Slovakian researcher Jana Kadukova says that just a few years ago, going abroad to do research "was only a dream for me." Indeed until recently, she thinks, it was unusual for any Slovakian scientists to have the opportunity to work abroad. Little did she know that in just a few years she would embark on a postdoc adventure—a scientific and personal adventure—to the Greek island of Crete.

In December 2004, Kadukova returned to Slovakia after spending 2 years as a Marie Curie Fellow at the Technical University of Crete in Chania. Although related to her Ph.D. project, her postdoc project gave her the opportunity to explore new scientific directions and learn new scientific techniques. Kadukova's Marie Curie fellowship experience has, she says, allowed her to concentrate purely on research and helped her gain confidence as a researcher. The experience of being in a new culture has also helped Kadukova be more open to different approaches to life, in and outside the lab.

An Environmental Biotechnologist

After graduating with a degree in biology, Kadukova decided to seek a Ph.D. in environmental biotechnology at the Technical University in Koŝice. For her doctoral work, Kadukova explored new methods of metal sequestration from polluted water using waste plant material and biomass. During her Ph.D., Kadukova was offered a staff researcher position at the university and was from this point employed by the university while completing her doctoral work. When she finished her Ph.D., Nikolas Kalogerakis of the Department of Biochemical Engineering and Environmental Biotechnology at the Technical University of Crete approached Kadukova's Ph.D. advisor seeking her assistance in finding someone who would be eligible to work as a Maria Curie postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory.

Seizing an Opportunity

Kalogerakis had 2 years of Marie Curie funding available for a project that was related to Kadukova's Ph.D. work. Kadukova applied for the position, and the offer was made. She negotiated 2 years' leave from her staff researcher position—which was permanent--at Koŝice. Before this fortuitous opportunity arose, Kadukova was not aware of Marie Curie Fellowships; indeed, "the possibility of working abroad has not seemed a reality before." In January 2003, it became a reality when Kadukova moved to Chania, Crete.

New Scientific Questions

In Kalogerakis's lab, Kadukova investigated the use of Mediterranean plants--salt cedar, salt bush, and rose bay--to accumulate metals and salts from polluted soil and water. During the project, Kadukova had the opportunity to learn new techniques and gain expertise in plant physiology and biochemistry, which has allowed her to "complement my former biological and environmental biotechnology knowledge with that in plant biochemistry and stress physiology."

Her research was fruitful, uncovering novel means to remove pollutants from soil--results that Kadukova hopes to publish soon. Her success was due in part to the absence of distractions--teaching and administrative responsibilities--that she would have had as a staff researcher at Koŝice. Such a fellowship, she says, "was a very good opportunity to dedicate time exclusively to research." She also believes that the expertise she learned will help her career. "This is a very new research field in Slovakia," she explains.

Gaining Independence

In addition to the scientific knowledge she acquired, Kadukova also gained confidence in her ability as a researcher. The environment in her lab in Chania was more open than what she encountered during her Ph.D. studies. "I could easily discuss any scientific problems with my supervisor and colleagues," says Kadukova. "It was absolutely great that any time I made a suggestion to my supervisor, he encouraged me to do so."


Dealing with a foreign language and alphabet was not as problematic as Kadukova had anticipated. Kadukova says that--thanks to tourism--you can manage everyday life in Crete without prior knowledge of Greek. The one exception, she feels, is dealing with bureaucratic matters. When visiting a government office, "it is important to have a translator with you," advises Kadukova. Still, despite the lack of necessity, Kadukova was keen to learn the language and managed to get to conversational level. "It was well worth it, as I could then chat to friends, neighbours, and people in the open-air markets," she says.

Cretan Life

Socially, things went smoothly. "Greek people are warm, so it isn't difficult to make friends," recalls Kadukova. What surprised her was how hard it was to keep in contact with friends back home. "Most of my friends in Slovakia forgot me; they had their own lives, and I was excluded from that. It was difficult for me to accept this," she acknowledges.

It wasn't only the living who made Crete a pleasant place to live and do science; it was also the dead. Being surrounded by the ancient history of Crete impressed her greatly. "You can stroll on the same path that people walked 2500 years ago on your way to work," she says. Kadukova also learned to appreciate the different pace of life. Compared to life back at home in Koŝice, she says,"time [seems] to pass very slowly in Crete." Although initially she found this frustrating, "on the other hand, it made me appreciate another way of life that is more relaxing," she admits.

Plans

At the beginning of her second year in Crete, Koŝice University offered her a new position in environmental biotechnology at the senior lecturer level. Kadukova returned to Slovakia this spring to take this new post. Kadukova feels that "being abroad was at least partly why she was offered this job." In this department, she will continue her research on biological methods of removing pollutants using the novel expertise she has learned in Chania, and she hopes to set up her own research group.

Aside from the immediate career benefits, Kadukova says that the experience of living abroad has helped her be more open to different cultures and ways of life. "I think I'm now more open to embarking on international collaborations. My mobility experience has helped me realise that differences should make us richer, not build walls between us."

Given the opportunity, Kadukova says she would definitely be keen to work abroad again. "In my opinion, everyone should try this once in their life," she says.