Student Spotlight Interview: Vera Pfeiffer

by Chloe‘ Skye

Summary Vera Pfeiffer was serving the past academic year as a Fulbright Student Researcher through an affiliation with Mendel University in Brno, Czechia. She does research on how the scale of agriculture affects bumblebee foraging patterns. Read on to see what traditional village bee hives are like and how the Communist period affects her subject. She does not have Czech ancestry but doesn’t mind if you call her Věra!

Fast Facts  
Originally from: Virginia
Age: 31
American University: University at Wisconsin, Madison - Environmental Ecology
Czech University: Mendel University
Favorite Czech word or phrase: ’jedna báseň’, a poem, as in, “This food is like a poem!” (very delicious)
Favorite Czech food: segedinský guláš (a type of goulash with cabbage)
Favorite Quote: Co jsi to provedl, Pepíku?” – from a Cimrman play

Tell me about your research.
I study agriculture and resource management, including urban and forested areas surrounding Brno; for example, in Šlapanice. The scale of agriculture is the more traditional, smaller scale but there are also some areas with largescale agriculture more like the US, and these were consolidated during Communism. My research is about how that gradient affects bumblebee foraging patterns. In the US, small farms and big farms are more heterogeneously distributed, whereas here you can see the contrast more conspicuously. It’s easier to study landscape-level processes in these more representative areas.

Where do the bees come in?
I take samples from bumblebees after catching them with hand nets and anesthetizing them briefly. To understand something about bees, you should know that they use their front legs to grab on and land and their back legs to collect pollen. I collect their middle legs, which they don’t need to forage. It may sound terrible, but it’s not! This helps me study the community foraging differences in terms of farm size and urban and forest boundaries.

Did you encounter any difficulties?
It was pretty funny walking around in the fields. There was a lot of human interaction in these small towns outside of Brno. Sometimes I could explain my research in Czech, but sometimes it was too difficult!

Why did you choose to come here specifically?
I chose Czechia because it’s a very good example of [landscape distribution]. Aldo Leopold, who founded the field of Ecology and was a professor at Wisconsin, visited CZ and was influenced by the landscape planning strategies as well as local management ethic. This includes the hunter clubs that needed to do surveys of the wildlife, take wildlife management classes and keep track of it in their area to be a hunter.

I have heard of that and it is interesting how the labor is distributed among people who hunt. What do you think about the Czech attitude towards the environment?
There are areas where people are still very connected to producing their own food, like community garden areas with plots together, while during Communism a lot of the larger areas were consolidated into big farms. Nowadays some families take pride in their tradition of community resource management, while some are more distant.

Have you seen any examples of traditional beekeeping?
I once visited a village in the countryside and got the opportunity to see traditional bee hives. There was a large stump with a face carved into it, with holes in the mouth where the bees go in and out. It was like a big, round, hollow piece of wood with a decorated top and was really interesting for me!

What about the results of your research?
I am still working on it. First, I need to finish the DNA extraction and genetic work on the bees. This isolates rapidly changing DNA sections and is very useful in an ecological sense for family clustering that captures the most diverse aspects of their genetic diversity. This way I can estimate colony density and do colony assignment in order to map the colony foraging.


Student Spotlight Interview: Arvind Kumar

by Chloe‘ Skye

Arvind Kumar is a Fulbright grantee in a US Fulbright student program in affiliation with Charles University in Pilsen. He is a recent Duke graduate who took a gamble on a Czech lab trying an experimental surgery technique and was enjoying the manifold benefits of his decision! We discussed stem cell research in the Czech context, his experience taking care of piglets, and how he gets to act the part of a TV surgeon in real life. 

Fast Facts: 
Hometown: Rosalyn Heights, NY
Age: 21
College, Major/Minor: Bachelor of Science in Math and Chemistry, Duke University
School in the Czech Republic: Charles University Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen
Favorite Czech Phrase: ‚asi jo‘ (probably)
Favorite Czech Food: Duck breast with red cabbage

Tell me what your research is about.
I work in a lab that specializes in experimental surgery on piglets using new, innovative techniques and in hopes of eventually translating the results to humans. My professor does research on liver and anything related to the intestinal tract. There’s a disease called sinusoidal obstruction syndrome that damages liver and is a common side effect of chemotherapy in humans. We are trying to treat this by applying stem cells to piglets with the disease and seeing if liver function improves. So far, results of phase I clinical trials are very applicable to humans.

How did you choose Czechia?
It was a ‚windy‘ path. I learned about an international workshop to teach students surgical techniques, and the professor of that workshop is now my mentor. I found out about it because it is similar to my Duke research, which was from a big data perspective, but with a different take because it’s so hands-on. That nitty-gritty detail really intrigued me. I researched it from abroad and the professor and I Skyped a few times. He was really excited and eventually wrote my letter of affiliation.

Do you have experience living or working abroad?
I have never been to Czech Republic before. Unlike the other Fulbright students, who are more interested in Czech culture or history, I came to work in a specific lab. I did spend 2.5 months doing biochemical research in Tokyo, Japan in 2016. I love to learn about the intersection between science and culture in the context of international cooperation. But I have never been abroad so long before. What’s funny is that I may know more about medicine in a Czech context than in an American one. For example, I was speaking with my brother who’s studying dentistry and mentioned the word peritoneum –- he said, ‚Wait, what?‘ [It turns out] it’s pronounced totally differently there. So it will be funny when I go back and start medical school and have to relearn all of the pronunciations.

In the US, stem cells are quite the controversial topic. Can you compare this research in the Czech and American contexts?
Stem cell is quite the buzzword in the American political context. It’s specifically embroyonic stem cells that are the center of the controversy. In our research the stem cells are extracted from the piglets‘ bone marrow and used to cure them, so there aren’t the same political implications. It’s easy to aspirate and extract bone marrow, like blood, while the pig is under anesthesia.

How does your research work?
My mentor Dr. Václav Liška heads a team of eight students. He’s a full-time surgeon, then he runs this lab on the side. He oversees us doing the surgery unless it’s really difficult and he steps in. We all work together and have rotations in terms of taking care of the piglets and getting experience with the operating table. We have a bit of a strange schedule; we do operations 2-3x a week and work roughly from 2pm to 8 or 9pm. Those days get long but my labmates are great and sometimes we go out for a beer.
The lab is state-of-the-art and hi-tech, like you’d expect for humans. Originally I didn’t know what to expect, what my role would be, but we are actually doing the operations – it’s as you see it in the serials, like, ‚Scalpel!‘ (laughs) I am getting so much hands-on experience in surgery. The professor really pushes me to learn about anatomy and physiology.

What has been your biggest challenge?
I knew next to nothing about the medical side of this because I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree. It was a lot of reading in the beginning to get my footing and be able to have an intelligent conversation about the goals of our research, which was a challenge I welcomed. I’m getting used to the university and lab culture. I take care of piglets, feed them, take blood samples. I also have side projects; for example, alongside a colleague I grow and culture the specific type of stem cell we want so we don’t have to contract with an outside lab in the future. I’ve also submitted a paper for publication on a literature review and I’m waiting to hear back.

What have you gained from your Fulbright experience?
I’ve done a lot of personal development. I’ve improved my coordination skills and medical knowledge. Not all of our research will be processed by the end so I will stay in contact with my mentor and labmates and continue after Fulbright ends. We eventually plan to come out with a paper in 2019.

What has been the most rewarding part of your experience?
I have gained a very different perspective of medicine. I also envision my potential career path differently than I had before. I know that in the future I’d like to be a full-time practicing doctor as well as do research, as a lot of my labmates are now while working towards their MD Ph.Ds, rather than only one or the other.