it is still necessary to create the right conditions for it. I think the main problem here is that we do not sufficiently support women with children, both through reasonable laws and the steps that MU itself can take, such as suitably located crèches and kindergartens. There is now a children’s group on campus and, as far as I know, the university is now looking for a suitable space for such a group for faculties located in the centre of Brno. Like it or not, women will continue to have children, otherwise we will all die out, so they will often be disadvantaged in some way. Most importantly, it will take time, so first you need to create the right conditions and gradually the situation will change. Different quotas will not solve anything unless we create the appropriate conditions.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin Roche
* In the text we only use the designation “Faculty of Science, Masaryk University” or PřF MU, even though it was known as the Jan Evangelista Purkyně University prior to 1990.)