Success Stories

My book shows that cooperation for the good of the whole and other principles that govern the functioning of cells in the human body are meaningful, says Jana Šmardová

prof. RNDr. Jana Šmardová, CSc.

Section of Genetics and Molecular Biology, Department of Experimental Biology

Jana Šmardová received her RNDr. degree after graduating from Masaryk University’s (MU, earlier known as UJEP) Faculty of Science . Between 1989 and 1993, she worked at the Institute of Entomology of the Academy of Sciences in České Budějovice. In 1991, she moved to the USA for two years, where she worked at the State University of New York. After returning to the Czech Republic, she worked at the Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute in Brno from 1996 to 2003, and from 2003 to 2019 she was the head of the Molecular Pathology Laboratory at the Department of Pathology, University Hospital Brno-Bohunice. Since 2005, she has been working at the Faculty of Science MU. After her habilitation in Molecular Biology and Genetics in 2005, she was promoted to the Associate Professor and appointed Professor in 2010. Her scientific work focuses on the study of aberrations in selected molecular mechanisms related to the development of tumours.

Photo: Irina Matusevich

How did you first become interested in the natural sciences? What were your childhood interests?

My interests were broad; I was quite involved in sports, and read a lot. When it comes to natural sciences, I grew up in the era of Jiří Grygar's ‘The Windows of the Universe open wide’ and that fascinated me. Astronomy and physics appealed to me very much at that time, and for a long time I thought I would focus on physics. I also enjoyed chemistry and mathematics in high school. And do you know what I did not enjoy at all? Biology. It seemed like a really boring subject to me, where you had to memorise so much, and it seemed to lack any logic. However, while I was reading articles about astronomy and physics, I also read Karl Pacner’s book ‘In Search of Cosmic Civilizations’. In this book there was also information about the beginnings of life, about amino acids and nucleic acids. I had no idea what this was about, so I started researching to improve my understanding, and I beganto find areas of biology that interested me even more than physics. However, I never thought it would be possible to study it because biology, as I had learned it in elementary and secondary school was completely different.

How did you end up at Masaryk University’s Faculty of Science?

During a lesson in high school, the professor asked us what we were interested in and what we wanted to study. He was a little surprised when he found out what I was interested in, and that I wanted to study something else. He arranged for me to meet with a former student of his who had majored in biology. He listened to me for a while and then said “It is perfectly clear. You have to go to Brno to see Professor Rosypal; he is opening a course in Molecular Biology, and that fits you perfectly”. I actually went to Brno, and there I found what really interested me, and what I wanted to. The birth of this field of study was also described by my colleague, Prof. Jiří Doškař, in a previous interview. I think I was really lucky that this field was established just at that time, and that I could study it.

What are your memories of studying Molecular Biology at our faculty?

I remember the pleasure of studying because I was fascinated by these subjects. Professor Rosypal impressed me very much. He was very strict. When we were preparing for the exam, an older colleague said to me “Everything. You have to be able to do everything”. And so it was! But he was also very strict with himself. I remember that when we asked him questions in lectures, sometimes he would answer the question, but then he would stop the lecture, walk away and come back a little later saying that he had to go to the library to look something up to reinforce his answer. I met a lot of great people there. There were seven of us in our class, and with some classmates a lifelong relationships were created, like with my husband, Jan Šmarda.

What did you do after you graduated?

My husband and I got married right after graduation. Then we both applied to institutes of the Academy of Sciences in Prague, because there were no free places in Brno at that time. We did our postgraduate studies in Prague, my husband at the Institute of Molecular Genetics and I myself at the Institute of Microbiology. I spent four years there, three of them working on my dissertation. For my dissertation I worked on prokaryotes and streptomycetes and studied DNA-dependent RNA polymerase. It was a molecular biology topic based on using bacteria as a model organism. Then my husband and I moved to České Budějovice, where we got jobs and an apartment to live. In 1989 our daughter was born. My husband left for an internship to the USA in 1990, and my daughter and I followed him there about two months later.

What role did your stay at the State University of New York in 1990 play in your life? It was just after November 1989, so it must have been a significant change.

I went with the idea that I would spend my parental leave there and stay at home, just as if we stayed at home. Gradually, however, I changed my mind; and coincidentally, I also started working. I switched to researching the eukaryotic cell and its tumour transformation. My husband worked in the U.S. for three years, and I worked there for two years. With the birth of my second daughter, I finished my work and we returned to the Czech Republic.

How did you manage to take care of your child and work in the laboratory?

It was difficult. My husband worked from one day to the next, which was impossible for me. I had a precisely set time for work, between bringing and picking up my daughter from kindergarten, which she entered when she was two years and three months old. I had a perfect kindergarten, although it costed everything I earned. My daughter loved it because she really liked social contact and was very happy among other children. Sometimes I felt inferior in the laboratory because I saw that others spent much more time there than I did. Sometimes, when work wasn’t going well, I talked to my supervisor about it, and I even offered to quit my job so she could find someone to spend more time there. But she explained that I couldn’t look at myself from the outside; that she could see how organised and intense I was, and that I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I realised that was probably true; every time I left in the afternoon, I had cleared the table cleared, labelled the test tubes, written the protocols and prepared everything for the next day. So, the next morning, I got right to work, and while I was doing the experiments I was already planning the next day. I realised that a lot of work can be done in a limited time. We left Czechoslovakia at a time when work opportunities were limited; and in terms of the availability of laboratory equipment, it was as if we were entering another world. We were overwhelmed by the possibilities. It was easy to work intensively because we were intoxicated by the work. Then everything started to change in the Czech Republic. Today, the opportunities are completely comparable, but going to America in 1990 was like entering a completely different world.

In 2022, Jana Šmardová received the medal for extraordinary creative achievement from the hands of the Dean of the MU Faculty of Science Tomáš Kašparovský. Photo: Irina Matusevich

After returning to the Czech Republic, you worked at the Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute in Brno from 1996 to 2003. In the following years, you worked at the Institute of Pathology at University Hospital Brno-Bohunice. How did you get to this medical institution from the Faculty of Science?

After returning to the Czech Republic in 1993, I was on parental leave with my second daughter for three years. I almost didn’t see my husband again😊. He started his career at the faculty, built up a laboratory and prepared new lectures, while I said goodbye to the idea of returning to a demanding job. But then some things happened that encouraged me. I applied for a part-time job and ended up at the Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute. There I had a clearly defined task: I was to use a detection method that analyses a specific gene and looks for mutations. It was an interesting method and an interesting gene, the tumour suppressor p53. Although it wasn’t my task, I studied everything I could about this gene. This ‘opened a door for me’ and helped me understand the process of cancer development. This gene and its impact on the functioning of cells are very complex, but thanks to p53, I began to see the process of tumour development completely. Because of this work I became really deeply interested in tumours.

Where did your professional path lead next?

I was considering leaving the Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute because it was very difficult to live only on grants, when I unexpectedly received three job offers. First, I chose the least attractive one, which was the Department of Pathology at the University Hospital in Bohunice. Since it was only routine diagnostic work, I felt that something in my career was coming to an end, that I was losing the opportunity to do research and teaching. Once at the institute, however, they pushed me into teaching because they wanted to bring a molecular biology perspective to pathology. I continued to teach at the Faculty of Science MU and also stayed in research because I had a grant in progress and then another was approved. The leadership of the Department, especially Prof. Karel Dvořák at the beginning, supported me in my decision to take all this on. As a result, I was able to accept and supervise students, and it the end it was better than I could have ever imagined.

In teaching, you focus on tumour biology, pathology, and oncology. How has your teaching career evolved?

I was fascinated by the biology of tumours, so I started my teaching career with it. My husband, Jan Šmarda, taught molecular biology of eukaryotes and had a chapter on tumours in his lectures. I looked over his shoulder and asked, “Is that what you’re saying? And this?” because I had a pretty broad overview of tumours through my research. Finally, he gave me space for a three-hour lecture and later for another one. As PhD students walked through my laboratory, I realised they would need special, more in-depth lectures on tumour biology, so I prepared them. It was quite a leap to 24-hour, full-semester course, attended by increasing number of undergraduate students. From 2000, the lecture was called Molecular Biology of Tumour Cells, but I renamed it Molecular and Cellular Biology of Tumours, because the teaching should also include the cellular level, and, in fact, the level of the whole organism, because without it, the development of tumours cannot be explained.

Your very popular course ‘Tumour Biology for Everyone’, also called ‘Cell Philosophy’, has been open to students of various disciplines since 2013 and deals with relationships between aspects of tumour cell behaviour and aspects of Western civilization. You often work with analogies when teaching cancer biology. How do students respond to that?

Hundreds of students have already passed this course, and 260 were enrolled the last time it was offered (autumn 2022). Student feedback has been very positive for years. I have been recording the responses to the course for some time, and the subject really seems to ‘speak’ to them, it acts as a mirror to life; I think the sense of these connections is in all of us. My ambition is not to simply impart new knowledge, I want students to open up, listen and think. The course does not end with an exam, but with an essay. I have received some very interesting essays; students often write very openly and confesstheir fears and experiences. I really appreciate their openness. I think this is because I teach the course in an open way and not in a reserved or academic way.

How did you come up with the central idea of your book, that the development of a tumour has some analogies, to human society and behaviour?

In the classroom, it is easy to notice when interest wanes because you see students discussing a joke or an interesting metaphor. I have learned to use this and found that students enjoy such comparisons and remember the lecture better when I use them. I compared cell division to pregnancy and the birth of a human being, and then I pointed out the similarities and differences. It can enrich a person in both ways. Such analogies and metaphors have gradually increased.

As I came up with more and more metaphors on the subject, I gradually began to feel that the whole process of tumour development had analogies in some ways to human society and human behaviour. And then I had a tremendous insight: I was at a meeting with many people at the University hospital, and I felt that something fundamentally bad was happening. It seemed to me that I was witnessing the beginning of a kind of “tumour process”. I went home and my head was full of the idea that there was a real connection between tumour development and people’s behaviour. I began to develop this connection more consciously. Later, I read that several experts in different fields came to similar conclusions, and this encouraged me. And so, one thing led to another, until everything reached the point where I felt the urge to write about the subject; it seemed both useful and meaningful to me.

Your book ‘What Tumours Teach US: Parallels in the Behaviour of Cells and People’ was published by Munipress in 2021. For this book, you received a Medal for Significant Creative Achievement from Dean Tomáš Kašparovský, as we reported here earlier. You worked on the book for more than 10 years. How did the writing develop?

In tumour biology, there was a concept based on the ‘typical signs of tumours,’ of which there were seven known at the time. When I started writing, I was not sure if I would find an analogy for each sign. I wrote slowly, and in the meantime, the original authors of the concept wrote a sequel to their work, bringing the total number to 11 signs. I thought to myself: if I am right, there must be an analogy for every sign. It was both a challenge and a scientific study to look for these analogies. I wondered what these signs in translation might mean for human society. It was also a personal adventure. It is one thing to think about things, but when you are trying to communicate them, to put them into a lecture, you are forced to be even more specific about everything. And the writing is even more rigorous; I called it a book, although I had no ambition to publish it at first, but it was a dream.

"As I discovered new and new metaphors and analogies for teaching tumour biology, I gradually got the feeling that the whole process of tumour development has some analogies in human society and behaviour," says Jana Šmardová. Photo: Irina Matusevich

The book is also extraordinary in its form, with each chapter having a part A and B. Part “A” introduces the reader to the basics of tumour biology in a popularised form; nevertheless, it is written based on scientific, medical, and biological information, it covers systems theory, and it describes the basic principles of how an organism functions. Part “B” is called “Overlaps” and there you include a lot about your own analogies, literature, and social science theories. These parts are also clearly separated graphically, with the edges of parts “A” being orange, and those of parts “B” being blue, and can be seen even when the book is closed. This style is very convenient for the reader, who learns a small “portion” of expert information on a topic and then the associated “overlaps”. Choosing the most suitable form for the content can be a very difficult task for the author; how did you come to the decision to choose this particular form?

I have not been able to write for a long time. I wrote the first few chapters and then got stuck and couldn’t continue. So I put it aside and tried again after a while. I started about three times and finished quickly each time. It wasn’t until the fourth attempt that I managed to write a new chapter, and I finally believed I could keep writing. I found that the main ‘blockage’ was that the book consisted of two very different parts. Writing about biology was much more natural for me, because that’s how you write scientific papers and you’re trained in it, it has its own rules. But writing the other kind of chapters, the overlaps, was extremely difficult. I was walking on thin ice in areas where I was not an expert. From a social science perspective, it was unsystematic. I couldn’t back everything up with citations, or reliable knowledge; I was in a wide space that was free but uncertain. It turned out that I needed some kind of technical support in writing , so I started writing each kind of chapter in a different font. Later, when we were preparing the book for publication, we separated the two types of chapters by colour on the sides of the page, so that the side of the book is two-colour, as you can see in the photo. From the beginning, I tried to write the biological parts for lay people, in a popular style; but as new signs of tumours emerged, it became more and more difficult. I wanted to be precise, and often went into great detail because it was precisely in the details that I found many parallels. However, I didn’t want to deprive myself or the reader of the fascination of analogies that go into minute detail, even at the cost of making it more difficult for the layperson.

The book contains two types of chapters. Separated in the margin and in colour. Parts "A" introduce the reader to the basics of tumour biology. They are written based on scientific medical and biological information. Part "B" is called "overlaps". In them, the author works with her own analogies and literature, as well as with social science theories. Photo: Irina Matusevich

In the overlaps, you show parallels between the behaviour of cancer cells in the body and certain phenomena in society. You work a lot with sociological, cultural, and other social science theories. What makes these overlaps interesting for you?

I am not an expert on the social sciences, but I am an indiscriminate reader and have read a lot of the relevant literature. That’s how it started; even in fiction, in stories, I saw what we see in cells. Starting in 2008, I began to create an archive on the topic, with the only systematic viewpoint being an overview of tumour biology. I understand possible criticism from the social sciences, but I think that what I have written can be useful, although I don’t claim that it is the only view.

In the book, you show how cancer arises in the body from cells that violate the basic rules of coexistence and cooperation. In the overlaps, you draw parallels to the functioning of society, which as a larger system resembles an organism in many ways, and you also discuss the differences. You note that, a total of eleven typical characteristics are known to distinguish tumours from healthy tissues. In your book, you show that these traits reflect more general principles underlying the smooth functioning of all complex living systems, including human society. Please try to explain to readers what tumours teach us?

Tumours show us what violating the laws of good cooperation can lead to. A key, though subtle, factor is one of the first signs, our fascination with speed and power. Even at the level of cells and tumours, this is a sign that has an impact and influence on other signs and increases the likelihood that other signs will occur as well. Even if it looks low-risk, it is something that threatens us immensely. Something that we admire, but that does not benefit us at all.

What analogies have you discovered for the process of metastasis?

Metastasis is about the tumour cell migrating through the body and surviving even where it should not be at all. The body is set up in such a way that if, for example, a liver cell shows up in an organ other than the liver, it cannot survive because it does not get the kind of support and relationships it needs. I see this as a parallel to the search for man’s place in society. It is a big issue, even for our students. What should I do? What to work on? Where is my place in the world? In cells, relationships tell them everything, in other words, where they build good relationships, that is where they are at home, that is where they belong. Our society today does not appreciate the importance of relationships and home. It is just like what I experienced, the extent to which we value career things and ignore the value of caring for a child, for a family. A lot of problems come from not valuing that and putting career above everything. Maybe we need to suffer a little bit before we appreciate it again. I don’t know, but I offer this analogy at the cellular level, where the consequences are obvious, as a starting point for reflection.

"We don't know if the cells have consciousness, if they feel something, if they think about something. But even though they may not know what they are a part of, they contribute to the awesomeness and perfection of the whole body by their small work. And on a human level, it's similar. It's difficult to realize what I'm a part of, but if I humbly accept my destiny and try to fulfill it as best I can, that is the the most I can do,” says Jana Šmardová. Photo: Irina Matusevich

Does the book give hope to people who believe in ideals like working together and cooperating for the good of the whole and similar principles based on how an organism works?

I do, and I believe it can give an answer and hope to others. It has not deprived me of ideals; on the contrary, I have experienced feelings of deep meaning several times while writing. We don’t know if cells have consciousness, whether they feel something, think of something, but I thought that although they probably have no idea what they are a part of, they contribute to the awesomeness and perfection of the whole body with their small work and that it is similar on a human level. It is difficult to realise what I am a part of, but if I humbly accept my destiny and try to fulfil it to the best of my ability, that is the maximum, the most I can do. And I don’t have to doubt myself or measure or compare myself with anyone; these cells don’t do that either, because it’s pointless. So why should not I behave in the same way ? I think we underestimate the power of working from the bottom up. The power of the powerful people is conditioned by the fact that we trust them their power, but my model shows that things are different than we are convinced and persuaded. I have come to a similar conclusion as, for example, Václav Havel in The Power of the Powerless, but through cells.

The image of a man in a cell by Pierre Favre permeates the entire book, even the cover. He was also one of the sources of your inspiration. In what way?

Precisely. It depicts a person and a cell. For me, it is a symbol of the two levels that I am pursuing. Almost 15 years have passed since I first saw a reproduction of the painting, until the moment I acquired it. When I saw it, I gave it the title “as above, so below”; and that describes everything I try to set forth in my book. I used it as a symbol of relationship between man and cell that permeates the book, and decided to put it on the cover of the book as well.

The image of a man in a cell by Pierre Favre permeates the entire book, even the cover. Photo: Irina Matusevich

You were also a guest at the Slunovrat 2021 multigenre Festival on the topic of ‘Parallels in the Behaviour of Cells and Humans’ . What was that experience like for you?

It was great. It was the first time I was at such an event with the book, and I didn’t know beforehand what kind of atmosphere there was at the festival. It was very relaxed, there were several concert stages, food stalls, relaxation areas, and smiling, dancing people, and you want to go there with a topic about tumours? Even though the organisers assured me there would be a lot of interest, I didn’t really believe it. But people filled the whole hall, there was real interest and a lively discussion. Later, people stopped me and say how much they would like to study if that were the way learning is done today.

What does the publication of this book mean to you personally?

I have fulfilled a dream, and that is no small thing. I am deeply grateful to the people who helped me finish the book. I feel extremely grateful that the book has been published and is available in this form. My colleague and friend Jana Koptíková helped me to fulfil my idea and wish that the book should be beautiful. Beauty opens a person. And since the book is difficult, it should be beautiful, so that it is a pleasure to hold it in a hand and spend time with it. I was very lucky with the people at the MUNIPRESS publishing house; the director Alena Mizerová, the editor Radka Vyskočilová and the excellent language proofreader, Martina Hovorková.

Finally, can you tell us about an interesting experience during the writing of the book?

The conclusion of the writing was interesting for me. I wanted to end the book with a chapter on the p53 tumour suppressor, but the book forced me to write another chapter. It dawned on me that multicellularity needed to be addressed. This chapter gave me many new insights; while writing the conclusion, I came across the works of some authors who dealt with cooperation. They compared cooperation in different systems and looked for general features of cooperation as well as forms of cheating, also called violations of cooperation. In one paper, the authors used tumours of multicellular organisms as examples of cheating or termination of cooperation. That gaved me confidence that I wasn’t out of place, that although I was coming from somewhere else, I was coming to the same conclusions as the experts on cooperation in systems. It gave me a real sense of satisfaction and comfort that at least someone else saw things the same way I did. That was a reward and an unexpected bonus.

Thank you for the interview.
Zuzana Jayasundera

Translation: Kevin Frances Roche

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