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Interview with Michaela Kajšová – Winner of the 2015 EUCYS EuCheMS Special Prize

Michaela Kajšová is a young and enthusiastic student who won the 2015 European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) EuCheMS Award with her project entitled “The Effect of Cholesterol on Biological Membranes”. Despite her young age and her responsibilities as a finishing high school student, she managed to follow her scientific curiosity and developed a two-year research project whose results will soon be published.

When Michaela received this prize she was then in her first very busy weeks of her medicine degree but we managed to get some of her time for this interview where her passion for chemistry and talent as a natural communicator were more than evident.

EuCheMS: First of all, Congratulations for winning EUCYS EuCheMS Special Prize with your project entitled “The Effect of Cholesterol on Biological Membranes”.  Could you tell us more about how did this project begin?

Michaela Kajsova: In Czech Republic when you want to get in contact with science during high school you have several organisations that allow students to do laboratory work and to participate in research projects, in addition we also have  a competition called Středoškolská Odborná Činnost (highschool scientific activities) which starts at school level, followed by town, regional and national rounds, so first I started with a research project and then I decided to participate in the competition. I was lucky to found a computational project on biological membranes at the Faculty of Science of Palacký University in Olomouc and the head of the department of Physical Chemistry, Prof. Michal Otyepka, was really flexible in allowing me to choose my specific research topic. I had a really nice supervisor who was actually his PhD student, Markéta Paloncýová, who started by teaching me how to properly use the scientific software, which was something really new and challenging. After this initial phase which took six months, I was finally ready to start the research itself. We picked the topic of the effect of cholesterol on lipid membranes as I was already interested in cholesterol and the department was interested in the results of such a project. After a lot of reading I discovered that previous research was not very precise due to the concentrations of cholesterol and simulation times that were used and the team also wanted to see the comparison of more membrane types. So I chose five lipid types and 11 different concentrations of cholesterol, resulting in 55 different membranes simulated.

EuCheMS: What were the scientific outcomes of the project?

MK: All the membranes were more organised and less fluid after addition of cholesterol. The properties of the membrane differed depending on the lipid bilayer type. However, cholesterol reduced the differences and made all the membranes almost similar, when the amount of cholesterol increased far above normal values. This project summarised all these facts, so that in the future if someone wants to do a membrane simulation and would like to choose a membrane with specific properties such as concentration of cholesterol, with my results this person will be able to compare which one better suits this researcher´s project. It´s like a databank.

EuCheMS: Did you publish these findings?

MK: Given the fact that I was going to the Czech national round of an high school science competition as well as participating at EUCYS and other international competition while at the same time preparing my high school graduation, it was really difficult for me to work on the article, so only now I am actually writing the article and it should be published in the near future. Nevertheless I am already a co-author of an article written by my supervisor and her colleagues as they were using my findings to compare with their results.

EuCheMS: Do you see any future applications of your research to our everyday life?

MK: Actually the biggest aim of computational chemistry, especially bio-chemistry, is to help creating new drugs. For example I already knew about type 1 diabetes from a friend of mine who suffers it, a condition where you don´t have enough insulin, so the glucose cannot go from blood to cells because insulin is not net so cells cannot open themselves to accept glucose.  At some point I read for my final exams about type 2 diabetes, were you have a lot of insulin but cells are immune to it, so cells aren´t able to accept it. So I thought that there must be some receptor in the membrane in the cell which should accept the insulin and I know that when there is a great amount of cholesterol in the membrane it changes the properties of proteins, so maybe also the properties of this receptor.  So the people with type 2 diabetes are usually pretty obese so we can assume they probably have quite a lot of cholesterol and maybe this cholesterol changes the structure of the receptor protein for insulin, which means that it cannot accept the insulin and therefore glucose cannot get in. So simulating this in the future might be interesting to find another way to treat type 2 diabetes, maybe by trying to regulate the amount of cholesterol in membranes and in blood, but this is really distant in the future.

I also wanted to study the blood-brain barrier, whose functioning is related with many diseases, as there is high amount of cholesterol in it. However, the function of the blood is based on proteins rather than lipids, so hopefully I will try to investigate it in future.

EuCheMS: What were the main obstacles you have encountered during your research?

MK: [laughs] I am really laughing at that because I remember when I received the first email from my supervisor and I could not even open the attachments. It was really hard to deal with this scientific software and it took me about six months of my two years research. In the beginning I was learning how to build the membrane with my computer and usually I would do some mistake so the membranes would be completely mixed or looking terrible. After receiving simulation results from the supercomputer I would make some analyses on my computer which would take really long time and I had to use Excel as I did not have the needed scientific software on my personal computer. Fortunately as time passed I got much quicker with the accumulated experience and now everything is really easy.

Also problematic was the fact that the Palacký University in Olomouc was almost 100km from where I live. But as this was a computational chemistry research project I would go only once per month to consult with the team on the results or to sort out eventual problems, but most of the analysis and writing for the project was done at home, so the greatest challenge was about how I managed my free time.

EuCheMS: And how did your schoolmates react to this passion of yours for research? Were they supportive?

MK: My friends were really supportive even though I know that some young people would not understand why someone would do this and would see this participation in an extra-curricular science project as a waste of time. I actually started it with the dream of reaching the regional round but then I went to the national level and finally to the international competitions and to the EUCYS EuCheMS Special Prize – it was like a dream come true.

EuCheMS: Were your teachers supportive?

MK: Definitely yes, even though the actual work was done at the university and at my place teachers were supportive and flexible when I was leaving earlier, namely to go the university lab.

EuCheMS: When did you start having interest in chemistry? And as you are now studying medicine, when did your interest for this field start?

MK: Actually my mother is a medical doctor and since I was a kid she didn´t want me to go to medicine, she said it was though and a lot of responsibility. So I had some doubts but after this project I was sure that I wanted to study medicine and I would be sorry if I would not pursue that.

Regarding my interest for chemistry, a science which is deeply related to medicine and that contributes greatly to the work of medicine, it comes from my chemistry teacher who was a really excellent pedagogue. He taught us chemistry by using a lot of history, by describing scientific problems and by making us incarnate famous chemists in order to discover by ourselves how did they solve these problems. It was then that my passion started, I have to say I was really lucky to be influenced by him.

EuCheMS: Finally, is there any message you would like to leave to younger people who might be reading this interview?

MK: After winning the national round, at my first international competition, at Intel ISEF, I was pretty stressed because I was supposed to talk and explain everything in English and it was a big competition with a lot of pressure, as Czech delegations are usually excellent, all of this during my high school graduation year. Fortunately, I got more relaxed by having more experience and at EUCYS I just wanted to enjoy it, I just wanted to share my project with the judges and discussing potential of computational chemistry, so I had the chance meet interesting and knowledgeable people with whom I exchanged contacts which opened many opportunities for a possible future career on research.

I really appreciate the EUCYS EuCheMS Special Prize and it is a great motivation for the future, but young students participating in such competitions should not think too much about winning. It is more about interacting with people, learning how to present your research, and meeting new people and opportunities. The scientists and judges I have met were very humble and kind people who really inspired me to pursue research. It is amazing that all this started just because of an extra-curricular activity.