Awfully, awfully tedious, but important work, says Kateřina Sam about her research

Sticking Plasticine caterpillars on trees in the foothills of the Šumava Mountains and in Australian eucalypt forests. Trekking through Japanese woodlands wearing jingle bells on her trousers to scare off bears. Hand-picking ants off tree trunks in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea. And several times being ambushed – one such encounter left her running for help through a rainforest for two days, hands tied and alone. Also having to dress the wounds of a man hacked with a machete. This is how biologist Kateřina Sam describes the wild side of doing fieldwork for a prestigious international research project.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

What happens when you leave a tree to caterpillars and all the other creatures that gnaw at it and live off its leaves? And what if you gave the very hungry caterpillars unexpected artificial protection – against bats, let’s say, but not against spiders? And what would be the difference doing this in Japan compared to Australia?

For years, questions like these have been occupying Kateřina Sam and her team of researchers from the Biology Centre at the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Faculty of Science at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice. Currently monitoring six locations (in Japan, China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and two sites in Australia) in diverse ecosystems, she observes how trees respond to the elimination of natural predators for animals that feed on their foliage.

Two years ago, her project called ‘Why is the world green: testing top-down control of plant-herbivore food webs by experiments with birds, bats and ants’ received prestigious support from the European Research Council – an ERC Starting Grant amounting to €1.4 million. So far, she is only the third female researcher to have obtained this grant for a Czech institution.

When the natural chain is broken

The predators of herbivorous insects they examine are bats, birds, and ants (in general, the predators of insects also include spiders, lizards, and frogs, but those are outside the scope of the project). In their labour-intensive and time-consuming experiments, the researcher and her collaborators eliminate one, two, or all three predator groups from their natural habitat in the trees, and then they wait to see what happens – not only in terms of visible marks of herbivory on the leaves, but also at the level of biochemical processes.

“We want to find out how particular predators influence the food chain in different environments – the tropics, seasonal subtropical forests, and temperate zones – but also in different microhabitats. So sometimes we keep to the ground, but other times we even use cranes in the jungle to climb treetops thirty metres above the forest floor. We also examine the energetic properties of the environment – light intensity, temperature, and humidity – to determine their impact on insect communities living on the observed trees. We’d like to know what happens when we break the natural food chain by removing the predator or predators, and what effects are due to the productivity of the environment,” explains Kateřina Sam, whose credentials also include other remarkable projects. One such undertaking involved mapping pest-predator relations through dummy caterpillars: an international team of forty researchers used children’s Plasticine from a Czech manufacturer to mould thousands of caterpillars that they later attached to tree leaves. The group identified predators from mandible, beak, and teeth impressions left on the dummies. The results were published in Science.

Unbridled feeding

Insect predators are immensely important for plants – they help to keep the natural balance. If they did not, would caterpillars eat the tree up completely? “They wouldn’t actually eat a whole full-grown tree, not really, but they’d cause greater herbivore damage. One can’t always see it right away, but when we monitor trees throughout a season, it becomes obvious that the absence of predators can lead to a tenfold increase in herbivory, meaning that compared to normal, the loss of the leaf area is ten times larger.”

In the very next season, the plant bears much fewer blossoms, producing fewer fruits and seeds. It switches to a more economical mode of existence and, moreover, starts to invest a lot of energy into its natural defences – substances that render it less appetizing to insects. “This way, the effect of the missing leaf area carries over into the subsequent year or years. There are studies indicating that even a two-percent loss of leaf area one year is clearly discernible the following year, in the quantity of seeds. So, if the predators were absent for a long time, more and more of the tree would get eaten, it’d produce fewer seeds, the balance would be off and, in the long run, the tree might actually perish,” explains Kateřina Sam.

Herbivorous insects, however, can be a deadly threat for the seedlings growing from this diminished quantity of seeds. It takes the caterpillar only a few bites to gobble up the first leaf, and the next generation of the tree is over and done with.

Nevertheless, her project does not allow experiments to go on that long. “Even a six-month run is very demanding in terms of logistics, but this amount of time is sufficient to show us some fairly significant changes. On some sites, though, we’ve been accidentally carrying out experiments for a whole year now,” she adds. Due to the coronavirus pandemic they are unable to travel to some of the areas – like both sites located in Australia – and they cannot wrap the experiment up. “So we’ll see what’s happened there in the meantime. I’m pretty curious about how things have turned out after a year.”

Labelling thirty-two thousand leaves by hand

I am trying to imagine how Kateřina Sam actually prevents predators from getting to the tree. She can hold off birds and bats with a net, but what about ants? “We use Tanglefoot glue as a mechanical barrier – perhaps you’ve seen that stuff on sale in DIY shops. It’s this terribly sticky cream, the brand is registered by a US company, but we’ve managed to hit upon a similar product in the Czech Republic, so we’ve been buying it by the barrel and daubing the tree trunks with it.”

But what about the ants that are already on the tree?

“We take those off beforehand.”

On each site, researchers earmark 640 trees for testing – mainly younger specimens, approximately three-metre-tall and, if possible, slender ones, so that they can tie a string to the crown and pull it downwards, bending the tree and anchoring the string in the ground to get an easier access for ‘insect-picking’.

“We place a mosquito net or, more frequently, a large white canvas sheet under the tree. We shake off what insects we can onto the sheet, but we pick the rest by hand, all species in all development stages, up to the very last ant.”

Afterwards, they also examine the trunk for hidden nests or tunnels. “Well, and then we just number the leaves.”

Number the leaves? All of them? “Not all of them, about fifty on each tree, so fifty times six hundred and forty,” says Kateřina. Seeing my amazement, she adds: “Yes, the work is awful. It’s terrible, but very important.”

She thinks many other studies on herbivore damage are in fact poorly designed since their authors rely on mere approximations. “They come up to the monitored tree, estimate by sight how much of it has been eaten, and collect some nibbled leaves. At that moment, though, they can’t see the leaves that have been eaten completely and they don’t make any measurements, it’s just guesswork, all of it. We number the leaves to know how many there were to begin with. If a number is missing, it means that it’s been eaten up. And we can tell the new leaves apart from the old ones, too. Simply speaking, we get a sample that enables us to work more rigorously. That’s the only good method for monitoring herbivore damage over time. But it’s indeed awfully, awfully slow and tedious work to number and especially photograph the leaves at the start.”

Nature will find a way, or ants on ferns

So now the researchers have insect-free trees with numbered leaf samples.

Afterwards, they spread nets, commonly used in vineyards, to fend off bats and birds, or they apply the ‘tanglefoot’ glue to the trunks to keep ants at bay. “Our assistants then make regular rounds to check for breaks in the nets, to see whether grass hasn’t overgrown the glue, whether a branch from another, unprotected tree isn’t touching the experimental one. In Japan, there were metre-and-half-tall ferns that grew above the glue level, so that ants could blithely march up the fern and onto the tree, ruining the experiment,” the researcher smiles.

Bats and birds make it necessary to re-visit each net twice a day – pulling it down in the morning and back up again in the evening. “With shorter trees you can do this simply by sliding the net up and down its frame, but sometimes we used pulleys to raise the whole cage above the tree-top. With bats, of course, it’s the other way round,” Kateřina describes the routine. An operation like this keeps four people busy for about an hour and it has to be executed as quickly as possible, at dawn and at dusk. “During the season in Hokkaido, dawn starts at three in the morning and the sun sets at eight in the evening, so we’d set off for the forest at 2:30 AM and we’d come back at 8:30 PM.”

Under standard circumstances, once the six months have elapsed they re-count and check each of the 32,000 leaves. “We count how many are missing, pluck the leaves with signs of herbivory, and scan them to have accurate data on the number of bites, as well as their shape and measurements. Then we use the leaves to do chemical analyses.”

What has their research revealed so far? How does the presence or absence of a given predator affect herbivory?

“We’re processing the collected data as we go, even so, we’re far from finished,” says the head of the project. They have now passed the eighteen-month mark, along with an official audit of their grant accounts. “We had our own financial review done beforehand, which turned out to be quite instructive. And we had to draw up a short report dealing mainly with ethical issues, since we work with vertebrates and in countries outside Europe. Lots of paperwork, but we’ve made it through, so we can rest easy for another year and a half.” she adds with relief.

“Some preliminary results are taking shape and they’re looking good, I’m not anxious we won’t be able to finish the project. I’m just worried about finance, things are getting more pricey due to the pandemic. In Australia, for instance, we’ve had to hire local researchers – instead of our own low-cost students – to check the woods for us: I’m dreading the figure on their invoice. But hopefully we’ll make ends meet somehow.”

Their experiments are approaching completion at five out of the six sites, only Malaysia remains.

“We’ve run into some problems there. They’ve shut down the research station, they’re dismantling the crane, the Malaysian government has stopped communicating. I spent a year and a half sorting out all the permits, and it’s fallen through in the end. Nobody’s responded to my e-mails for six months now,” the researcher frowns, saying she is considering a change of site.

The case with ants

Still, could she give me any preliminary conclusions?

“Well, there’s one interesting titbit concerning ants. Most scientists claim that ants are important predators of herbivorous insects. In one of our earlier experiments, however, we weren’t able to prove this. We successfully removed ants from the trees, but the insect community was largely unaffected. Like everything in nature, things are more complicated,” she shrugs. “A while after the ants had been removed, other predators – mainly spiders – made up for their absence.”

With respect to preying on insects, ants were effectively replaced by spiders, but this did not occur in the same way on all of the trees, or at the same time. “Initially, after we’d cleared away the ants, there were disproportionate numbers of herbivorous insects on certain trees, which increased the herbivory, but then spiders responded and hunted them all down. On some trees, though, the spiders didn’t show up. So it very much depends on the particular moment when you finish this kind of an experiment on ants and whether you’ve managed to capture this dynamic.”

A Papua New Guinea expedition instead of film school

Back in secondary school, Sam, nowadays a successful scientist, planned to enrol in the Prague film and TV school, wishing to make animated movies. “But then, influenced by my boyfriend at the time, I applied to study at the Faculty of Science in my native České Budějovice.” He, however, went on to study science in Prague and eventually settled down there, whereas Kateřina stayed behind in Budějovice.

“As an MA student, I was trying to decide where to go next, whether I shouldn’t start doing something practical like getting a job with some nature conservation society or at an animal rescue centre; I didn’t give much thought to a career in research at first,” she recalls. “In fact, I really didn’t enjoy what I was doing at the time, not at all, I knew I needed a change, so I left for Holland on an Erasmus scholarship to do a half of my MA course there.”

And then one day, she received an e-mail from a friend: “They’re looking for students to work in Papua New Guinea, go ahead and apply, you might like it.”

In the 1990s, Vojtěch Novotný, an entomologist affiliated with the Biology Centre at the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Faculty of Science at the University of České Budějovice, had set up a research station with an international ‘crew’ in Papua New Guinea. At the time, he was also in search of fresh Czech PhD students and postdocs.

Kateřina had always been an avid traveller and she did not feel like leaving the Dutch university town of Wageningen to go back to Budějovice. “Why not Papua New Guinea, anywhere but home!” she told herself, handing in her application. And she was accepted into the course.

The one-month ecology course in Papua New Guinea was indeed romantic. “Vojta and Šuspa, that is professors Vojtěch Novotný and Jan Lepš – they’ve never been big on formalities – took really good care of us, we were spared the savage world outside the station. So I enjoyed the first, introductory month like I was in paradise, stuffing myself with all the fruit, it felt almost like a holiday, although we were spending entire days in the forests listening to lectures and working on our research projects. Anyway, I must have made a good impression during the course, because I was offered a PhD position.”

Coming back to the Czech Republic, she took a few months to draft a new project, and then left for Papua New Guinea again – for a whole year, no less. “And soon enough, I came to face the brutal realities of my situation.”

Adapting to the Papuan pace

When she arrived, her supervisor assumed that since she had already been there she should know her way around. So she went to do independent fieldwork in the midst of the jungle.

“I had a rough time of it. I realised that I didn’t even know how to communicate with those people. It was absolutely dreadful, nothing went to plan; after two months I gave up and returned to base. I figured that I’d need to get my act together the Papuan way.”

Which means...? “First of all, I made a proper go at learning the language. But mainly I had to slow down, adapt to the easy Papuan pace, and come to terms with the fact that things wouldn’t happen at once, the way I was used to and the way I’d have liked,” she explains.

Then she set out into the field again, having first replaced her local assistants. “I was among the first women to head a team of men, some conflicts cropped up, I had to swap a part of my crew for people who’d respect me as a woman.”

Being a woman in a superior position, she still goes against the grain of the traditional Papuan society. “I have this Papuan MA student, for instance, who doesn’t respect me, and he never will. He occasionally reproaches me in his e-mails for not showing him the respect he, a man, is entitled to. He ignores most of my comments on his texts and sometimes just does whatever he feels like. But it isn’t too bad otherwise. By the way, Vojta’s deputy at the Papuan station is also a woman. Things are looking up.”

They accused me of being a witch

What conflicts did she come up against as a woman? “The local assistants who were supposed to help me, for instance, held the belief that during her period a woman ought to stay cooped up, so that she doesn’t spread evil or sickness – which I wasn’t aware of at the time, so I’d just come to work every day as usual. But then someone on the team fell ill. They started accusing me of witchcraft, saying that I’d poisoned the team and jinxed the people by concealing my period,” she describes.

“And in Papua New Guinea, witches still get burnt to death or, at the very least, the people beat them up… I fortunately dodged that, thanks to my status, but it was the last straw: I realised, then and there, that I’d have to try and find another way.”

Today she knows just how dangerous it is to get mixed up, however slightly, in ‘trials’ of alleged witches. “I’ve experienced a situation when a local woman developed post-partum depression and breast inflammation, she was in pain and refused to nurse her baby. Her husband concluded that she was in the grip of evil powers, beat her up and – with others’ help – broke her arms and knocked out her teeth.”

Kateřina intervened, ignoring the disapproval of her assistants. She insisted that the woman’s extended family have a sit-down, defused the situation, and made them lay the woman onto a cart and take her to hospital. “They were aggressive at first: ‘No, she must be put to death, she’s a witch!’ Luckily I was backed up by a part of her family and even my assistants eventually helped with the negotiations, taking on the responsibility for the tough decision, which allowed me to back out.”

Forests full of spirits

Another time, one of her assistants slashed himself with a machete while working in the forest. “I stitched and dressed his wound. When I was done with the stitching and had disinfected everything, I threw the blood-soaked gauze and cotton wool into the fire...”

Suddenly, uproar!

“I didn’t realize what I’d done. People in Papua New Guinea keep their spittle and blood-stained things, they’re afraid of losing even a hair from their head, because a witch might use it to cast an evil spell on them – and I’d just thrown the man’s blood away… It escalated into a huge problem, we spent a whole day trying to sort it out. I was doing my best to explain that the stuff had been burnt, that nobody would be able to use it against them. In the end they calmed down.”

Major culture clashes, however, occur also in Japan and China, the other places Kateřina Sam has visited while working on her ERC project. And they are not always a matter of mysticism.

“The Japanese have very rigid rules on how research is carried out, and our project didn’t tally with them. Working at weekends or starting at four or five in the morning because of the birds? That just isn’t done. Going to the forest in the evening is a problem, too, because it’s full of spirits,” she explains. Moreover, Japanese woods are also inhabited by some very real bears. “We walked around wearing jingle-bells on our trousers to scare them away,” she smiles at the memory.

In China, the most serious problem was communication. “They kept declaring, for instance, that they had eleven cranes operating in the jungle, but the data indicated only one. Until the very last, though, we didn’t even know where it was… Eventually, we found it deep in the jungle on the border with Laos.”

Abduction and ambush

But the place that has played a pivotal role in her professional life is Papua New Guinea, so let’s stay there a little longer.

Papua is indeed a beautiful country, but its heartland is still riven by bloody tribal wars, and researchers are not immune from danger. It was during one of the young scientist’s very first research missions that several Papuans raided the small field station in the jungle where she was working with a handful of her Papuan colleagues. They stole money, bludgeoned her colleagues, and set fire to the camp. “One of the assailants wanted to strike me too, but he’d only managed to knock off my glasses before the gang leader stepped in, telling him not to hurt me,” she describes. They tied her hands behind her back and released her, alone, into the forest.

She walked for a day and night and then another day before she arrived in the nearest village and called in help from there.

What marks did such a brutal experience leave on her? “I came to terms with it quite fast, knowing that if I were to leave because of the shock I’d just been through, I’d probably never come back. So I stayed and got over it,” she asserts.

She was traumatised by a different situation, one that – paradoxically – did not concern her directly.

It took place at some point in 2015, by which time she had already given birth to a son. Kateřina, see, found not just her zeal for biology in Papua, but also a husband – a local biologist collaborating with the Czech research station.

“It was when I went to break in a team of ornithologists for our new project with the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations – editor’s note), having left my son with the family in Port Moresby. We weren’t directly in charge of arrangements and they’d sent us into the field way before things were set up there, the villagers didn’t have a clue about us coming, everything was rushed and terribly stressful. Eventually, we successfully completed the training and went to celebrate in a pub near the station.”

And later that night, the pub was raided. The attackers were armed with home-made rifles and machetes. “It was a shock. Probably the worst thing about it was the feeling that it was a completely random assault, that it could’ve happened anywhere. And when one of the bandits held me at gunpoint, I felt totally powerless. In the earlier raid, when I was facing the blokes with machetes, I felt I stood a chance – but looking at those rifles I thought it was plain there was absolutely nothing I could do.”

You didn’t die, so ‘all’s well…’

The bandits started by hacking at the restaurant’s security guards with their machetes. “I looked at one of the guards – he was gushing blood. A colleague of mine asked the fellow with the rifle whether he wouldn’t let me give the wounded man first aid, surely he wouldn’t want him on his conscience. The bloke with the rifle thought about it and then gave me the go-ahead. We lifted the bleeding man onto a table and bandaged his wounds with a tablecloth.”

Then the bandits got to the safe, snatched the money, jumped on their boat, and took off.

“A waitress came up, the bloke who was lying on the table, bandaged with the tablecloth, was taken away somewhere else, she wiped the table, cleared away the food we’d barely touched, and asked me whether I’d care for a new steak. Business as usual, like nothing had ever happened.”

Lost for words, Kateřina muttered that she’d rather have a shot of gin. “They brought us a whole bottle. I then asked what was going to happen with the wounded guard. ‘You came here by car, you could take him to hospital yourself,’ the waitress suggested. Sorry, but I said no to that. I was cautioned by my assistants that according to local custom I’d be taking on huge responsibility and if the man was to die in my car, his family might blame me for it.”

Eventually, someone – a boss from the security firm – came over and drove him away in his car. Apparently, the man’s arm was amputated but he survived.

“I still can’t shake off this image, the absurd scene after the bandits had left. Here everybody would freak out, but over there they just wiped the tables clean and cooked some more food.”

At that moment, something in her snapped. “It was the last dinner before my departure. And in Port Moresby my husband was waiting for me with my son. When I arrived there, I was in shock, but my husband’s family just commented that things like that happened all the time.”

She protested that she could have died. “But you didn’t, so it’s OK, they said...”

Since then she has revisited Papua New Guinea only once, briefly, to attend the festive inauguration of a new crane. “I didn’t leave the car, nor, in fact, the station gates. Maybe being a mother – recently for a second time – had something to do with it. Now there’s more than just me to worry about.”

Greenhouses instead of the jungle

Despite all the drama, does she not miss fieldwork? The jungle? “Honestly? I don’t. I have a ten-month-old baby, my son is in first grade – he’s taking classes online now – it’s really demanding. And I live the drama on a daily basis through my nine students, who I send into the field instead of going there myself. But we also have a few fieldwork sites in the Czech Republic, and I’m also doing some greenhouse experiments.”

This refers to a Kateřina’s parallel project, supported by a grant from the Czech Science Foundation (CSF), to examine the impact of drought on food webs.

“We’ve taken part in drought experiments, there are about thirty of them all over the world. Ours is being carried out in Papua New Guinea, a Chinese student of mine was supposed to be the main person in charge, but right now it’s impossible to fly out there. So we’ve built greenhouses, bought some ficuses, and we’re playing around with drought here – and we’re able to conduct our Papuan experiments remotely thanks to our assistants there.”

The researchers experiment with drying out parts of the forest, setting up frames in the undergrowth and covering them with tarps to keep rain off, so that they can see what happens. “In Papua New Guinea, we staked out three plots of land in the forest, the Papuans stretched sheets of heavy-duty film over them and channel the water away with drainpipes. In one plot, we’ve reduced the rainwater supply by thirty percent, in another by sixty, and we’ve kept the third as a control, with normal precipitation. In the end, it’s actually an ideal situation that will allow us to observe how drought changes the behaviour of the same ficus species in its natural environment and how insects living in the vicinity respond to the drought-stressed plants – and we can also accurately monitor their physiological and chemical changes in the greenhouse, which is something we wouldn’t have been able to do in Papua, where we don’t have access to certain instruments and pieces of lab equipment.”

A fragmented society

I wonder whether her husband is still a part of her research team. “He isn’t, my husband has abandoned research. He didn’t enjoy it any more and things weren’t working out with me as his boss. It interfered with our relationship, so we decided that it’d be for the best if he found something else he’d like, something that would make him feel good. He decided to go into business with some stuff from home,” she says.

The “stuff” makes me chuckle – I am picturing a dealer in Papuan betel nuts. “Not like that,” she laughs. “He’s a programmer. He works from home, cooks. One day each week, he looks after the baby on his own all day so that I can get work done away from home. In his own family, the chores were divided fairly, too, the men would also take care of the household and kids, he’s used to it.”

Her husband comes from a well-to-do urban family, he is a university graduate who had joined Vojtěch Novotný’s team while still a student. A part of his family, including siblings, no longer live in Papua New Guinea, they have careers in Australia and New Zealand.

They represent the stratum of Papuan society living in cities along the coast, where there are businesses, schools, and the middle class. In the mountain areas, isolated tribes have maintained their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle (including the myths, rites, and mysticism described earlier).

“Just leaving the city for the country transports you to a totally different world – except for the internet, which has been penetrating even the furthest flung reaches. And everybody has a mobile phone now.”

Due to the insularity of its indigenous tribes, Papua New Guinea, a country of some seven million inhabitants, has over eight hundred different, mutually unintelligible, languages. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and connected, Papua New Guinea is becoming connected too – and traditional languages are vanishing as a result. In the past, they were being superseded by Pidgin, an all-purpose, simplified language, but nowadays some areas are starting to be dominated by English.

Confound with madness

Kateřina Sam is a successful researcher, head of large-scale grant projects, author of a decent number of published papers, she has even made her mark (as co-author) in journals such as Science, Ecology Letters, and Plos ONE. In several interviews given after acquiring the ERC grant, she commented that she had probably confounded the committee with the ‘madness’ of her project.

Yet a few years ago, her career in research had hit a deep slump. “The CSF didn’t give me the grant I’d been counting on. Suddenly, I didn’t have money for my project, my position at the institute was uncertain. And I’d just taken out a mortgage on a house. It was a pretty rocky year… So I decided – it was utterly insane – that I’d take an exam in real estate evaluation and become a real estate agent. I’d always liked houses, anyway,” she tells me.

Being determined and meticulous, she completed the course. “In fact, I did get to evaluate a few houses… And I told myself that if I didn’t get the CSF grant the next year either, I’d start living life without research, making a living as a property valuer. I’d even started to enjoy it, it was a good sideline at weekends – to tell the truth, it was earning me more money than a whole week in my regular job. Then I was awarded the CSF grant, and six months later came the ERC,” she smiles. “But now I’ve always got my backup plan.”

A see-saw existence – in elephant hide

I ask her what ability or quality is most important in research. “Getting over rejection,” she answers without much deliberation. “You send your paper to a publisher, wait for months to see what happens, and then they turn you down. So you try it elsewhere. And so it goes on, day in day out. You have to come to terms with it. What’s worst for me is just how slow the process is. I’d need to see results right away, but I’d be kept waiting a year or two, trying to get different journals to print my paper. This may be the reason I’ve always gravitated towards hands-on activities. When you’re drafting blueprints and building a house, you can see the results of your work at once.”

It is equally difficult to come to terms with a rejected grant application. “This, too, is something we have to keep trying over and over. So it’s also a matter of persistence, of having thick skin. Not letting it bring you down. It’s a constant struggle.”

What drives her forward? “I like learning things I didn’t know before. The problem is that finding stuff out for myself is enough, I don’t have the urge to pass the knowledge on. So I always get stuck at the point when I know the results, I have them all neatly arranged in a table, I know that I’ve pulled it off, that things have worked out… But then… Drafting a paper and getting a journal to take it – I have a terribly hard time bringing myself to do that,” she admits.

But it must feel great when she succeeds, right? “That’s the biggest reward, the motivation to keep at it. Afterwards, I’m always so fired up, writing and sending off papers like nobody’s business, buzzing with energy… But then the papers begin to come back, with comments I may not always fully agree with, or it takes an awful lot of time to incorporate them, and the tangible results begins to recede… And so on, round and round. It’s a see-saw.”

She very much enjoys collaborating with her students. “Especially seeing that some are better than myself. I learn new things from them, how to work with new programs, but at the same time I’m good at pushing them to try something new, too, I think. And there’s a mood of healthy competition in our department, everybody’s steaming along, generally speaking.”

Spiders vs. the microbiome

This is also where she sees the injustice and inequality afflicting Czech research. “Even at my home institute, you can find people who – to exaggerate a little – spend a year gazing at a single beetle, making do with data they collected years ago, nothing drives them forward, they don’t apply for new grant projects. It’s hard for me seeing these people who have contributed nothing to the institute for years – neither in terms of publications, nor financially – but who still have their own office there, while elsewhere ten people are squashed in a single room, bringing in large grants. That being said, the situation is not nearly as bad here as what I’ve heard from other institutions. But I don’t see much energy to change things.”

Her project is due to finish in a couple of years. What next? “Remember at the beginning, when you mentioned the spiders and I told you we don’t examine them as predators, though we’ve noticed that they interact with ants in interesting ways? Well, me and my colleagues are considering whether to examine them, and in what settings.”

Simultaneously, she is contemplating a follow-on ERC Consolidator Grant. “But I haven’t hit on the right idea yet. I don’t even know whether I’d like to carry on in the same direction. And I have the feeling that my focus has been slightly shifting, too: thanks to a PhD student of mine and her very intriguing discoveries, I’ve begun dabbling in the animal microbiome. It’s getting quite interesting and I’m beginning to enjoy it. Time will tell whether it’s the spiders who win, or the microbiome.”

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.