When I don’t know what I’m doing, that’s… science. The story of physicist Jana Kalbáčová Vejpravová

Four years ago she was the second Czech researcher in history to obtain a prestigious grant from the European Research Council. Her project is called TSuNAMI, and combines physics, chemistry and biomedicine. One of the areas that benefits from her research is cancer treatment. Nonetheless, she is not much concerned with practical applications – or, more precisely, as soon as a discovery finds a practical application, it ceases to be interesting for her. Jana Kalbáčová Vejpravová, a physicist at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, and a recipient of the František Běhounek Award for popularisation of science.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

“The year is 2017. An empty basement room, but a beautiful large bed to accommodate a magnet. And the taxing process of headhunting. Awful first twelve months. Then I managed to hunt down three very decent ‘heads’, in addition to a handful of smart people I knew from earlier. A Nepali, who brought his whole family over from the US; an Indian, previously working at the prestigious Weizmann Institute in Israel; and a Portuguese, who left a job in Spain to join my team. Gradually, the personnel stuff settled down. A typical scenario. Lots of struggle at first. Having to start from scratch. We had nothing. Now we have a cool lab and even people from Cambridge and Singapore are amazed by what we’ve managed to build in such a relatively short time.”

This, in a nutshell, is how Jana Kalbáčová Vejpravová describes what took place in the three years since the last time I interviewed her. Back then it was autumn 2017, she had a fresh ERC grant, grand ideas, eagerness to start working – and not much else.

Shortly beforehand, she had left her position at the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences and returned to her ‘native’ Faculty of Mathematics and Physics (FMP) with €1.5M in her pocket for a project called TSuNAMI, which was to connect physics, chemistry and biomedicine. TSuNAMI is an acronym of a complex full title – Trans-Spin NanoArchitectures: from birth to functionalities in magnetic field.

Tiny bricks, tiny houses, tiny villages…

In her media appearances at the time, she was forced to repeat a child-friendly version of her main project, speaking about tiny, smart magnetic bricks that a nifty magnet could stack into a tiny house on an atom-thin plot of land. The house could be unlocked, heated, and tidied up using light or a magnetic field. Then, you could even build a tiny village… But presenting science in this manner runs against the grain.

When asked ‘How will it benefit humankind?’ she answers: “The actual payoff is probably diddly-squat, but it’s such good fun!” This quip, a highlight of the interview I did with her for Téma magazine (I will occasionally quote from it in this profile), earned her a dressing-down from both co-workers and superiors. Nonetheless, she still stands by it. She says she does not need to anticipate practical applications – in fact, she is not all that interested in those already implemented (her research has produced several and we will get to them later on).

What excites her are unanswered questions, puzzles, challenges. “When I don’t know what I’m doing, that’s when I’m doing science. What I’m doing when I know what I’m doing isn’t science. I’m not interested in that, I don’t enjoy it and I don’t want to do it.”

This statement calls to mind a quote from the outstanding French mathematician, Henri Poincaré: “Science has had marvellous applications, but a science that would only have applications in mind would not be science anymore, it would be only cookery.”

On the other hand, she is well aware how important it is to popularise science. After all, last year she received the František Běhounek Award, presented by the Ministry of Education for the promotion of Czech science and for spreading its good reputation in the European Research Area.

She used to be an active participant in open days, seminars for students and even secondary school teachers. “A few times we had some secondary school students as interns in our group, and later on I found out that it was a great motivation for them to go on to uni.” In recent years, however, she is more committed to the serious promotion of science in what she calls critically important circles: “The places where decisions about funding for science are actually being made, both here at home and in the EU.”

Three years ago, chatting over coffee, we promised each other that we would go out for a beer sometime – Jana, you see, is a beer connoisseur. However, we did not manage to keep our word until this opportunity came up. So, here we are, in a mini-brewery/pub in the Prague district of Libeň; it is Friday night and a storm is raging outside. Jana speaks in a very expressive voice, matched by her high-energy presence – and, occasionally, her words are punctuated by thunder rumbling in the distance.

Zip up, deliver, and unfold

Before the TSuNAMI project started, Jana Kalbáčová Vejpravová and her team had mainly been working with magnetic non-metallic particles. It was a continuation of her earlier research that ultimately led to the already mentioned practical applications.

Three years ago, these were her plans: “To advance the work with magnetic nanoparticles for various other applications and resolve certain issues, such as the clustering of particles in the organism (during experiments – e.g. with mice and pigs – that precede practical biomedical application), which occurs even without the influence of a magnetic field and causes obstruction of blood vessels and other problems.”

The particles must be small, but small particles do not emit heat quite as effectively, which is their main purpose. This is why she and her team were trying to come up with a method for turning them into more complex structures that give off heat, and a way of folding them up for the journey. “We want to bring them where we need them, then we switch on the magnetic field, they unfold, taking on their original shape – thanks to shape memory – and off we go,” she explains.

They have developed an entirely new concept. They can even selectively link magnetic particles and molecules within a magnetic field, thus forming complex structures with a desired shape. “Imagine you have miniature magnets dispersed in a fluid. When we switch on the outer magnetic field, they align into a shape that we want and then we interconnect them with chemical bonds. And when we switch the field off, the whole structure folds up, and that’s it. Like a foldable umbrella. Then it can be easily delivered to its destination and unfolded again using a magnetic field.” 

Off to cellular suicide!

Nonetheless, we will briefly revisit those practical applications. The one that is easiest to imagine has to do with cancer research, or, more precisely, with developing physical and combined treatment methods. The basic idea is quite simple: “If you place a suitable material into a high-frequency magnetic field, certain physical principles cause it to produce heat that can warm up its surroundings to tens of degrees centigrade.”

Such heat prompts some types of cancer cells to commit suicide. “Competent colleagues then use these particles right inside the patient’s body.”

They insert them into the body, activate them using a high-frequency field – and the magnet starts heating up its surroundings. Researchers have managed to attach selected antigens, markers and chemotherapeutics to the particles, and they have even created smart thermoresponsive chemical bonds that break once a threshold temperature has been reached, releasing the corresponding molecule at its very destination.

Three years ago, Jana mentioned two companies – project partners – which were just initiating the experimental stage of testing this method. She could not reveal more at the time. “The follow-up research is mostly in the field of medicine anyway, which is beyond my competence, and it’s handled by partners focusing on biomedicine. I’ve never felt attracted to it. The immunological videos showing cells devouring one another make me sick… Or seeing pictures of mice and pigs with tumours – I feel so sorry for the animals, I’m always on the brink of throwing up. Excuse me.”

Nowadays, several ‘hyperthermic’ media are being used in treatment. “I’ll have to admit that I don’t really keep track of it. I honestly couldn’t care less. Maybe I sound kooky, but what I view as a challenge is coming up with intellectual solutions to problems in an area where I’m competent, rather than dabbling in other fields, which is what I see around me ever so often. And right now I’m totally excited with our new toy, our awesome spectrometer, which lets us see new effects that haven’t been proved yet. Perhaps I’m a bit of a geek,” she laughs.

The most recent challenge is discovering what actually occurs during hyperthermic heating. So far, there is no conclusive proof that cell death is caused solely by the increase in temperature. “There’re various hypotheses – one says, for example, that the nanoparticles release iron ions. This is why we’ve collaborated with a company from Spain to expand our spectrometer by a one-of-a-kind cell where we can apply a high-frequency magnetic field and see the changes it produces at the level of chemical bonds, and even measure the temperature of the affected molecules. But, again, we’re getting too close to applied research here...”

A flat crystal

So, what does she consider the purely intellectual challenge right now? “Researching 2D materials. With those we’ve hopped on the tsunami in the title of our project, so it’d be good to ride it for a while.” What is it about? “At the moment, our research pivots around flat crystals.” 

Flat crystals? “Sure, the most famous example is graphene – a huge point of interest for my husband (physical chemist Martin Kalbáč – editor’s note). I’ve delved into it, too. The physics of the thing is amazing, like when a flat, atom-thin crystal interacts with circularly polarised light, with other similar crystals and molecules,” she enthuses – and I admit that I do not follow what she is saying. “Simply speaking, these 2D crystals could find applications in nanoelectronics or in alternative designs for quantum computers based on so-called ‘pseudo-spin’,” she adds.

“And now that we’ve finally got that fantastic machine of ours, we can have a proper look at all of it. We can make them grow, we can turn them into different shapes, kind of like origami. I’m having a blast with the material part as well as the hardcore fundamental physics that follows from it. All the things you can do with it and how, what it can do, what you can get from it,” she enumerates passionately.

The ‘fantastic machine’ is the already mentioned magneto-Raman spectrometer. “It has parameters that other machines don’t, it allows measurements using variously polarised light, in a magnetic field at various temperatures. We’ve designed special filters, tweaked the optics, so that now we can even observe what happens in the material with temporal resolution. And then everyone was keen to dive straight in! Over the last three months, we’ve been measuring round-the-clock.”

And she can already see the effects, just the way she envisioned them three years ago. “At last! The results give me great personal pleasure. I wanted to see all this years ago, but some members of my team didn’t believe this was the way to go and focused on other issues instead. It’s precisely this kind of physics that’s having a moment in my field right now, and I don’t want to miss out on it.”

Compared to our meeting three years ago, she is positively beaming. “We can actually do what hardly anyone else can. Our broader group, called Nanocarbon – which includes my husband and Otakar Frank from the J. Heyrovský Institute of Physical Chemistry – is getting along marvellously, we’re a kind of triad, without their help I wouldn’t have managed half of what I’m doing now. In the past few months, our group has also become clearer in human terms: you know, the syndrome of an overripe postdoc who thinks that of course they know everything best is simply an inevitable stage in the development of every future boss, but also of the failed scientist and defector – it depends on where the chips fall.”

I need to have things under control

What brought her to physics and science? There are no scientists in her family, except for a cousin, an astrophysicist. Early on she developed an interest in chemistry, physics and technical subjects. “I had this compulsion to choose an area that would give me ‘job security’, which is what these disciplines offer, more or less. I headed to the Faculty of Science to study chemistry – I found it practical and I enjoyed it. Except for pharmacy, that is. However, it soon turned out that chemistry isn’t my cup of tea. What frustrated me about chemistry were the empirical shortcuts, some of them were verging on the irrational. That being said, biology is even worse – nothing but uncertainties, irregularities, paradoxes and exceptions.” She says she needs to have things under control, she needs to be able to calculate everything.

While still a student of inorganic chemistry, she signed up for a physics seminar at the FMP, taught by Pavel Svoboda, who took her along for an experiment to the Hahn-Meitner Institute in Berlin. And there, in the ‘City of Steel’, she – as she puts it – fell in love.

“Huge machines, temperatures approaching absolute zero, large magnetic fields, adrenaline! Really gorgeous. An incredibly perfect system,” that is how she described the experience in the previous interview. “Research reactors are enormous, they have to be built in the centre of a gigantic hall, big as the train station of a large city. And neutrons, the particles we researchers like to use to examine our formulas, mean huge amounts of energy – all the machinery has to be big. For me, it was like a revelation. Until then, I’d been working in a lab with equipment for X-ray scattering, and though the machines weren’t larger than a piano, I thought they were pretty big. And then suddenly I was in a place where everything was gigantic, where you needed a ladder to climb the equipment, where cranes were being used. Such facilities keep fascinating me to this day. Like when we do experiments in cryogenics.”

It was at the FMP that she wrote her thesis, and she did her PhD there as well. So long, chemistry!

Back home

Health and family issues prevent Jana Kalbáčová Vejpravová from joining the ranks of scientific globetrotters; nonetheless, she has managed to make a few forays abroad. In 2010, for instance, she spent some time at the Belgian Hasselt University and then at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan.

“They made me an offer for a postdoc position but then a message came that EU had greenlit our MULTIFUN project, and also my gran fell seriously ill – the situation had to be dealt with, and fast. So, in December I packed up, came to Prague and signed a contract at the Institute of Physics. I got a lot of help from a couple of my co-workers there – I brought in my projects and students. And before I’d made up my mind about what to do next, a tsunami washed over Fukushima and returning to Japan in the following year or two was no longer an option.”

Until 2016 she was a department head at the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, but hers was one of the sections affected by the subsequent restructuring; some people were leaving, while others were afraid to come on board.

Jana obtained an ERC grant, but she had not secured the institutional support stipulated in a contract with the Brussels headquarters. She had to quickly find a different institution.

“I was saved by those I’d deserted years ago. I came back home. To the FMP,” she told me three years ago. “I know I’ve quite a temper, but when it’s the project and work that’s at stake, I simply grin and bear it, I do my job and collaborate, antipathies or no. Like, for example, I didn’t part on great terms with my former boss at FMP, but about a month later we talked it out and nowadays we’re getting along extremely well again.”

Today, she sees things in yet another light. “Well, I kind of regret the way I acted, actually. I was almost thirty back then, I was getting a bit fed up with my boss, I had the feeling that I could do everything better than him, that he was useless, that he didn’t care, that we didn’t matter to him at all. Again, that typical overripe postdoc syndrome. And so I left. But today, I know very well just how much he was doing for us. Covering our backs, bringing in the money, with extra work as Vice-Dean, too. I’ve got off my high horse. I didn’t properly appreciate the way he was until I myself was responsible for people and projects. And the experience has helped me in working with my team. All seems well now, I feel they like coming to work and that they’re enjoying it.”

Gender? Not an issue for me

Although a couple of years ago her team included several women, nowadays it is men who are in the majority. Generally speaking, however, Czech physics does not exactly abound in women. “Frankly, I’ve never cared much about gender. It’s not an issue for me. I find it easier to reach an understanding with men, though I’ve also had some very smart women colleagues,” she says, making it absolutely clear that she does not go in for gender debates.

I ask her at least whether she thinks that women who enjoy maths and physics should be supported: having interviewed several other female physicists and mathematicians, I know that some of them were discouraged from pursuing such disciplines.

“Yeah, support is definitely the right thing, I’ve gone through this myself, and it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I get the feeling, though, that some women wallow in their frustrations, that they’d serve themselves better if instead of venting their frustrations they buckled down and did their job. Things work well at some faculties and institutes, a lot probably depends on the bosses. But nobody ever asked me a thing… I was head of a department, I couldn’t whine, I had to handle it. I can see the issue from both sides. Some women who complain may actually be a bit lazy. Some of my female colleagues have children, they’re not at work all the time, fine, but they’ve managed to organise their lives and they’re okay.”

As for herself, she has always been able to organize hers. If she wanted to keep projects on track, make sure staff got paid, cover the institution’s overheads, and have the team keep on producing results, then there was no other option.

“Most grant agencies and employers don’t care about your reproduction. I cashed out my savings. I was getting no salary during my maternity leave except for maternity allowance, but I was going to work anyway. I managed to find wonderful babysitters – Vlasta, Dvořka and Maruška – who helped me out in the first two or three years, and gradually I started sending my daughter to nursery school; in the first six months I shelled out 240,000 crowns (approx. €10,000 – translator’s note) on nannies alone. Very early, my dad and stepmum got involved, and my in-laws as well. They were a huge help. In the first year, we would take the baby – Verunka – and a nanny or the grandparents along on business trips with us. Still today, when my dad is off-duty, he collects his granddaughter from school and brings her back after seven, fed, and these days even with finished homework. I’m getting incredible support really, I’m very grateful and so should be my staff.”

Even Cambridge was on the table

What lies in store? Her grants are going to run out in less than two years. Jana Kalbáčová Vejpravová admits that she is living in uncertainty. Mustering the energy to apply for a follow-up ERC grant will not be easy, she reckons, but does not rule out the possibility, even though her mind is not yet made up. Without the grant, however, she will likely lack the money to fund her large team. She will probably have to negotiate with the faculty management about the future of her group. Yet she is very happy at FMP, she appreciates the great workplace relationships there, and the excellent standard of teaching and research.

And where does she see herself if she fails to raise the money to continue her ambitious project? She is quite interested in faculty politics. “I’m chair of the subject area board of a PhD programme, I enjoy that a lot, I’d like to attract more good students from abroad. It’s not exactly research, but it gives you a chance to do something for the community. What I find just as good and helpful is participation in the academic senate – I’m on the economic board, I’ve always been interested in the efficiency of funding,” she smiles.

“I also do fairly frequent work for the European Commission, which I enjoy, I find it quite interesting. Maybe I’ll psych myself up and submit the ERC application, but I don’t feel like it now. It’s too bad that nobody takes these situations into account. You start up a group that’s getting excellent results and then… nothing. The last person to leave will turn out the lights. Well, they won’t even have to, there will be no money left for electricity anyway. And all this while the chair-warmers, people with no ambitious projects, can spend their lives sitting comfortably at their desks, safe and secure.”

She is even considering working abroad. “A while ago a position in Cambridge was on the table; an attractive move, but then I realized I’d only be running away from the inconveniences that hamper the system here – the bureaucracy, the uncertain future of research teams, the support of mediocrity and ‘old cadres’. I’ve even experienced unethical practices being favoured… I’ve definitely never wanted to go abroad for good, it’d only be a temporary fix. And I’ve told myself that I can’t keep running away. Plus, all the family stuff… my daughter’s still small, my mum has Alzheimer’s...”

Nevertheless, she keeps an eye out for open positions, just in case, because her family situation is liable to change. “Each year, they open professorships at the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) not far from Vienna. We’ll see. Austria is the only foreign country my husband would get behind. They offer good conditions, especially because successful candidates can get decent start-up money without worrying about disbanding a group if funding dries up for a year or two. The starting salary of a postdoc there is easily three thousand Euro; they realize how important it is to pay people well. Here, when I try and pay postdocs at least fifty thousand a month (approx. €2,000 – translator’s note), I get disapproving looks. Well, good people from abroad won’t come over and work for me for peanuts or for my sweet smile, will they?”

A project to last a lifetime

She met her husband, physical chemist Martin Kalbáč, while he was still a PhD student supervising a group of freshmen (which included Jana – called by her maiden name Vejpravová) during lab practice.

“He lent us this cool kit for chlorine liquefaction. We couldn’t get it to work, it was over thirty degrees outside. The flask burst, there was chlorine all over the place and he went berserk.”

No love exploded at that time. It was not to blossom until years later, when they met in Dresden: he was doing an internship there and she came over because of an experiment. “He showed me how he was measuring carbon nanotubes and we figured that we could start a project together.”

And so they worked on their joint project happily ever after… “Yeah, we have at least one project that’ll last us a lifetime,” laughs the mother of seven-year-old Verunka, who has just started school this September. She says Martin is the only person on Earth whom she can stand both at work and at home. “I don’t have to explain everything to him a hundred times over, we understand each other absolutely. That’s pretty rare. We don’t get on each other’s nerves. He’s a thoughtful introvert, I’m quick and dynamic. I hit him with an idea, and he pares it down for me.”

Apart from sharing their lively – at times even hyperactive – project and a few scientific ones, they both have a passion for beer (they even tap beer kegs in their home kitchen, and have taken a beer sensory class at the Research Institute of Brewing and Malting), for music and also for mountaineering: they have grown particularly fond of protected climbing routes, via ferratas – perhaps one of the reasons why the man in Jana’s family might approve of the potential move to Austria.

Moreover, Jana is very musical. She grew up playing the flute, bassoon, guitar, drums and… bagpipes. “The bagpipes were my dad’s idea – by the way, he gave me a ukulele for my fortieth, so I’m trying my hand at it in the evenings. In the nineties, he’d even go busking on Charles’ Bridge as a sideline. So, when the money for salaries and helium runs out, I might pop by there, too. Though nowadays, what with the pandemic and all, there aren’t many listeners around… so perhaps I’ll jump right off.” Gallows humour. Jana to a T.

The author is an editor of Deník N.

Translated by Petr Ondráček

Vlajka Evropské unie

This project has received funding from European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 955326.