The large group of different scientific workplaces on one site is amazing

Tomáš Kotačka graduated from the Secondary Industrial School of Chemistry in Pardubice and subsequently joined the Faculty of Science, where he chose the Biochemistry study program. In addition to his studies, he is an active member of the Generation Mendel team, which last autumn celebrated great success with their synthetic biology project in the international iGEM competition. Tomáš is 22 years old and his hobbies include longboarding, snowboarding, bouldering, exercise and cooking.

16 Feb 2021 Barbora Kameníková

Photo: Helena Brunnerová

What did you want to be when you were young?

I wanted to be a palaeontologist because I was fascinated by dinosaurs. As I got older I gradually switched from toys to encyclopaedias and documentaries. The idea stuck with me for quite some time, so it seems all the more shameful to me today that I confused palaeontology and archaeology, and for many years I claimed that I wanted to be an archaeologist. In my defence, however, I must say that no one in the family ever corrected me.

Did you pursue your field before studying at university?

I’d say half of it. I chose the Secondary Industrial School of Chemistry in Pardubice, so at the beginning I studied chemistry, even though biological subjects, and even biochemistry, were available. Anyway, this was what started my love of chemistry, and now biochemistry. At elementary school, I enjoyed participating in popularisation events or helping lead educational chemical and biological groups. At the end of the second year I also signed up for SOČ (among other things), which I performed at the University of Pardubice, and this gave me some experience in chemical synthesis.

I think it was SOČ that gave the first impulse to start thinking about whether I wanted to stick purely with chemistry. Not that I didn’t find it attractive and fun; I liked to do chemical synthesis from time to time as a hobby, but I was missing something. Then my classmate persuaded me to visit the open day at the Faculty of Science at Masaryk University and I was absolutely amazed by the beauty of the campus. This, and the information I got at the open day, convinced me to study at MUNI so much that I actually applied only for the biochemistry and chemistry course at the university. This was probably not the smartest decision, but it worked out and I don't regret it.

Would you choose our faculty again?

Yes, without a second thought.

How do you like the environment where you study?

I really love it here! I always try to use the campus to its full potential, whether learning in the library during the winter semester, with an occasional nap on the beanbags, or outside on the benches in the summer, where I once managed to get a suntan. Afterwards, I go for a nice sit down with friends at Na Lávce, where you can always find something good to eat for a fairly reasonable price. Among other things, it occurs to me that the campus has one of the best canteens at the university, although the prices have risen a bit recently. The only things I haven’t used yet are the grills; of course, I have participated in the faculty barbecues but me and my classmates have not rented one yet, though I nearly did once.

But it’s not just about food and places for a quality nap, it’s also great that there is such a large group of different scientific workplaces on one site. Several times, and especially during the iGEM project, I found that if I could not find an instrument or specialist for a given method at the department where I was currently working, I would definitely find it somewhere on campus.

How do you like Brno?

Brno is both big and, at the same time, quite small, which I take as a significant advantage. There are loads of places to go and have fun or play sports and so on, but if ever you enjoy yourself too much, you don’t have too far to go to get back. In addition, Brno also has lots of beautiful places to sit and walk.

What subject has impressed you the most and why?

That’s a bit difficult to answer. In biochemistry, I had, and still have, a fairly free hand when it comes to choosing subjects, so every semester I have had at least one subject that really enjoyed, such as Structural Biochemistry, Enzymology, Molecular Biology or Physical Chemistry. In addition, and I really like this, I also had time for extracurricular subjects during my Bachelor’s degree, so I tried learning Japanese for a while.

What possibilities are there for involving students in practical research?

One shouldn’t be afraid to try, then the possibilities of getting involved are great. The sooner a student shows some initiative, the sooner they will find somewhere. I was quite scared at first, so I only decided to try at the RECETOX open day during my second year on my Bachelor’s degree. At that point, I realised that I could easily have got involved earlier. But it also depends on the student’s experience; if they have not worked in a laboratory yet then it may not be so simple. Therefore, I would recommend looking for a laboratory place after some of those laboratory exercises.

Have you taken the opportunity to study or work abroad?

Just now, I’m trying to arrange an internship in France. In biochemistry, they are very open to this and very supportive.

How did you get into the Generation Mendel team?

It started when I saw the leaflets from Standa and Barča around the faculty, but when I read the information I wasn’t sure if I would be a good fit as a biochemist. But then my classmate David actually told me that they were also looking for biochemists, so I decided to attend the first recruitment meeting. When I heard how big the project would be and everything that had to be done to compete in iGEM, it scared me a bit, but in the end, I decided to go for it and I’m happy I did.

What have you gained from your participation in Generation Mendel?

I don’t know what to say first. Whether its the good friends that I formed a special bond with through the stress experienced during our first year of the iGEM competition, or the huge amount of experience we gained in the laboratory. I like it that we are a bunch of like-minded people but still diversified in terms of disciplines. As well as working together on iGEM, therefore, we often help each other out in our studies or other things. As for the experience, it is completely different from what a student goes through while working on their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. You have to be able to raise money for the project, to advertise it, consult with suitable people about your procedures, find sponsors for the project and, especially, find a laboratory where you can do the work, after which you must ensure its operation for the duration of your work.

What are your plans for the future?

As for Doctoral studies, I will probably decide for sure after a work placement, depending on whether I can arrange one and how my diploma work goes. Whatever the outcome, I would like to maintain my contact with the Generation Mendel Association, which we originally created for the competition, and continue to prepare educational events and materials.


Translated by Kevin Roche.

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