My Life Journey

Practically my whole life has been connected with Charles University. As a child, I was present at my mother’s graduation, a graduate of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University. This was my first experience with the university that I can recall. It was followed by my brother’s graduation from the same faculty as my mother. At that time, I was about 15 years old and I found myself in the Aula Magna of the ancient Carolinum again. At that time, I could not even imagine that I would work in such a building. My brother went along, more or less, the same path as my mother. As is sometimes the case, I also followed in my parents footsteps, specifically my father’s who was a graduate of the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen. However, this was not a clear-cut decision.

In February 1990, in the atmosphere of the newly acquired freedom and with the vision of endless possibilities, I submitted my application for study at a university. As if it was yesterday, I remember the internal fight that took several months when I had considered whether to go down the path of my beloved mathematics and enrol in a teacher training programme at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, following my Mum's path, or whether to follow my Dad’s example and apply to the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University in Pilsen. The day before the application submission deadline, I finally made up my mind and submitted the application to the Faculty of Medicine, a decision that I never regretted. Since then, my life has been fundamentally connected with our university and with medicine.

I enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen in September 1990 after passing my admission examinations. Certain events get imprinted in one's memory – for me, matriculation is one of these moments. The Dean, Professor Valenta, a top surgeon and a great man, welcomed us into the academic community in the auditorium of the Šafránek Pavilion in Pilsen. Teaching soon began, consisting of a string of autopsies, microscopy, laboratory work and the first years of my medical studies quickly flew by. The “clinical” student years then flew by even faster. Student jobs, English tutoring, and first shot passing of exams gave me the opportunity to take advantage of the newly opened borders every summer. As a medical student I travelled through Morocco, southern France, Andorra, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Greek islands, the USA and Canada and of course, several beautiful places in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. My clinical years were marked by my growing passion for science and research. I started working at the Institute of Histology and Embryology. I was fortunate to learn from Professor Jaroslav Slípka’s vast experience. Professor Slípka, the head of institute at the time, was a very experienced clinical academician, general practitioner and academic staff member who had taught abroad for several years. His unique expertise enabled him to build the institute from its beginnings. I was fortunate to have him as a supervisor for my first student scientific work focusing on prenatal development and congenital defects. Indeed, this work was the springboard for my subsequent scientific path in the fields of embryology, gynaecology and obstetrics.

I graduated from medical school in 1996. At that time, there was a surplus of doctors and I was unable to secure my desired job at the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Clinic of the University Hospital in Pilsen. At that time, doc. Vožehová showed me the way out of my disappointment and directed me to postgraduate studies at a place I knew – the Institute of Histology and Embryology. The new Institute head, doc. Jitka Kočová became my mentor. As a doctoral student, I had been dealing during the first two years with those timeless problems that students are encountering even today – combining enthusiasm for science with its practical implementation and, while making a living for myself and still managing to have some student and family life. The third year of my postgraduate studies was a major turning point for me when I succeeded in obtaining a Fulbright scholarship and I spent the third year of my Ph.D. studies in Boston, based at the Reproductive Endocrine Unit of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University’s oldest and largest clinical department.

Year at Harvard with the Fulbright Commission Scholarship

I will never forget the 1998/1999 academic year. I arrived in Boston, one day in September, and I went to the laboratory directly from the airport, carrying my suitcase, to my colleague’s surprise! I was welcomed by prof. William F. Crowley who has become my mentor. From the first moment when he introduced himself as “Bill” and gave me a tour through the lab, I knew I could learn a great deal from him.

My colleagues came from all over the world – Japan, Kuwait, Spain, Brazil, Canada, to mention a few. The work started to satisfy my academic eagerness and I spent most of my time in the lab, including weekends, something that my Japanese friend was impressed with, but my Kuwaiti friend could not understand. Different countries, different customs. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of diverse team studying such an important topic; endocrine disorders that affect fertility.

I liked attending the so-called Grand Rounds and dozens of interesting lectures, which quite often took place in the famous Ether Dome, the place where ether anaesthesia was first performed in public. Massachusetts General Hospital is a place affiliated with Harvard University and the history of medicine but, at the same time, it is also the centre of the world's best medical and scientific teams working on more pressing medical issues, often in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and various Nobel Prize winners from other parts of the east and west coasts of the United States. I was very fortunate to be able to work in a great team during those, almost, 12 months and to contribute to a number of priority scientific results, which are still cited from time to time and which have advanced reproductive endocrinology.

After returning to the Czech Republic, I had no doubt that I would continue to devote myself to reproductive medicine. I completed my doctoral studies and began working, initially part-time and gradually full-time, at the Department of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at the University Hospital in Pilsen. However, I have certainly not lost my love for the Institute of Histology and Embryology, and I have never stopped teaching there. When I was on call, during nights when there was no work in the delivery room, I prepared embryological lectures, and it was around that time that I started “ripping myself off” my free time.

Attestation from gynaecology and obstetrics was a success and joy for me; I was at a crossroads where I had to decide whether to fully immerse myself in science or clinical work. At that time, fate struck and brought my life partner, my husband, into my life. We met in February 2003 and got married in October to welcoming our first daughter in August 2004. Subsequent months have shown that I was able to continue to teach part-time and write articles and apply for grants at night, but returning to the clinical world would mean full-time work and thus separation from my very young daughter. That settled it – I embarked on embryological scientific work, and a few days before the birth of my second daughter in July 2007, I submitted my habilitation thesis in the histology and embryology field. The associate professor graduation then took place in Carolinum with both my daughters and Mum present, but unfortunately without my Dad who passed away in the spring of 2002.

Vice-Dean for Development at the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University in Pilsen

During my second parental leave, I was approached by a new dean, then an associate professor, now Professor Boris Kreuzberg, with an offer of the vice-dean for faculty development position. When he communicated the offer to me at his clinic in the hospital, I was surprised, moved and also unsure – I knew that key years and key challenges awaited the Faculty in its future because in the Operational Programme Research and Development for Innovation (OP RDI), we asked for investment funds that led the Faculty, in a way, into the unknown. The Faculty had to commit in its projects to carry out contract research, which it had not done before, produce not only publications but also patents and significantly increase the volume of foreign grant funds. When I left Dean Kreuzberg at that time, I knew that I wanted to devote myself to the Faculty development, but it was also clear to me that without the significant support of my husband, it would not work for my family. And then, my husband made the first vital contribution to directing my professional path – he unequivocally supported me!

My years as Vice Dean, i.e. between 2010 and 2013, were very important years for the Faculty. We won investment projects that we sought from OP RDI. This enabled us to start the construction of the first stage of the UniMeC campus where selected theoretical departments of our Faculty moved. But above all, we started building the Biomedical Centre (BC), the research hub of the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen, Charles University. I have fond memories of those four years. It was the first time for me working intensively with the non-academic employees of our Faculty. During the four years of "vice-deaning", I met many great professionals in individual departments, some of whom had been employed there for years and others came just at the time of changes in the Faculty management, as part of building the necessary support apparatus.

As Vice-Dean, I was first in charge of the so-called Assistance Centre, which was to help academics with projects for the Operational Programme Education for Competitiveness. From the original two employees who used to form this organisational unit, we gradually built the Project and Investment Centre at the Faculty where a great team works very proactively and professionally for Pilsen academia members till now.

At the end of my Vice-Dean appointment, we ceremoniously opened the Biomedical Centre and began teaching at UniMeC. It is indisputable that UniMeC brought an improvement in working conditions for the Faculty staff and improvement in the quality of study for students. I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to be a part of a team that has been engaged in this construction, and I am even more pleased that the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen is successfully continuing in the campus building process, even though it is a complicated and demanding path. I am truly proud of our Faculty and its team of employees, both academic and non-academic ones!

Leading One of the Two Biomedical Centre Research Programmes

The Biomedical Centre project was initially based on two research programmes. The first programme was the Faculty's traditional research programme, "Replacement and Support of Vital Organ Functions", following the research plan and later the Programmes of Developing Academic Fields at Charles University ("PRVOUK") of our Faculty, led by the head of the 1st internal clinic, Professor Martin Matějovič. As the second, a smaller new research programme, “Regeneration and Reparation of Vital Organs” was selected, I had the honour to lead from its beginning. I invited colleagues from our Faculty, biotechnology companies and from abroad to join my research programme as heads of individual laboratories. At the beginning, until the BC building was built, we were crammed into premises at the old theoretical Institutes. We gradually strengthened the branch councils for doctoral studies with new mentors, began to attract doctoral students from abroad, invited foreign guests and developed many new collaborations.

As a team, they didn't trust us much. Some of the clinic heads did not believe in us, as they looked with distrust at the fact that, for example, natural scientists, chemists, pharmaceutical graduates or, for example, veterinary faculty graduates were suddenly added to the doctoral students. There was also mistrust in how we were going to start contract research – when Professor Tonar and I started contract research for innovative biotechnology companies, no one knew that in a few years, we would have partnership agreements with foreign companies and the contract research volumes would not only meet promised monitoring indicators, but would also become an important economic income for our workplace. Many also did not believe that we would be able to awaken and cultivate other technology transfer areas, but even here, we have been quite successful in recent years – several Faculty teams celebrated success in technology transfers, including the Laboratory of Reproductive Medicine team that is close to me, and with which we successfully obtained a US patent and are currently working on others.

BC research teams are international teams – open to foreign doctoral students and post-docs and supporting the foreign experience of Czech doctoral students and post-docs. Internships often take place at prestigious workplaces, such as Imperial College London or the University of Southern California, and others. The spirit of prosperity is supported, among others, by important international personalities, which the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen (FMP) managed to win for long-term employment. Prof. Khaled Ismail has worked at FMP since 2019, and thanks to the European ERA Chair project, our BC team has been strengthened since 2020 by Kari Hemminki, a top scientist who worked for many years at DKFZ in Heidelberg.

During those years, we struggled with distrust and scepticism coming not only from the outside but also from inside the Faculty; however, we faced it with a team spirit. We have worked as a team, learning from each other and actively helping each other. We knew we could fail, that the Faculty had a lot to lose, and that is, maybe, why we were able to support each other in our team. I am happy that I was part of the Faculty and BC management during those years, and I am really proud that our Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen has been constantly moving forward since then, strengthening its important international partnerships and professional councils. All these partial steps have led to completely indisputable success measurable through scientometric indicators and important awards for the Faculty staff and their performance.

Ten Years of Leading the Institute of Histology and Embryology

This year, it has been 10 years since I started leading the Institute of Histology and Embryology, which I took over from doc. Jitka Kočová. Although it was not yet possible to move this Institute to a new campus, during those ten years, we have renovated the Institute offices, modernised laboratories, and strengthened our team. The register of methods we perform at the Institute has been significantly expanded. We have multiplied the number of doctoral students, including many foreign students. After completion of PhD studies, our graduates / post-docs either take a post-doctoral position abroad, get hired by domestic or foreign biotechnological companies or successfully continue on their academic path at our Faculty.

Our Institute is involved in a lot of contract research, including international, as well as a number of grant projects, including preclinical and clinical oriented projects. We cooperate with clinicians not only from our Faculty of Medicine, but also from other faculties of medicine in the Czech Republic.

I am particularly pleased that as far as teaching is concerned, we are a great team that is not afraid to try new things, we are helping each other and inspiring and complementing each other in teaching, and our students perceive our effort positively, and that is why, for many years now, we have been ranked at the top in student evaluations within our Faculty.

I think that as teachers, we have also handled the challenge associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to distance learning very well. We have uploaded lectures, started using suitable tools for interactive participation, such as Socrative and PollEverywhere in the classroom, digitised the preparations needed for studies, and when needed in the summer of 2020, we carried out examinations remotely, at the same difficulty level as in the face-to-face examination. In autumn 2020, we even conducted some of the practicums in a hybrid format – with students partly in the classroom at the microscopes and partly at home at their PCs.

I would love to dedicate at least a paragraph in this text to each of my colleagues! In some way, each of them has contributed to the team being “in tune”, like a great orchestra. No one is left behind; there are opportunities for everyone, and I am very pleased to see that they are able to take them up.

Vice-Rector for Education

In 2013, the Rector, Prof. Tomáš Zima, invited me to join his team after his election. He then offered me Students Affairs, including lifelong learning. It was, and still is, a huge challenge. Looking back, I appreciate the most that we, from the Student Affairs Office, have become a functioning team of professionals who, unlike in the previous years, are always more open to the needs of the faculties themselves. We meet regularly with their representatives, and we have repeatedly undertaken a series of visits directly to the study departments of the faculties. When coronavirus made personal meetings impossible for us, we solved it by meeting virtually – regularly collectively, but also bilaterally (for example, on the distance examination topic).

The vice-rector position has given rise to a number of challenges and new opportunities. We founded the Arnošt of Pardubice Prize, which is awarded every year to an excellent teacher of Charles University and for outstanding achievement in education at our university. I chair the commission, which selects the winners from the individuals nominated by the faculties, and I am very glad that several times, I have had the opportunity to take part in the presentation of these awards on November 17th to truly exceptional personalities and teams.

In order to support academic staff in their growth, including the development of their pedagogical skills, we launched an educational portal for CU staff within the newly established Lifelong Learning Centre of Charles University. On this portal, we provide training events and educational activities divided into twelve areas, constantly expanding and improving the offer, and gradually building a system that should be a significant benefit for all of us at Charles University, enabling our further growth.

With the Lifelong Learning Centre, we have also prepared for several years the Junior Charles University for high school students, and its goal rests in introducing them to the study at Charles University and thus attracting talent and enthusiasts for our institution.

As the first public university in the Czech Republic, we used institutional accreditation to simplify the recognition process for all foreign applicants, as they need to have their previous secondary education recognised during the admission process at Charles University.

We were also the first to change the system of recognition of previous foreign higher education so that it better corresponds with the current European legislative setting and enables easier arrival of the needed foreign experts to the Czech Republic.

It was difficult to deal with the fact that until I was nominated as the Vice-Rector for Education, the tuition fees for longer studies were not being effectively collected. It amounted to millions of crowns that could have been used to replenish scholarship funds of faculties. When we started the recovery process, it was difficult to set up communication with faculties and sometimes to reconstruct files of ten-year or so old cases and thus prevent exceeding the statute of limitations or injustices, but in general, it was difficult to contact even graduates from eight or nine years ago with a request to pay their student debt.

In contrast to these difficult tasks that had to be resolved, I have been particularly pleased with those activities where we are able to centralise specific service activities that have the potential to benefit all the faculties. A typical example is the promotion of foreign language study programmes. In this area, some faculties are completely self-sufficient, others use at least one of our central service activities, while others use everything we offer. As the Department for Student Affairs, we have centralised the reporting of students with visa requirements, administration of the so-called Regime Student, service for the bilingualism of study regulations, presentation of the study offers to foreign applicants, etc. We coordinate this activity with CU POINT as the main objective is the improvement of study and non-study experience of our foreign students, and together with the External Relations Department, we promote CU study and the activities associated with the Study in Prague brand, as well as with the Study in the Czech Republic activities of the Czech National Agency for International Education and Research.

Opportunity to Create a Future with the Best Universities in Europe – the 4EU+ European University Alliance

I had the great honour to be at the beginning of the process of forming the European University Alliance, which now bears the proud 4EU+ title (originally, as a grouping of four, it was 4EU). This grouping, consisting of four founders – CU, the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of Warsaw, later joined by the University of Copenhagen and University of Milan, is of great importance for the future of CU.

This very complex plan combines the efforts of the partner university leaderships, i.e. the “top-down” university leadership support of the cooperation, as well as the movement of the individual academic staff members with their specific joint activities in research, education and exchanges of undergraduate or doctoral students being the driving force.

The leadership of all six universities supports cooperation between academic staff members, non-academic employees and students, essentially at all the levels of our day-to-day ventures. Together, we already coordinate two major projects, one focused on cooperation in educational activities and the other on cooperation in the field of scientific policies and concepts.

I firmly believe that 4EU+ represents an opportunity to not only work with the best teams of top universities in Europe but also to better influence and shape where Europe is heading in the education and research fields.

For more than thirty years, Charles University has been part of my life, and although I have been attracted to other institutions and other positions over the years, such as private reproductive medicine centres, I have never separated myself from CU and I have always respectfully rejected other offers. However, those thirty years were often about finding balance. One learns to balance interests throughout one’s life, be it the interests of partners within an international alliance or the interests of students versus the interests of faculties. The key to finding balance is not to lose direction, to always be aware of the main values, main goals, and main meaning. I have been with the university for thirty years, and I do not plan to end this path; on the contrary – I would like to continue to serve it with great honour and vigour!

More about my life journey in an interview for Český Rozhlas