Why did you apply for the Fulbright fellowship?
I always knew I wanted to live in the United States for a while, so when I got the opportunity to conduct a fellowship at Columbia University, it was a natural choice to apply for the Fulbright scholarship. Fulbright is one of the most prestigious student exchange programs, it gives me a full academic year of funding and allows me to focus solely on research at one of the best academic institutions. And apart from the funding, being a Fulbrighter means that you become a part of a huge network of incredibly talented and smart people from all over the world.
How is this fellowship organized?
My fellowship is focused on research, which means that I am not attending regular classes with other students, but I work full-time on my own project under the guidance of my mentor. I will also be attending academic seminars at the faculty and taking part in developing our working group’s research proposals.
What is your project about?
I investigate the relationship between family structure and cognitive aging. My research is epidemiological in nature, meaning that I use large observational population-based studies to examine associations of several determinants such as parity and offspring sex with cognitive decline measured by various tests. We built this idea on previous epidemiological studies which showed that reproductive history may influence longevity, for example, that mothers of two children have longer survival than childless women and high parity mothers. And there are also clinical trials based on findings from autopsies showing there is an association between the number of children and neuropathological features of Alzheimer’s disease. I am particularly interested in how cognitive aging is influenced by social and biological factors related to parenthood, as pregnancy represents a biological factor for women but not men. And the pathways are likely very complex and may interact, but there might be potential for preventive interventions.
What are your goals for the fellowship?
My primary goal is to complete the proposed research project that is also part of my dissertation thesis and develop a solid skillset of epidemiological and statistical methods that I can apply to our data in the Czech Republic. But I also hope to have some opportunities to deepen my understanding of the American culture and learn more about the history of the United States. For starters, I am attending English classes in the New York Public Library where they educate immigrants about these topics for free. And I plan to travel across the whole country during my grace period in June after the fellowship ends.
Who are you working with and how does this fellowship help you enlarge your professional network?
I work under the supervision of Dr. Sarah Tom, who is an expert on methods of epidemiology in the area of social and health determinants throughout the life course and their influence on dementia. Sarah has already introduced me to many of her co-workers, who are now part of our project, and so I get a chance to collaborate with a truly multidisciplinary team of biostatisticians, medical doctors, sociologists, and demographers who have excellent expertise in research of neurocognitive disorders. I will even have a chance to collaborate with Prof. Yaakov Stern, who is one of the most respected scientists in the field and father of the “cognitive reserve hypothesis”, which provides a rationale for why some individuals show more cognitive deficit than others when brain pathology occurs.
Which skills are you planning to acquire and how?
First of all, I want to improve my statistical skills. I have a unique opportunity to learn from the best in the area of dementia research and because I am a medical doctor by education, statistics is my weakness. I am learning more advanced methods that are getting more attention lately such as inverse probability weighting, g-computation, joint modeling or generalized additive mixed models. I am sure I will also have plenty of opportunities to work on my soft skills, as I will present the results of our research at scientific conferences. And I think this is also great for my personal growth because I must admit that moving and living abroad during the pandemic is not an easy task.
What is the greatest added value of this fellowship for you?
I think that after my stay, the greatest added value will be having a strong connection with the community of researchers from my field. And also, as I mentioned before, being a Fulbrighter means you belong to a very unique community of scientists, musicians, writers, architects and other inspiring people, and it can open many doors to me. And last but not least, I absolutely love New York, so living here is a dream come true!
How is COVID influencing your stay?
The start of my internship was originally planned for September 2020, but when COVID grew into the pandemic, it was clear it is unrealistic, and I was lucky that the Fulbright Commission allowed me to postpone the fellowship for a whole year. However, we initiated online collaboration with Sarah, and I ended up getting an “extra year” of mentoring and networking, which is amazing, and the acclimatization is now much easier. There are still safety measures on campus, but I can come in person to the office on designated dates and I can attend seminars and other events.
How do you think will the fellowship influence your future career as a scientist?
I hope to come back home full of new ideas that we can work on with our team at the Second Faculty! I also hope to become a more experienced researcher with a publication record that demonstrates I have hands-on experience with advanced analytical approaches and that I have a strong international network. This will hopefully have a positive impact on my ability to get funding for my research in the Czech Republic and will help me to become an independent researcher.