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Petra Vojáčková at Dies academicus 2019.

Chemistry was a random choice. Now she’s studying it at Harvard

Petra Vojáčková was accepted into a doctoral programme at Harvard university after graduating from Masaryk University.

Petra Vojáčková at Dies academicus 2019.

As a girl, Petra Vojáčková was inspired by her sister, who excelled at biology and participated in many international competitions. Petra, though, eventually took a deeper interest in chemistry, which she is currently studying at Harvard.

“I enjoy the process of trying to understand why a certain experiment doesn’t work and trying to connect various experimental observations and findings from the literature and come up with new ideas about how to solve the problem. For me, it’s fascinating to observe a type of chemical reaction that no one has described yet and to try to understand why and how it’s happening,” explains the young scientist, describing her love of chemistry. She also adds that another thing she likes about science is that because of it she will never be able to say that she understands everything and that nothing can surprise her.

During her studies at MU, she began to focus on organic chemistry. She is currently a member of Eric Jacobsen’s research group at Harvard, where she seeks out applications for new catalysts – that is, substances that influence chemical reactions – for stereoselective synthesis.

“Many molecules come in two mirror-image forms, which can differ in terms of their biological effects. But because these two forms have the same physicochemical properties, it is not easy to separate them. We are trying to develop catalysts that could control various chemical reactions and therefore allow us to selectively prepare one of these mirror-image forms.”

Petra has been conducting research since her second year as a bachelor’s student at Masaryk University. She appreciates the fact that students here can decide whether they would like to work in a laboratory any time during their studies, from their first semester to their last.

“When, as a student, I picked a research lab, I had no idea what research entailed or what topic I wanted to focus on. I liked the way that Jakub Švenda spoke about chemistry in his organic chemistry seminars, so I contacted him and joined his group, which works on the organic synthesis of complex molecules with potential applications in biology and medicine. He also suggested that I apply to a PhD programme at Harvard and helped me get in.”

But Harvard was not the only school in the USA that Petra applied to. She also tried Stanford and Columbia University. “I began working on my applications towards the end of my second semester as a master’s student. I had to take an English test; a general test of verbal, mathematical, and analytical skills; and a specialized chemistry test. I also needed to include a CV, a motivation letter, a list of my research outputs, and three letters of recommendation with my application to Harvard,” she adds.

The bumpy road to Harvard

In the USA potential PhD students usual submit applications at the end of the year for admission in the following autumn. “In February I found out that I wasn’t accepted by a single university. I had no back-up plan, and I wanted to finish the synthesis I had been working on for my master’s thesis, so I decided to prolong my studies at MU by one semester,” she recalls. She also contacted several European research groups about the possibility of doing an internship that could potentially lead to acceptance in a PhD programme, but her efforts were unsuccessful. “Just when I was about to give up on looking for a doctoral position, my advisor, Jakub Švenda, told me that his former boss at Harvard would let me work for a few months in his lab,” Vojáčková says of her complicated path to landing a doctoral position abroad.

She welcomed the opportunity to work at Harvard because it gave her the chance to see whether the university would be a good fit for her doctoral studies. “Shortly after finishing my master’s project, I left for a four-month internship in the lab of Professor Myers, where I worked on the organic synthesis of new compounds with antibiotic effects. I was enamoured by the work and the atmosphere at Harvard, and I decided to reapply to the PhD. programme at Harvard. I learned I had been accepted on the last day of my internship,” she adds with a smile.

She then returned to Czechia to defend her thesis and complete her master’s degree. She obtained an Alfred Bader Scholarship to study in the USA. This scholarship is available to Czech doctoral students in chemistry programmes at four universities: Harvard, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Imperial College London.

“It was a bumpy road to Harvard; I met with plenty of failure. But I am grateful for that journey. Along the way, I gained a lot of experience, and it provided me with many new opportunities. And because I prolonged my studies at Masaryk University, I could finish my master’s thesis project, the results of which were recently published in a paper in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society,” describes Petra.

Coronavirus complicated everything

According to Petra, doing a PhD. at Harvard is quite similar to studying at MU. Besides attending lectures, PhD. candidates must also teach and conduct their own research. But this spring, the coronavirus pandemic interrupted normal academic life.

“In early March all courses at Harvard were moved online, research labs were closed, and all bachelor’s students had to leave campus and go home. Everything happened so fast. On Monday we found out that we might be teaching remotely, and on Friday I was already holding my first seminar over Zoom. It was interesting to communicate with students who were logging in from different parts of the world, from different time zones. All lectures, seminars, office hours, and exams went online.”

Petra could not get into her laboratory for several months and thus stayed at home, studying published studies and analysing the results of her earlier experiments. Although she is getting ready to return to the research lab, she still does not know whether students will be back in the classroom in the autumn.