Success Stories

Education requires teamwork, with responsibility on both sides of the teacher’s desk, says Jan Böhm, biostatistics teacher.

Jan Böhm, from RECETOX, teaches students biostatistics, teamworking and how to undertake interdisciplinary studies. What do you wish for teachers on Teachers Day? Is it possible to teach relay programming? How did he win the Rector's Award for Outstanding Teachers? You can read about all this and more in the interview below.

Jan Böhm MSc

Biostatistics and data analysis, RECETOX, Faculty of Science
Institute of Pathological Physiology − Faculty of Medicine

Jan Böhm comes from Silesia, but his studies in mathematics and statistics brought him to Brno. There, at the Faculty of Science of MU, he first studied a Bachelor's degree in Statistics and Data Analysis and then was one of two students in the year who pursued a Master's degree in Modelling and Computing. A few years after that he tried to get a PhD in Mathematics, but (so far) unsuccessfully. From 2017−2022 he taught statistics at the Faculty of Economics and Administration at MU and also practiced a number of courses as part of his PhD studies. Since 2021, he has been working at RECETOX as a biostatistician and also teaching a bit.

Photo: Irina Matusevich

This interview will mainly be about your work as a teacher at our faculty. So let’s start with the question: what would your life be deprived of if you didn’t teach?

First, contact with young people; and second, the ability to fulfil my inner need for exhibitionism and the opportunity to stand in front of people and show my extrovert side. But the primary thing is the desire to pass on what I know. That’s what drives me. When I was studying, I thought I could probably do it better than some of the teachers; and now I’m trying to prove it, while not killing the students desire to improve and educate themselves. Sometimes students feel that teachers are trying to trip them up and make things as complicated as possible. It’s a feeling I used to have too, and now I know it from the other side. I still think there are gaps in the education process.

Do you manage to fill these gaps now you are on the other side of the teacher’s desk?

I think I now better understand where they arise. A lot of things, no matter what kind of work you do, can be done quickly and easily, so that you lighten your job a little; but then the effort is transferred to someone else, and in the case of teaching, it is transferred to students.

“I enjoy applying mathematics and statistics in biology more than in the financial world because I find it more useful for humanity than counting money in the bank”, says Jan Böhm. Photo: Irina Matusevich

What would you like to wish all teachers on Teachers Day?

I would wish one half more humility, and the other more self-confidence. But everyone must choose for themselves.

When you were young, what did you think your future profession would be?

In the second grade I wanted to be an entomologist, and that got me into grammar school, where I developed an interest in medicine. It wasn’t until sometime before graduation that I decided I wanted to do mathematics, mainly because I didn’t want to memorise so much. I didn’t like the idea of learning the all the Latin names of things; instead, I was more interested in trying to understand different mechanisms. I knew that I wanted to study mathematics and that I didn’t want to go to Prague. I’m from Silesia and I wanted to become independent, so Brno was a clear choice.

What did you choose to study at Masaryk University?

I started with statistics and data analysis in my Bachelor’s degree, and continued my Master’s studies in the Mathematical Modelling and Calculations programme. I was on the PhD course for a while but didn’t finish it. I enjoyed doing applied maths, things that aren’t exactly ‘exact’ but functional and accurate enough to solve our everyday problems. Of course I was also devoted to programming and algorithms, it is impossible to do applied maths without them. I actually enjoyed applying maths and statistics in biology and physics more than in the financial world because I find it more useful to humanity than counting money in a bank. I am now improving my biological background here at RECETOX.

Did you do any research during your studies?

This is simple in mathematics; all you need is the internet, a pencil and paper and you do research😊. Other disciplines don’t have that; you have to go to the laboratory or into the field. I had authored certain parts in my diploma, which I understand as research. I studied differential equations, i.e. equations describing developments over time, and the applications touched on medicine. After COVID, everyone now knows of the models applied to epidemics. Similarly, the immune system’s response to infection can be modelled over time. How do bacteria begin to multiply, for example, when the body registers the infection and instructs the body to “produce white blood cells”. White blood cells mature longer than the bacteria have had time to multiply, however, and that’s why a person will be sick for two or three days before the white blood cells start to form and the patient starts to get better. I tried to describe this process with equations and tried to predict how the situation would develop in different situations, such as when the pathogen does not completely disappear, then there will be chronic infection and recurring attacks of the disease.

What research are you currently engaged in?

I analyse data. I’m developing new methods and tools to do this, but I mostly support biologists and doctors who want to do some research but don’t have the level of statistical knowledge required. That’s why it’s good that groups like ours exist. We also do research in statistics, how to process data and the like. We are constructing new tests that are better suited for the type of data we have at RECETOX, where we deal with problems that are specific to biology. We may have a small number of samples, but we measure a large number of things with them; like the microbiome, which may contain thousands of bacteria, of which we only require a hundred samples. For most statistical methods, we would ideally have the opposite, i.e. thousands of samples and a hundred variables to monitor. The data we work with may also have non-standard properties that require specialised tools for their analysis. We are solving a number of unsolved but solvable problems – it’s a challenge, and I enjoy it.

“Students come to understand that each person is doing their part in the huge pipeline that is the entire project”, says Jan Böhm. Photo: Irina Matusevich

How and when did you start teaching at MU?

It was in 2017. I was in a pub with a friend, and we were organising the ‘Puzzled Pint Cipher Party’, in which people in pubs are given ciphers and they have to solve the puzzle; it’s an international event. At the time, my friend was writing his Diploma in Vienna and had data from magnetic resonance imaging. We speculated on how to solve it, and a colleague from the Faculty of Economics got up from the next table and asked if I would like to teach statistics there. We agreed; I found it interesting, and I taught there until COVID. It was a mass statistics course for 300 to 400 students. This is a big difference to teaching a group of 30, where you know the students personally and can attend to them individually. The point was to set up a robust system that didn’t exhaust either the teachers or the students, because it’s demanding for test corrections and exams.

I was interested in the fact that you appeared as a trainee at SCI MUNI in the subject ‘Team project from Mathematical Biology and Biomedicine − Biomedical Bioinformatics’. In this, students solve a bioinformatics task as a team. First, tell us why teamwork is so important in bioinformatics today?

It is not just teamwork; interdisciplinary cooperation is also important. All projects involve economists, people in laboratories and bioinformaticians who crunch the results into numbers, evaluate them and pass them on to other experts who write the paper. It often involves many fields and different motivations, often medical. Students come to understand that each person does their part in the huge pipeline that is the entire project. They learn they must cooperate with others and share information and results, and that it’s complicated. It’s also about the human side, getting along and not making things worse than they have to be. In my course, students try this out in a small group, two students and me, on a project that can be completed in less than a dozen hours of work per semester. It is also important that students realise that school does not prepare them for everything. As a teacher, it is important for me to give students the tools to be able to quickly orientate themselves in a new issue that is based on their specialisation. It is important to develop the ability to quickly dive into an issue they are unfamiliar with, and then to be able to follow up, connect the data and show the result. It’s a win-win − they learn teamwork “from below” and I learn it from “above”.

“The main thing is not to hinder teamwork. The task and assignment can be distributed among the students so that they can work together from the beginning”, says Jan Böhm. Photo: Irina Matusevich

How did you learn teamwork?

Well, I am a member of ‘Instructors Brno’, and we do experiential pedagogy (education). We prepare various experiential events and encryption games, such as the game ‘Tmou’. These events require you to work in a team; it’s about group dynamics as well as the ability to do things efficiently in a set time. How to lead a meeting or how to come to an agreement. Every event is a project; you take care of the participants, someone else will sponsor the finances, someone will provide the material, and someone will provide PR. There is know-how that is passed on, and that makes me happy. When I teach mathematics, the students themselves learn the need for group work, they find they learn better together.

And how do you teach teamwork?

The main thing is not to hinder teamwork. As a student, it often seemed to me that you are thrown into something, and that you had to do it yourself, without help, even though cooperation would have been very useful. Both tasks and assignments can be distributed among students so that they can work together on it from the beginning. I often feel that there is another problem in teaching mathematics or statistics, and that is we want students to reproduce the ideas and work of a person who was at the top of their field, whose research lasted for several years and who had a whole team at their disposal. We then put this assignment onto paper and say, “turn it in in 90 minutes”. I don’t like that system and I don’t want to teach it because it’s not creative.

From teamwork, let’s move onto the next topic of your teaching work. You teach bioinformatics, and specifically ‘Algorithmisation and Programming’. What do students learn in these courses?

The course I teach is a basic course that should bring everyone to an entry-level knowledge of programming. There they can develop good habits for programming and thinking about problems. The students are mostly from RECETOX, and mainly from the study program ‘Mathematical Biology and Biomedicine’, where the specialisations are ‘Epidemiology and Modelling’ and ‘Biomedical Bioinformatics’. For me, it is important to see how the student thinks about the problem. For more complex tasks, the result is not so important to me, it may not even be correct. It’s the same in science; you make a hypothesis, and sometimes you succeed in rejecting it and sometimes you don’t. But even this can be a valuable result and the research process is not wasted. In my opinion, this is the way to proceed in teaching as well. Follow the path to the solution, not the solution itself. Of course, you have to know something, and it must be clearly stated what the student must know. I try to equip them with the tools they need in class, and I choose problems to fit these tools. This is a simplification of real life, where you don’t know if you have the right tool; but in my classes, the students know it.

The ‘Mathematical Biology and Biomedicine’ study program allows you to understand the wider context of the functioning of living systems and, at the same time, to use mathematical and IT methods in the analysis of biological and medical data. How would you explain this to our readers?

Biology works with systems, and systems are interconnected. It is easier for us to work with these systems if we have suitable models to describe them, and mathematics is a very good tool for modelling phenomena across sciences, whether it be physics, biology or the social sciences. Statistics is a useful superstructure that is important for all scientists today. We choose those parts of mathematics that are useful for modelling biological systems or phenomena; and since calculating manually and precisely is not sustainable, we need to be able to work with software. Either you master a program, or you learn mathematics, statistics or a programming language, and with this equipment, you can solve a wide constellation of problems. Students acquire a knowledge of biology in their studies and I supplement that knowledge with tools that they can use to model biology, be it in the area of health protection, epidemiology, pollution processes or other topics that RECETOX investigates.


“Brainstorming with students is more valuable than showing a few slides”, says Jan Böhm. Photo: Irina Matusevich

What was it like for you in the beginning, having 30 students in front of you, each at a computer, assigning a task and then handling everything in class, reacting, having answers?

When I started teaching, I was a teacher of mathematics seminars, and that was good training. The most important thing was when I got rid of the nervousness that I wouldn’t know something. On the contrary, it's good to know that not knowing is ok. It’s nice to see the teacher describe the process and think about it. If you have learned everything and recite it like a poem, it does not show the actual process of how you arrived at the solution, it is not authentic; and so sometimes I bring in a problem that I haven’t solved. It doesn’t have to be solved in class, but brainstorming with the students can be more valuable than just showing a few slides. The ‘Teaching lab’ course at the MUNI Faculty of Informatics has also helped me. It came about because there were a lot of student teachers. The course imparts know-how and soft skills, such as how to work with a group and how to keep track of time or speak clearly, but also how to stand in front of the board so that the students can see it.

At the end of 2021, you won the Masaryk University Rector’s Award for Outstanding Teachers, as we reported here. How do you win such a prize?

It’s nice because the students do it for you in the subject poll and nomination. I was just doing my job and I guess I did it well. I didn’t know about the nomination. However, the system favours mass courses, so a teacher-led course for eight people has no chance of winning this prize. I’m happy about it, I appreciate it, but I know there are a lot of excellent educators out there who can’t achieve the award just because of the way the system is set up.

In the text of the award, it was stated that the students in your classes appreciate the clarity with which you can explain even complex calculations and situations. On what basis do you arrive at this clarity? How do you find ways to explain complex and often very abstract topics?

I try to be motivated, and I try to get the students to see something they know behind it all. Algorithms are very much about breaking a problem into several smaller problems. It is also important for me to have a “reality check” and do it gradually. By this I mean checking whether my (intermediate) results make sense in the context of the task − it helps. For statistics and probability, if you set up the task well, then it’s going to work. I often start a task by making an estimate off-the-cuff of how much I would expect it to cost. When I “get stuck” a lot, I start to question the sub-steps and look for whether the error is in my intuition or in the solution. If it works, that’s great. That’s what I try to convey; guess, guess, and then check. It’s different when you solve an equation just for the result and when you give context to what the equation describes. Let’s ask, for example, “how cool is a corpse in a room where it’s 20 degrees; the corpse has a temperature of 30 degrees, how long has it been lying here? It needs concrete outlines. It’s more difficult to do the maths, but then the solution is an algorithm that the software can handle, you can start to imagine how the bodies temperature will change. You must assume an initial rapid change, then slower cooling, rather than a constantly rising curve.

Do you work with student feedback?

Definitely, yes. I ask the students what they hope and expect from the subject. The subject does not have to be rigidly the same every year. We don’t have to keep teaching how many people died in the Prussian army from being kicked by a horse😊. In class, it is important for me to say out loud what I want them to learn and why I want it, perhaps because it will be followed by a subject in the next semester, and then I could get feedback if it worked. It is important not only to measure this progress with an exam, but to ask them if they think they understood it. For that, you need to have an environment where people trust each other. Also, it is good to discuss these things after the exam. It’s also important for me that they perceive education as teamwork, with responsibility on both sides.

Who is inspires you in your work as a teacher?

My teaching guru is Radek Pelánek from the ‘Teaching Lab’ of the MU Faculty of Informatics. He has a number of students that I am friends with, and I can meet with them and discuss what I want to try in teaching. For example, just recently I was interested in the ‘MasterChef’ competition; how they cook like they are in a relay race. And I compare this with what awaits the students; they will program in relays, receiving separated work elements and then passing them on. We see whether they can explain everything well and then pass it on. This creates a real-life atmosphere, including the stress; students need to learn to work with it, to get used to failure, to accept it, keep their heads up and move on. In a test, for example, I will raise the difficulty level, let them work desperately then collect their solutions and let them know that it was difficult, but that their path to the solution is also important to me. A good tool in education is to pretend that the goal is the result, but to me the goal is what they encountered on the way to the result.

Thank you for the interview.
Zuzana Jayasundera

Translation: Kevin Roche

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