Czech student wins award in EU Contest for Young Scientists

Karina Movsesjan, photo: archive of EUCYS

Karina Movsesjan, a high school student from the Czech Republic, received one of the first three prizes in the EU Contest for Young Scientists established by the European Commission. Karina won the award for her research project “The role of RAD51 mutations in cancer development” for which she has already picked up prizes in the Czech Republic and the United States.

Karina Movsesjan,  photo: archive of EUCYS
I spoke with her over the phone from Brno’s Masaryk University where she is conducting the research and began by asking her to explain what her work is focused on.

“I try to understand how mutation in a crucial DNA protein called RAD51 affects the growth of tumours.”

So you detected a process that could signal the beginning of cancer in the body –is that right?

“Yes, for this particular cancer in which this protein was mutated, our findings explain how this mutation provides advantages for the development of tumours.”

So this protein RAD51 is meant to fight cancer right?

“In normal cells its main role is to repair the DNA. When the DNA is broken RAD51 is to make the appropriate repairs. It was thought for a long time that nothing can happen to this protein because its absence is embryonically lethal but we found several mutations in RAD51 in different tumours and my question was how is it possible that those tumours with such important proteins can survive massive amounts of DNA damage during chemo and radiation therapy.”

So in what way will this help patients?

“This is really just basic research, but the reason we are doing this is that understanding the mechanisms could provide new avenues for treatment of particular cancers. But I have to emphasize that this is just basic research and only provides us with a model of how this can work.”

Still where are you hoping it will lead? Does that mean that you would be able to prevent the cancer cells damaging this protein?

“No, ideally, depending on the profile of the tumours after screening we might be able to choose the therapy that would work specifically for this tumour and might not work for another because we know how the tumour should behave and the mechanisms of how it should respond to therapy.”

“I hope we will be able to target the process of aging, extend the health-span and life-span of people.”

So the fact that this protein is mutating means that the patient is immune to the treatment that the patient is getting?

“Yes, it provides a clue that this might happen, but even when there is mutation in the protein the results suggest the protein might still be able to repair the DNA.”

How long did this research take you? I read somewhere it had been four months –is that possible?

“Actually the results of the work I presented now are from a period of three years, the entire time that I have been working in the lab, so it is kind of evolving still.”

And was it just one brainwave or was it day after day of painstaking work?

“For sure, our work entails a lot of thinking plus manual work, experiments will often fail and you have to repeat them many times.”

How do you come to be working on this research? You are only 18…

“I became interested in molecular biology and biochemistry and I wanted to gain more knowledge in this field so a few years ago I contacted my present advisor ( at Brno’s Masaryk University) that I would like to work with him and I was super lucky that he allowed me to join his research group and work with his team.”

You said in one interview that you chose biochemistry when you realized the possibilities that would open up to us once we fully understand the functioning of the body and each individual cell. How much do we understand at present?

“It is very specific for individual body parts. As far as the brain goes we know very little while some other tissues we may be closer to understanding, but in general I think there is still plenty of knowledge that can be gained how the body works and how we can influence functions that are not working properly.”

What are the horizons that you are looking at and what do you hope to achieve in your lifetime?

“Well, as we know the incidence of diseases gets much higher with age and my hope is that we may be able to extend the healthy life-span of people, extend the years when we do not suffer from diseases liked to old age. So I hope we will be able to target the process of aging, extend the health-span and life-span of people.”

“Schools should be more open in allowing students to follow what they are passionate about in their school time.”

That’s an ambitious goal. What timeframe are we looking at?

“I think a lifetime (laughs).”

It seems that Nature is always a step ahead. Is that not frustrating?

“I see it the other way round. There is always something more to tackle and to try to understand.”

You work with labs aboard, in the US and Italy and Great Britain. What is cooperation like?

“Each lab is specifically oriented and when we get some results and want to complement them with results from other research teams we usually contact the lab that is working on something similar and ask them to try our hypothesis and we share data and if it works not just with us but also in the other systems then it is more valid. So that is how collaboration works, we share data with each other.”

I understand you received offers to study abroad, but have decided to enroll at Masaryk University in Brno, is that right?

“Yes, that’s so. Although now I am still in high school. I have one more year of high school (in Karlovy Vary) and then I would like to enroll at Brno’s Masaryk University. In future I would like to study abroad for my Ph.D but for my Bachelor’s degree I would like to stay in the environment I am now working in, mainly because of my lab and group leader. I have a lot of freedom and independence in the lab, I can chose my own projects and that kind of decided the matter for me –that I would like to stay here for my Bachelors degree and only later to go abroad.”

Masaryk University in Brno,  photo: Marek Blahuš,  CC BY-SA 3.0
What is it like to be doing this kind of research while in high school still? Is it very complicated? You seem to be leading two lives here…

“I was really lucky with my school because they are very tolerant. I can be absent for two months in a row to work in the lab and then come back for some exams, so I have a lot of freedom even if I am still at school and I was lucky with that.”

What do you think of the Czech education system?

“I am not sure if there are enough extra-curricular activities for kids and often they don’t know what they want to do because they do not have a good idea of all the things that can be done. I really like the idea of scientific education centres that can enhance this knowledge and I think schools should be more open in allowing students to follow what they are passionate about in their school time. This involves a risk and means that students would need to manage their time well, but I still think schools should be more open to this.”

There has been criticism that the Czech education system is based on memorizing and there is not enough room for debate –do you agree?

“Yes, I think so, because when I go abroad and see other students there is always plenty of debate in class. Any topic that is brought up always evokes debate, and even if the questions are not the brightest they are still asking, while here in class it is usual for the teacher to present information and the class listens and takes notes. Maybe this is because the classes are bigger, but I think there should be more discussion in the classroom in general. It is sometimes hard to cover all the topics because a discussion takes time, so it is hard to suggest what should be done, but I myself prefer the system open to debate.”

The European Union Contest for Young Scientists was set up by the European Commission in 1989 to encourage co-operation and exchange between young scientists and to give them an opportunity to be guided by some of Europe’s most prominent researchers.

You yourself are still in your last year of high school. But still, do you work with young people at all?

“Yes, I work at the BIOSCOPE, a scientific educational centre at Masaryk University, and it provides courses and lectures for children from first grade up and also students from high school and I think this is the best way to motivate students and show them all the different paths that they can choose in life. I am in charge of a course in molecular biology and biochemistry there where we have discussions and lectures with students about these topics and I would say that thanks to this half of them selected labs where they would like to do some kind of research. So I think this is the most efficient way to promote science and research in particular.”