Helena Illnerová, the leading lady in Czech science

Helena Illnerová, foto: Autor

Dr. Helena Illnerová is a biochemist, and one of the top minds in the Czech Republic. She is involved in practically every major academic committee there is in the country, from the council of the National Museum to that of Charles University; until 2004 she was the chair of the Academy of Sciences, and she currently heads UNESCO in the Czech Republic. It was with the study of biorhythms, though, that Dr. Illnerová’s work began in the 1960s, when she discovered that mice exposed to light for short periods of time in the night would have their hormones disrupted – that their bodies, and ours, were governed by a biological clock.

“We were probably the first who found that just one minute of light or even less at night is enough to shift the biological clock in mammals by two, three, four hours. That was a real discovery, and we were probably the first in that. But of course there were other people working on it as well, as it always is in science, where many people are moving in the same direction.”

Dr. Helena Illnerová
What was it like in Czechoslovakia at the time for a scientist to come up with a great discovery? Could you apply it? Develop it the way you wanted to?

“In then-Czechoslovakia I could not travel to Western countries much, in fact my visit to the United States was the last one and thereafter I had to stay in CZ for ten years – in fact for 20 years. So, we were probably original in our thinking sometimes. Since we couldn’t attend conferences abroad we were maybe original in some of our findings.”

Is that originality lacking today? How can you generally describe the way research was carried out and appreciated in the ‘60s and ‘70s during communism and the way it’s conducted, received, shared and developed today?

“Of course I think it’s completely necessary that researchers should have the opportunity to go abroad, to work abroad, to share ideas and their findings and so on. I think that this was very, very bad in then-Czechoslovakia and of course in all of the communist countries, that you could not – were not allowed – to go abroad. Of course we also didn’t have enough material, we didn’t have enough chemicals to work with and so on. However we were quite free to design our own experiments and to try and find out how things really are, albeit with limited resources and not much information from abroad.”

You were living in the United States for a year I think, in the 60s?

“That’s right, in 1969 we went to the United Stated and I worked at Colombia University in the Department of Biochemistry, and at that time my husband worked there as well in the Department of Sociology. Unfortunately, after that our permission to stay abroad was cancelled, and we had to return, otherwise we would have been emigrants, and we didn’t want to leave our country.”

But many people would have considered that to be an amazing opportunity, and this was after the Warsaw Pact invasion, why did you come back rather than pursuing your opportunities in the United States?

“It’s funny, it was not so much about pursuing our careers or opportunities – of course there were much better conditions for work in the United States. But it was more or less a question of our children. If I considered anything at all, then it was the future of our children. I definitely felt like a Czech, I thought I should not have to leave my country. I thought at that time it was the communists who should have to leave the country and not me. I didn’t want to just leave a vacant place; I was raised in Czechoslovakia and I just loved the country… that was it. The only thing I really considered was the future of our children, because we had them with us of course, and I was afraid that their future in then-Czechoslovakia might be very bad – that was all I considered.”

Are you happy with the contribution that the Czech Republic and Czech scientists are making towards science in general today, despite the fact that that the funding isn’t what you would hope for I’m sure, and in terms of the new people coming into fields of science?

“I’m not very happy with it. I would like it to be much, much better. However, I think that people really try hard. You say that funding is not ideal – I think that funding is probably not ideal anywhere. The resources here are limited. But there are three things that are important in science: Of course one of them is salary, like everywhere. The other thing is having the sufficient equipment to work with, having a modern base. And the third is simply the enthusiasm around and the way people talk about science and so on. So the climate – the scientific climate – is also very important. And I think we have some holes in all three of these things. But there are many young people who return to the country and are good, and hopefully they will push things forward. But nowadays science is so competitive that people sometimes don’t even share ideas just because they are afraid that somebody will steal them.”

Your discoveries have obviously been of great benefit to biochemistry, but how have they influenced the way you yourself see life?

I think the field I work in is very, very important for everybody. Because people usually realise that it’s important how an organism is organised - let’s say, everybody knows something about anatomy, meaning, the way an organism is organised spatially – but nobody tries to know anything about the way an organism is organised in time. Time organisation, having a strong time-keeping system in the organism, appears to be very important - that means having a strong biological clock (and not just the biological clock in the brain; all of the peripheral organs are also clocks coordinated by the biological clock in the brain). In fact, everything that happens in the organism is joined in a way to a daily time-programme, and it is necessary to do things at the exact time when your organism is endogenously prepared for them. And this is the message I want to give people, to show how they should live so that their time-keeping system is strong, and in that way they will not be as subject to some risky diseases like cancer, sleep disorders, obesity and so on.”