Anna has always been interested in health. At primary school she knew she wanted to study it, even if she didn’t know exactly how. At Imperial, she studied for a PhD in Bioengineering, during which she developed novel biomaterials that respond to force. Anna says working on an ambitious project at Imperial helped her develop transferable research skills necessary to successfully answer difficult research questions.
At the end of her PhD and in her late 20s, she chose women’s health as her specialty. “There are so many conditions that affect women’s reproductive health, and few of them have been carefully studied,” she says.
After leaving Imperial, Anna moved to Germany as a Women in Research Fellow, where she focused on endometriosis. Using the skills she gained at Imperial, Anna designed 3D models for studying endometriosis. It’s something she describes as a “Disease in a dish”, and it enables her and other researchers to study the condition more systematically.
Endometriosis is a condition that affects around 10% of women globally, can be extremely painful and is linked to infertility. There is no curative treatment available.
A systematic approach
Anna’s now a Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard. She’s been working on a similar bioengineering concept, something she calls a “Cervix on a chip.” Using microfluidic devices, Anna can control both chemical and physical signals the cells experience and can thus closely mimic human tissue. "It also means we can reduce the number of tests on laboratory animals. This is important especially because the commonly used rodent models don't menstruate and differ from humans in many other important aspects and therefore any data based on rodents don't tell the whole story." She is interested in studying how cervical tissue produces mucus and responds to different drugs and hormones. "Using microfluidic chips provides a systematic way of analysing health and treatment options, before we progress to trials in patients" she says.
Czexpats in Science
Anna started her studies at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where she met Markéta Kubánková (PhD Chemistry 2017) and Vladka Petráková. Together they formed Czexpats in Science and changed the scientific landscape of the Czech Republic for the better.
30 years after the fall of communism, Czech scientists are now spread out throughout Europe and much of the world. "On the one hand, this is a great opportunity for the scientists to learn and network, on the other hand the country sees a major 'brain drain' where educated people leave to go to other countries. There was no platform to bring Czech scientists together and connect them to their colleagues or provide information on how to find opportunities abroad or return home and start independent research careers there."
The Czexpats In Science platform aims to connect Czech scientists abroad with each other and with scientists and scientific institutions in the Czech Republic.
Changing science policy
A sense of isolation gave Anna, Markéta and Vladka the idea to create Czexpats in Science. They launched with their first annual conference in 2018, where scientists could meet with one another in their home country, as well as policymakers in the Czech government.
Today the Czexpats in Science community has grown from its three co-founders to more than 270 registered members. Many regularly publish articles on the non-profit's online platform. Some are working with Czech policymakers and key decision-makers, including the Czech Prime Minister. Others have become involved with the Czech Academy of Science.
The Czexpats in Science annual conference was scheduled to happen again in 2020. But COVID-19 meant scientists couldn’t meet and talk face-to-face. So the event moved online. While Anna says this move came with its fair share of challenges, it presented new opportunities for learning.
With so many events moving online, people are becoming better connected. Now, it doesn’t matter where we are in the world. We could be one or ten hours away from each other. In the past, some people might not have been able to attend our event because of geography or family commitments. Thanks to online events, knowledge has become more accessible.
When you ask her about who’s inspired her, Anna first mentions Dr Ben Almquist, her advisor at Imperial. “He inspires people to get as immersed as they can in the topic they’re studying. That’s advice that I found very helpful then, and I keep it in mind for the projects I’m working on today.” She adds that she feels very fortunate that she had an advisor who really cares for and actively promotes the careers of his students and postdocs.
Then there’s her Czexpats in Science co-founder, Vladka. “Between getting her PhD and completing her postdoc, she raised four wonderful children. And she’s just won a prestigious grant to start her independent group.”
“It shows prospective scientists that it’s possible to raise a family while balancing a career. A lot of the inspirational people in science that I met have families. It’s becoming more and more normal to acknowledge that wanting a family and a good career isn't mutually exclusive. More work needs to be done, but it’s good to see that this is happening.”
Ten years’ time
In ten years’ time, Anna wants to become an independent researcher in women’s health. “I want to contribute to and expand the collective knowledge of this area. I hope to see the work I’m doing in the labs become clinically relevant.” For Anna, this is about the bigger picture: providing people with more information to help them make better decisions.
I want patients and doctors to be able to make better, more informed decisions using the knowledge that’s available. The more knowledge there is, the more treatment options we can make, and the more empowered we can be. It’s important for people to be able to be in control of their own health decisions.
Hope for the future
Anna’s also inspired by seeing so many young people interested in science. She’s had mentoring roles at a summer camp in the Czech Republic, and at Imperial. At the camp, she’s taught high school students about tissue engineering. And she says they have more knowledge than you’d expect from students of their age to know. “It gives me hope for the future,” she says.
“Students can see what a career in science is really like when I talk to them. They get more insight than they ever could from their classes or documentaries. However, compared to when I was a kid, I think they already have better access to information now.”
At Imperial, Anna mentored several students during her PhD. “It was great to see how brilliant and curious they are. After spending time in the lab, it’s good to see they want to keep pursuing science as a career and are excited about it.” Some of them have gone on to study PhDs at Imperial and the University of Cambridge.
Anna has advice for those following in her footsteps.
Be brave, and don’t give up. Sometimes in the lab, it can seem like things are taking a long time to happen. But be persistent and stick with it. A lot of what happens along the way is interesting. It’s a bit like watching a television show and seeing how characters interact with each other, when you see cells interacting with each other. You don’t always know what’s going to happen, and you might be surprised when you figure out what is really going on.