Jana Šmardová, my model of ideal teacher

Read the speech in which Filip Trčka introduces Professor Jana Šmardová as a teacher who inspired him in so many ways during his studies. Filip delivered his speech at the launch of the English edition of the book ‘What can tumours teach us’.

27 Mar 2024 Filip Trčka Zuzana Jayasundera

Photo: Irina Matusevič

It was both an honour and a concern for me when I was asked to say something about Professor Jana Šmardová from the perspective of the student-teacher relationship. I am sure there are many of you who have had the opportunity to experience being a student under the guidance of Prof. Šmardová more directly than I have. In this respect, my view is perhaps more of a retrospective assessment of the kind of teacher that Prof. Šmardová was for me, from the position of the later personal relationship that we were able to establish after my studies.

Foto: Irina Matusevič

During my bachelor’s studies, I joined the laboratory of Prof. Šmarda, who was always called “the boss”, even though he was never really bossy. His wife, Prof. Šmardová, also called “the boss”, was no Mrs. Colombo (i.e. never seen); on the contrary, they were a living example of the “legend of the two happy professors”, which seemed to me, as a small-town boy new to the lofty world of Academia, to be the pinnacle of coexistence between husband and wife. However, all my lofty “professor” ideas were tossed out the window when I tried to keep up with “Mr. and Mrs. Boss” at the regular Wednesday volleyball games. (Note of editors for English reader: we are using the collocation “Mr. and Mrs, Boss”, because it was nickname, however it is a czechism and not common use in English language.)

“They are people too”, I said to myself, and suddenly understood that every professor is first and foremost a human being. This was further confirmed when I attended Prof. Šmardová’s lecture on the molecular biology of tumours, which not only contained a completely accurate interpretation of current knowledge in the field but was also a foreshadowing of the direction that “the boss” would later take in her lectures on cellular philosophy. Regarding the “human content” of the lectures, I always remember “the boss” describing how she discussed the laws governing the regulation of the cell cycle with her husband during a walk through Špilberk – ‘Cyclin-dependent kinase and prison’. In addition to a test, Prof. Šmardová also liked to ask students to write an essay, even though this was quite demanding for her as a teacher. However, it allowed her to check the integrity of the student’s thinking in relation to the subject matter; at the same time, it showed an overwhelming willingness to learn more about the students she was teaching and to recognise their uniqueness. This perceived uniqueness of each student was underlined by her encouragement to “let the imagination run wild” when writing theses and dissertations. This was not a call for falsification – the experimental data obtained should always be interpreted properly – but rather, as long as the need for publication in peer-reviewed journals did not compel students to interpret results in the most parsimonious, substantiated manner, they were to be encouraged to “dream” of the possible mechanisms and worlds that could be imagined based on the data, even without the immediate possibility of verifying them. This was , I dare say, also the concept of the book ‘What tumors teach us’. On the one hand, it provides the precise scientific context behind tumor biology, uncompromisingly drawn from critically evaluated data, and on the other, a metaphor, a lived interpretation of the findings – an intersection of the professorial and the human. Scientifically ‘offside’ perhaps, but with the ball of knowledge bouncing towards the stands of watching spectators.

Filip Trčka also gave a speech at the launch of the English edition of Jana Šmardová's book. Photo: Radek Gomola, Munipress

Later, the Boss and I met as colleagues, and we had a conversation on the role of teacher. Today’s world offers a number of high-quality, graphics-based teaching tools for self-study in almost any field, certainly including biology. Is a teacher still needed? The Boss’s answer, which she embodied herself, was that it is the teacher’s personality that brings the curriculum to life. A sum of knowledge, or a Golem of knowledge, that can be set in motion by a schem, a teacher. An orchestra, while it can play a symphony from the page , still must keep an eye on the conductor. Here I would like to quote the truthful lyrics of the controversial singer, Daniel Landa, “Desire is a miracle, man, a miracle”. If there was one thing that radiated from the Boss, it was the desire for knowledge – knowledge that applies to real life, but remains within the boundaries of the philosophy of science, by which I mean the paradigm of falsifiability and repeatability, but at the same time keeps the wider world beyond these boundaries in view. A knowledge that is humble and knows that it “knows nothing”, a knowledge that senses that reality is “always greater”, that “everything is in motion”, and that every good student ultimately surpasses his teacher.

A drink in honor of the book. (From the left: Jan Šmarda, Alena Mizerová, Jana Koptíková, Tomáš Kašparovský, Markéta Munzarová, Jan Žaloudík). Photographed by Radek Gomola, Munipress

Nothing in the world is perpetually mobile, not even the desire for knowledge. When I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes how precisely and systematically the Boss approached the study of the world, in the broadest sense of the word, I realised that even the zealous thirst for knowledge can exhaust a person. Perhaps that’s why the Boss kept a photo of the graffiti by Brno street-artist Tim hanging above her desk, saying “You have the makings for lesss”. This is also a part of the teacher’s personality, the challenging struggle with a space of uncertainty, and finding ways to fill it. The clear opposite of the desire for security, for something that I own and that no one can take away or spoil and to which I attach my being.

I am very happy that the English version of the book ‘What tumors can teach us’ has been published. It certainly took a lot of will and determination. In the past, the process of tumor metastasis was explained using the “seed and soil” model. Perhaps this model has already been abandoned in biology, I don’t know, but its basic meaning also applies to the ideas and metaphors in this book. I have the feelingthat a sense of “meaninglessness” is spreading in global society, much like the tumor cell described by the Boss in her book is moving towards “meaninglessness”. And yet, this world in search of meaning is comparable to the soil waiting for a seed. Therefore, I hope this book will reach as wide a spectrum of readers as possible, and this English version will contribute significantly to this. And finally, I personally thank the Boss for always giving everyone who spoke to her subtle form of love that is attention.

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