7 September 2018

Valentina Lacovich

Valentina Lacovich is a scientist from International Clinical Research Center of St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno and a member of Translational Neuroscience and Aging Program. Last year, she was awarded by The Alzheimer’s Association International Society to Advance Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment for her research regarding the origins of degenerative brain diseases. She discovered a connection between brain injury and development of neurodegenerative diseases. “The women surrounding me from my mother, grandmother, and the teacher brought me to become who I am today,” claims the young researcher.

What influenced you to become a scientist and drew you to your field?
It has always been my dream to become someone who helps people. At first, it was more about becoming a medical doctor but growing up I started to develop curiosity and interest in experiments and testing stuff. My parents introduced me to natural sciences and I have been in love with biology ever since. I fell for Neuroscience quite early, too. I remember watching an interview with Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini as a kid, and it truly made a great impact on me. She was talking about brain and how she dedicated her entire life to understanding how it functions. It inspired me so much that I gained the desire to contribute in my little way. However, it was probably my biology teacher in elementary school who inspired me the most and who died of cancer at a very young age. I was highly motivated to become a scientist myself. Furthermore, my grandmother always said she loved genetics and that I should study this kind of science. The women surrounding me from my mother, grandmother, and the teacher brought me to become who I am today and to pursue the career of a scientist.

What do you want to achieve in your research?
I believe the main reason that drives all the scientists in any field is the willingness to help and to truly contribute to the people surrounding us, to the generations that comes after and to understand this wonderful machine that the human body is. Uncovering how we function and in particular how the brain functions and to contribute to the solution for devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease would be the greatest achievement for me. To give my little piece of the puzzle and help get closer to the answers.
You received an award for young scientists from The Alzheimer’s Association International Society to Advance Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment. What was the aim of the research?
It is basically what we study on our daily bases, specifically the project we are working on with our team. We are interested in understanding the mechanisms that connect injury to the development of neurodegenerative diseases, as it has been shown by several studies that traumatic brain injury (TBI) presents a high risk for developing Alzheimer’s later in life. Because of that and because of the interest the group has in understanding axonal transport it all fit together.

What excites you about your work?
The thing I love the most is the experimental part. I find myself enjoying the most just being in a lab and getting to actually see the cells during experiments. It takes a lot of failures to reach a result. Sometimes it is extremely frustrating because usually 90% of things do not work but the 10% makes it all worth it. When you discover something, that is the best award you can get.

Why did you decide to come from your homeland Slovenia to the Czech Republic?
It was a bit of serendipity. It was some time after I finished my PhD at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. My mom encountered by chance one of doctor’s Stokin collaborators at an event in Slovenia. She suggested to send my CV. After some time, I got a response that my CV was well accepted. Shortly after a Skype interview followed. After some time, I was notified that they were satisfied with my performance during the interview and I was offered a postdoctoral research position. The first time I travelled to Brno and the Czech Republic was to sign the actual contract.

So, you did not know Brno at all. What is your opinion on Brno?
I love it. I was pleasantly surprised, I love the city. I come from the coast, I grew up by the sea and did my Ph.D. in Ljubljana which is architecturally very similar to Brno. It has a castle on the hill and a river flowing through the city. That was the reason why I immediately felt at home when I first came to the city. It is a place where I feel safe, I can go around the city, there are not too many people. I am not a fan of big cities like Prague, I prefer smaller and quieter places that still have the great city vibes and where the life is active all year long. I love December in Brno the most when there are Christmas markets and it gets romantic. I also appreciate its cultural life, especially the theaters because I like opera and ballet very much.

What is the difference between the scientific work in the Czech Republic and Slovenia?
In my point of view, the biggest difference is the capability of gaining funding and grants. It is one of the things I appreciate the most. Slovenia is falling behind in this aspect, the standards that are set in the Czech Republic are extremely high and I think that is very good. It pushes everybody to work extremely hard. It is always good to have ambition, it motivates you to go on. The Czech Republic is bigger and more successful in getting international funding, especially from the European Union. This is extremely important because science is very expensive, and basic science in particular requires a lot of funds. Nevertheless, the ground in both countries is comparable. Both have extremely good universities and produce really good scientists that are able to achieve incredible careers outside. It is a pity that sometimes it takes to leave your home in order to progress.

Many people still believe the stereotype that women are not as good as men in science. Have you noticed it during your studies and science career?
It is hard to achieve great things when you are not given the chance to do so and throughout history women had to struggle and fight hard for their right to study and work in fields which used to be off limit for women, science being one of them. I did experience some “gender-related discrimination” throughout my career, but luckily this has changed now. What I find interesting is that there are a lot of female scientists but very few on top management or PI positions. Therefore, the world of science is still very much driven by men. I do believe it is harder for women to juggle between career and family, which leads a lot of women to give up on their scientific career altogether. However, if you work hard and have reasonable and understanding mentors who support women on their way to progress, things will eventually change for better. Female scientists must keep pushing through and fight hard to show they are just as capable of achieving greatness as their male counterpart. We do have to sometimes work harder to achieve the same results and position as men, but there are some great examples which help us staying motivated and show us everything is possible – I mentioned Rita Levi-Montalcini already. Then there was Marie Skłodowska Curie who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences.

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