Somewhat exhausting but wonderful. That’s what Masaryk University student Barbora Čechová says about her experience last year. She was in her final year of secondary school when she won fourth place at Intel ISEF, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, known also as the Scientific Olympics for young talents. Thus, it was no big surprise when at the end of 2016, she stood among the top 24 personalities of 2016 in the list made by the daily MF Dnes.
So how was last year for Barbora? She was a final-year student at Brno’s Mathias Lerch High School and she began working at the laboratories on the Masaryk University Campus. As a member of a team led by the biologist Lumír Krejčí, she began to study a protein that is able to repair damaged DNA.
Describing her work in a broader context, Barbora says, “If the protein does not work as it should, people suffer Rothmund-Thomson syndrome, a genetic disorder which could lead to an increased risk of developing cancer and also cause premature ageing.”
To squeeze the results out of her research, Barbora had to work very hard. At school she arranged an individual study plan to spend more time in the laboratory. Once it happened that she spent the whole week in the lab. Even if she was only 18, Barbora did serious scientific work in her research.
“When I meet someone for the first time I’m very shy. I walked into laboratories where everyone had many titles before and after their names and I hadn’t achieved anything yet, so I was a bit afraid of bothering them,” she says about her first days in pavilion A7 of the University Campus Bohunice.
Moreover, she didn’t know what to think about scientists. “I considered scientists to be a really strange people, enclosed in their labs all the time, doing things nobody could understand. Thanks to my work at the campus, I realized that researchers are human beings who also have hobbies such as photography and travelling,” she says enthusiastically. “But what’s more, they take their work really seriously and move things forward.”
The months she spent in the laboratories were crowned with success. Barbora won the biology part of the national Secondary School Scientific Competition (Středoškolská odborná činnost, SOČ) and the Czech Prize for the best young talents, Česká hlavička. Her name also appeared among the authors of a scientific article published in the journal DNA Repair, something that even PhD students are sometimes not able to achieve.
Studying for the school-leaving exam in the United States
Besides all of this, hundreds of hours working in the lab bore other fruit. When Barbora was in the last year of her secondary school studies, she went to Phoenix to attend Intel ISEF, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition, where 1700 students presented their work.
As the young scientist recalls the time spent on the competition and the support the organizers provided to participants, “Everyone got a booth where they talked about results of their work. That was really interesting. Next to me there was a guy from Florida and a girl from Georgia. I was just preparing for my school-leaving exam, so we discussed facts about the USA.” Finally, she won fourth place in the category of Biochemistry, one of the factors that helped put her on the list of personalities chosen by the daily MF Dnes and called Czechs of the Year 2016.
She met those 24 of the best Czechs in Žofín Palace in Prague. “I had heard that MF Dnes organizes such an event, but I never imagined that I could be there and meet such interesting people,” Barbora says. “It was such an honour for me. I still feel like a small fish in a big pond.”
In 2016 the list of awardees included, for instance, Rio Olympics winners Josef Dostál and Lukáš Krpálek, surgeon Jiří Froněk, who was the first in the Czech Republic to perform a uterus transplant that allowed a woman to have children, and Second World War veteran Emil Boček, aged 93, the last living fighter who after 71 years sat in a Spitfire fighter again. According to Barbora Čechová, she had the most interesting discussion with Kateřina Vacková, a doctor who beat cancer and founded the nonprofit organisation Loono that informs the broader public about cancer prevention.