To Nobel Prize through foreign internships

Students from Czech universities do have the chance to achieve the best scientific results and work in top international teams under the guidance of Nobel Prize winners. However, young people should build international contacts during their studies abroad and improve their language skills, says Ctirad Hofr, Vice Dean for Internationalisation. He personally completed an international internship with Nobel Prize winner Thomas R. Cech, with whom he has been friends ever since.

2 Feb 2023 Tereza Fojtová Ctirad Hofr

Photo: Irina Matusevich

What advice would you give to students who, like you, would like to get an internship with a Nobel laureate?

Go abroad for internships during the holidays, approach the most prominent persons in the field and show your sincere interest in learning new skills.

What is the interest level of current students in going abroad?

The interest level is good, but I would like to see it increase. Going to a foreign university must become a common part of education as soon as possible. For the time being, however, the curriculum is really very busy and intense, especially in the bachelor's programme, which makes going abroad, with the exception of holiday internships, somewhat difficult.

Can we improve travel options?

Thanks to the support and constant work of Dean Tomáš Kašparovský and Vice-Dean for pregradual studies Pavel Lízal, we are preparing changes in the student curriculum so that the foreign stay will be easily implemented and becomes a regular part of master's degree studies. However, all changes of this type need to be approved by the Ministry of Education. So, a foreign stay might become an organic part of the Master's degree since 2028. We are already gradually introducing the compulsory teaching of at least one subject in English in Czech degree programmes as an appropriate part of our students' education.

What would you recommend to students who want to travel?

Based on the experience of the study abroad coordinators, I would recommend that all students of Bachelor's degree programmes should prepare themselves already in the second year of their studies for the possibility of going on an internship abroad. The time during the relatively long holidays after Bachelor's graduation and before start of Master's degree studies is an excellent opportunity to enjoy the summer abroad and at the same time to increase your professional and linguistic readiness.

So what should students do?

All the necessary information can be found on the website Go abroad! Ladies from the Faculty's Department for Doctoral Studies, Quality, Academic Affairs and Internationalisation will also be able to competently advise best travel options for all – bachelor, master and PhD students. Here, I would like to thank them for their tramendous effort. I encourage anyone interested in traveling abroad to contact their field's study coordinator of foreign stay and colleagues in the department mentioned earlier.

What other priorities have you defined in the area of internationalisation?

In addition to new courses in English, the aim is to initiate the creation of whole new study programmes in English and thus increase the attractiveness of our teaching for foreign students. Colleagues from the Department of Geography have already launched a new study programme, Geography of Global Environmental Change. Additionally, a team of lecturers from the Department of Biochemistry is preparing an English programme Biochemical and Cellular Technologies. We also want to continue to support lectures by foreign experts within the Innovation Lectures - INNOLEC programme.

What does the INNOLEC support consist of?

Thanks to the financial support, 34 lectures and workshops by foreign experts have already been held this academic year. And we will continue this activity – in close cooperation with the Vice-Rector for Internacionalization Dančák and the Centre for International Cooperation, we will preferably support foreign experts from the TOP 300 world universities so that our students and colleagues have the opportunity to learn from the best.

This is the first time you serve as a Vice-Dean. What were your expectations and how do you evaluate them after almost a year?
My first expectation was that the position of Vice Dean was an honorary position. However, I soon found out that this is not the case. My colleagues from the Dean's Collegium help me with my work a lot. In retrospect, I can see that Dean Tomáš Kašparovský formed a team that pulls together, which is the most important prerequisite for achieving the objectives.

Photo: Ctirad Hofr.

You were a member of the Academic Senate of MU. Can this experience be used as a vice-dean?

Yes. As a member of the Academic Senate, I learned how important it is to work together and get to know my colleagues on a personal level. Personal contacts now help me a lot to run meetings smoothly and find the best solutions.

What did you bring from your internship with Nobel laureate Thomas R. Cech?

During my internship, completely new scientific and personal horizons opened up not only, as we established a long-standing collaboration and friendship, which resulted in Thomas R. Cech's participation in the J.G. Mendel anniversary conference last summer. During his stay, he was also interviewed for the Hydepark program. The interview can be found on the Czech TV on-line.

How did you get the internship?

My colleague Jiří Fajkus had a big part in it, as he stopped me at first and pushed me at the right time. He stopped me when I was about to go abroad somewhere else and he recommended me to wait for a better opportunity. Then, when a better opportunity came at the EMBO conference in France, he pushed me forward to ask Thomas R. Cech if I could come and stay in his lab. I spent six scientifically extremely rewarding months with him at the then newly founded Biofrontiers Institute, University of Colorado, which is similar in many ways to our CEITEC Institute.

What did you do exactly investigated there?

I have been studying the function of telomerase, an enzyme that regulates the rate of ageing of human cells and thus the whole organism. Telomerase adds fragments of DNA to chromosome ends of fast-dividing cell and thus prevents losening of genetic information. I investigated how telomerase procesivity – how long continously telomerase extends the chromosomal DNA. I helped to identify conditions in the cells that are important for high telomerase activity.

Why is important to know telomerase activity?

The amount of telomerase in a cell is limited. When telomerase is unable to effectively extent chromosomal DNA, the cell ages molecularly, which is the case of the vast majority of body cells. The exceptions are germ and stem cells, which also do not age at the molecular level because they have active telomerase. Unfortunately, telomerase is also active in cancer cells. We want to find a way of how to turn off telomerase activity in cancer cells to prevent ucontrolled cancel cell division and thus suppress tumor growth.

For your scientific work on telomeres in human cells, you received the 2015 G. J. Mendel Award. Where has your research moved since then?

It was an award for the whole team around Jiří Fajkus. We obtained the award especially thanks to all our postgraduate students whose involvement and enthusiasm for science has led to the excellent results we have published. Together, we have further elucidated the mechanism by which proteins that bind the ends of chromosomes – telomeres are involved in the regulation of cellular ageing and the molecular mechanisms of cancer development. We are also newly extending our research interests to the mechanism of regulation of proteins that are essential for the development of infectious mononucleosis, rarely occurring anemia, and oncogenic transcriptional regulators.

How did you get into your field?

I did my master's and doctoral thesis at the Biophysical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Brno, where I worked on the biophysical characterization of the properties of new anticancer drugs based on metal complexes. Gradually, I shifted my initial interest from the binding of small molecules to DNA, to lately larger DNA-binding proteins and eventually to the rather complicate nucleoprotein complex telomerase, an enzyme that synthesizes DNA and contributes to the immortality and rejuvenation of selected cells. But, judging by the amount of hair I have, research into rejuvenation is not complete yet and we should go on.

Do you have time for science even in your capacity as vice dean?

Not much. Less than I'd like. I've found during my career that doing actual research is a privilage. We have a lot of other responsibilities, towards the students, towards the institution. The last time I was able to do research at the bench truly intensively with my hands was when I took day off and stayed in the laboratory.

So I'd rather not even ask for time to relax and have hobbies...

My hobby is photography. You can see my picture here ...

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